Scandal Threatens Christie’s No-Nonsense Image

TRENTON, N.J. (Washington Post) -

A series of e-mails and text messages disclosed Wednesday show that a senior aide and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forced days of traffic jams as apparent political retribution against a Democratic mayor, throwing a cloud of scandal over the Republican Party’s leading 2016 presidential hopeful.

The communications show that Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top appointees at the Port Authority closed a pair of access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge into New York, causing days of gridlock and mayhem in the Fort Lee area in September.

Christie previously said he did not believe his office had any role in the incident, but the emails show otherwise — illustrating the lengths to which Christie’s lieutenants went to retaliate against a local politician who would not endorse the governor during a re-election race that was never particularly close.

But the incident threatens to rupture the image that Christie, the newly installed chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been carefully cultivating since Hurricane Sandy as a bipartisan straight-talker who puts the interests of his state’s residents above all. It also clashes with the law-and-order bona fides he touted in his gubernatorial campaigns, where he ran heavily on his record as a U.S. attorney.

Christie’s brash, no-nonsense persona helped rocket him onto the national stage, as videos of the governor dressing down reporters at news conferences and questioners at town hall meetings went viral. But the actions of his associates over a trivial, even petty, political grievance could make Christie’s trademark toughness seem more like bullying — a serious vulnerability as he begins introducing himself to voters nationwide.

For weeks, Democrats have alleged that Christie’s appointees caused the traffic jam as an act of retaliation against Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not endorse Christie for re-election.

At first, Port Authority officials claimed the lanes were closed as part of a traffic study, and Christie mocked reporters and legislators who asked questions about the incident. “I was in overalls and a hat,” Christie joked Dec. 2. “I was the guy working the cones.”

But by mid-December, Christie took it more seriously, holding an hour-long news conference in which he denied any wrongdoing. Christie’s top two appointees at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both close political associates, resigned in the uproar.

Among the communications made public Wednesday was an email to Wildstein from Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Wildstein, a close friend of Christie’s from high school, responded: “Got it.”

Kelly and Wildstein communicated mostly through personal email accounts rather than their official government accounts.

The communications reveal that Christie’s staff and appointees took a gleeful approach to the access lane closures of the George Washington Bridge, the world’s most heavily trafficked span, which began Sept. 9 and continued for four days, including the first day of school.

The morning of Sept. 10, Sokolich texted Baroni to express concern about children getting to classes on time. “Help please,” Sokolich wrote. “It’s maddening.”

Then an unidentified person referenced that text message and wrote, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”

“No,” another unidentified person replied.

“I feel badly about the kids … I guess,” the first person wrote.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” responded the second person, referring to state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent in the 2013 governor’s race.

The disclosures raise legal questions about whether a government agency was directed to take action inciting a public nuisance for a political purpose. Witnesses at the time described the traffic as some of the area’s worst since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sokolich reacted angrily to the disclosures, saying: “How dare you schedule a man-made traffic disaster in my community? It’s the example of the pettiest and most venomous side of politics.”

Buono said in an interview that the incident follows a pattern of political strong-arming from the Christie camp and warrants a federal investigation.

“He is the worst example of bully and boss,” Buono said. “And this string of emails clearly exposes a web of deceit, subterfuge and arrogance leading straight to Chris Christie.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) was pleased at the scandal engulfing Christie. “I’m so happy that it’s unfolding slowly, like an onion opening up,” he said, adding, “I think that the worst is yet to come.”

Christie’s response was uncharacteristically slow on Wednesday. He canceled a planned public appearance, and his aides and advisers made no public comments. The governor waited eight hours before issuing a brief statement.

Steve Schmidt, a GOP presidential strategist, said Christie’s statement did not solve his political quandary. “Eventually, the hammer is going to need to be swung by his own hand for the outrageous abuse of power,” Schmidt said.

Tom Kean Sr., a former Republican New Jersey governor and longtime Christie associate, said, “If mistakes were made, admit it. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be like water torture.”

Within Christie’s political organization, donors and other allies privately fretted that his team stayed quiet as the uproar made national news. Unlike during past controversies, Kean said, Christie’s team did not distribute any talking points to supporters.

Fred Malek, the Republican Governors Association’s finance chairman and a Christie intimate, said in an interview that the bridge incident was “totally bush-league.”

“If true, this is a rookie mistake that has far more risk than reward and would never be considered by a political leader of Chris Christie’s sophistication and character,” Malek said.

Although the communications make it clear that Fort Lee was targeted, they do not specify whether the motive was to punish Sokolich for not endorsing Christie.

In one email exchange with Bill Stepien, then Christie’s campaign manager, Wildstein wrote, “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.”

That appeared to be a dig at Sokolich, although the mayor is of Croatian descent.