For someone who based his career on “bridging” political gaps, Gov. Christie, figuratively speaking, fell right through the middle of the George Washington Bridge.
Back in September, on the first day of school, someone closed two access lanes (they have three) from Fort Lee to the approach to the lower level of the GWB.
According to the The Bergen Record, which obtained access to high-level e-mails, on Aug. 13, the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, used her personal g-mail account to contact David Wildstein, one of two Christie appointees to the Port Authority, writing “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Wildstein replied a minute later, “Got it.”
The closure snarls traffic in Fort Lee. Mayor Mark Sokolich is besieged with phone calls and e-mails about buses that can’t get through the traffic jams and EMS vehicles that can’t get to their emergency calls.
The closure went on for four days before the New York appointee, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, after receiving a plea from Robert Durando, manager of the bridge, angrily orders that the lanes be reopened.
The Bergen Record begins investigating the incident, which initially had been explained as a “traffic study.” At one point, Gov. Christie remarked that it was ridiculous that Fort Lee had so many lanes. Three lanes lead to each bridge toll, siphoning the traffic ultimately into the lanes that cross the span.
The Bergen Record was soon joined by The Wall Street Journal in investigating the reasons for the lane closures, which began when the Bergen Records traffic columnist, “The Road Warrior,” John Cichowski, reports the resulting effects of the closure in his column.
On Sept. 12, Christie’s Press Secretary Michael Drewniak receives an e-mail for Bridget Kelly, stating “The Port Authority is reviewing traffic safety patterns at the George Washington Bridge to sure proper placement of toll lanes. The PAPD has been in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition.” However, Pat Foye and two other Port Authority officials testified under oath later that Wildstein had ordered the closures on short notice, bypassing agency protocol, and that he had instructed a bridge employee to keep it a secret from Fort Lee officials.
However, the Port Authority and the Fort Lee Police denied ever having been alerted to the lane closures. When WSJ reporters Tedd Mann and Heather Haddon question Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, about the bridge snarl, he replies in an e-mail “It’s fine. The mayor is an idiot. [Win] some, lose some.”
On Nov.2 5th, Bill Baroni, Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority, who was also appointed by Christie, testifies before the N.J. State Assembly Transportation Committee, telling them that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. He produces an enlarged photograph of the toll plaza area which they were using to try to determine whether Fort Lee needed three dedicated access lanes to the bridge.
At a press conference on Dec. 2nd, Christie himself states, “The fact is, I didn’t know Fort Lee got three dedicated lanes until all this stuff happened, and I think we should review that because I don’t know why Fort Lee needs three dedicated lanes…I didn’t even know it until this whole, you know, happening went about, so my urging to the Port Authority is to begin a review of the whole policy. Because I’ve sat in that traffic, before I was governor, at the George Washington Bridge, and the fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it, that kind of gets me sauced.”
What we haven’t seen from the newspaper reports is evidence that the action was taken because the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat, had refused to endorse Christie for governor that summer. In previous reports, Sokolich denied ever having agreed to support Christie. Why would the governor have expected a Democrat to support him? The question is, did Sokolich promise and then withdraw his support, or did he outright refuse Christie’s request?
Whatever the reason, Christie’s camp clearly sprang into action in defense of their candidate and hatched the hare-brained scheme to lock up Fort Lee. The Fort Lee mayor has, in the past, asked for more access to the bridge in order to clear up traffic in his town, and evidently received it. Gov. Christie this morning in his apologia said that he had seen statistics of traffic studies in the State Legislature.
This is what Gov. Christie, in part, had to say, in his apology to Fort Lee, to those who use the bridge, and to New Jersey: “I am embarrassed and humiliated. I am heartbroken that someone so close a member of my senior staff would do such a stupid thing and then lie to their superiors when asked about it.”
“I am embarrassed by the callousness of the e-mails by my former campaign manager Bill Stepien. I’ve instructed Bill to not to put his name in to be considered for State Committee Chairman. There’s no doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisors, and for that, too, I am said that I have to take this action. But I also know that I have a job to do. I can never allow personal feelings to get in the way of my job the way I’m supposed to do.”
“But I don’t want any of you to confuse what I’m saying today. I am responsible for what happens on my watch. I’ve taken what actions I deem necessary to remediate this problem. What was I was doing? Well, I’ll tell you, I was blindsided. I was working out when I got the word that the story had broken in The Bergen Record.”
I, too, have been across the George Washington Bridge, many, many times. The traffic during the morning rush hour is horrendous even under the best of circumstances. I’ve seen the traffic snarled due to accidents, vehicle breakdowns, and even suicide jumpers, before the bridge, on the bridge, and on the other side of the bridge. I’ve seen the bridge snarled for no other reason than congestion, in the middle of the morning. I have pictures of the upper level backed up from one side to the other with truck traffic.
The bridge was hopelessly jammed up on Sept. 11th, 2001. I wasn’t there, but co-workers were. After the Twin Towers were struck, cars on the Jersey side, were turned around and sent back; cars past the New York line were sent on into New York, but couldn’t return until the next day.
Christie’s appointees clearly knew the nature of the busiest bridge in the world and how to manipulate it to what they hoped would be their vengeful advantage. The callousness of the e-mails confirms the average person’s low opinion of politics in general.
The GWB Gate is what happens when bureaucracy takes the place of good government. It’s what happens when politics overrides concern for the public. It’s what happens when you reach across the aisle (or the Hudson River) to reach a compromise with your political enemies.
The reason why Christie had so few people to fire was that two of the three chief culprits had already resigned: Wildstein, on Dec. 6th, Baroni on Dec. 13th. Kelly was fired by the governor this morning. As to the issue of political revenge, Christie claims never to have met the Fort Lee mayor or getting any briefings from his campaign staff that Sokolich was on their radar as a potential endorser.
One has to wonder whose political motivation was at play here. Was the issue political endorsement or those three dedicated lanes? Had the governor threatened to take the lanes away in response to Mayor Sokolich’s demands for lanes to ease the congestion in Fort Lee?
Political aides never go through enough of a thorough background sniff before joining a campaign. Christie, being the Purple Governor that he is, would have no qualms (though he ought to) about embracing young, Democrat campaign workers.
Christie ought to have been a smart enough politician to know that such a crazy scheme would backfire. Why risk the wrath of Northern New Jersey voters, and potential New York voters in a future presidential election simply because one mayor didn’t want to support you? One of his careless appointees e-mailed, in response to another conspirator’s worries, that the (largely) Democrat Bergen County voters were going to vote for Buono (in the 2013 election) anyway, so who cared?
If there’s anything more detrimental to a politician than a traitor, it’s an idiot. Think Jar-Jar Binks from the Episode One Star Wars movie. Now the Media is making great hay of this episode, hoping to ruin Christie’s chances, once and for all, for a run at the presidency in 2016. Some are even considering criminal charges.
Whoever was responsible (and it was probably the young, junior senior staff members), the way to make friends and influence people in Northern New Jersey is not to jam up the George. Christie has apologized. Now we have to see whether Northern New Jersey, New Jersey, in general, and the voters of America will accept it. This is what happens when you try to bridge a chasm that’s too wide.
We would give this caveat about Christie: don’t judge that bridge until you’ve crossed it. After sitting in traffic for two hours.