Who would ever think that four days of lane closures during morning rush hour on what is thought to be the world's most heavily trafficked bridge would lead to a political scandal, much less, the possible downfall of a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate? But that’s exactly what seems to be unfolding for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after a chain of e-mails linked members of his staff to a scheme that deliberately shut down access lanes leading to the Washington Bridge as retaliation against the mayor of the township on the western side of the span who did not endorse Christie’s reelection bid.
The closure, with no warning to local officials, resulted in gridlock, causing massive delays for school buses, commuters and worst of all, it jeopardized public safety as emergency vehicles were trapped in the snarls that backed up onto thoroughfares from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge — one of the world's busiest spans — for what was claimed to be a traffic study.
The controversy — being referred to as Bridgegate — arose after allegations that the closure was political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
E-mails and text messages implicate some of Christie’s inner circle, who ordered the closure, after he previously vigorously denied his staff was involved. After additional documents were released Friday, it clearly appears the governor’s staff engineered the traffic congestion, and subsequent cover-up. Christie insists he knew nothing of his staff’s “stupid behavior.” Even if that proves to be accurate, it questions the man’s competence as an executive.
During his prolonged Thursday press conference, Christie accepted responsibility for the incident and apologized to northern New Jersey residents for the resulting inconveniences. In other words, the buck stops with him, but there are still some unanswered questions about his knowledge in the aftermath of the traffic jams.
For instance, shouldn’t the governor of a state insist his staff advise him of several days of snail’s pace congestion that disrupts so many commuters? More significantly, shouldn’t a governor want to be concerned when a chunk of his constituency is extremely inconvenienced, whether it is a government sanctioned project or not?
Christie may not have ordered the GW bridge lane closures, but he certainly should have questioned what was going on after the first or second day. There’s the hitch; he did nothing after he was informed it was a “traffic study.”
One of the most damning E-mails was sent by Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey appointee Bill Wildstein that read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” who responded, “Got it.” Other Christie administration officials and appointees were named or were part of some exchanges.
Last Thursday, the GOP governor fired Kelly and dismissed Wildstein, who subsequently took the Fifth Amendment when question by the New Jersey state legislature.
At first, Bridgegate seemed like petty political retribution, but to Fort Lee residents and others it looks more and more like a conspiracy that potentially endangered lives as emergency vehicles were stuck in the premeditated gridlock. Whether or not Christie was involved remains to be seen, but it is, nonetheless, another clear-cut example how people in positions of trust can abuse power for personal gain.
Throughout his nearly two-hour press conference, which seemed a tad orchestrated, Christie dispensed with established brashness and showed uncharacteristic patience and genuine remorse. Nevertheless, his admitted unawareness of what caused four days of congestion is still suspect.
With any luck, the trio of ongoing investigations will clarify what Christie knew and when he knew about the deliberate traffic chaos triggered by members of his staff.
Let’s not forget, until John Dean exposed details, President Richard Nixon declared he had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, proclaiming “I am not a crook.” That phrase was eerily echoed when Christie insisted, “I am not a bully.”
Fans of “The Sopranos,” which focused on an organized crime family, are well versed in New Jersey retribution, even though this incident pales in comparison to the fatal vendettas depicted in that acclaimed series.Bridgegate may not be fatal to Christie’s political ambitions unless there’s clear-cut evidence he was not “blindsided and betrayed.” Nonetheless, as political scandals have shown, time and again, the cover-up is worse than the transgression.
If Christie survives this Bridgegate bottleneck, it will only be a temporary roadblock to his political career. Regardless, it still gives future opponents ammunition to portray him as spiteful and vindictive, an image that is contrary to what one seeking national office should project.
At worst, if evidence is uncovered that Gov. Christie personally ordered or had a scintilla of knowledge about the traffic-jam retaliation his political career would be drastically damaged or over, especially in the wake of his apology press conference.
At best, the road to the White House for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie is now paved with more than a few speed bumps. He’s got more than a year if he plans to kick start any campaign, but before that happens, he has to cross a wide span of skepticism.