New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was handily re-elected on Tuesday, beating Democratic challenger Barbara Buono and winning every county except the very urban Essex and Hudson Counties, but a minor scandal is brewing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. While the bistate transportation authority was structured to be relatively politically independent, in practice, it is heavily influenced by the governors of the two states, and evidence is mounting that one of Christie’s underlings at the Port Authority used his power to vindictively punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election campaign.
Two months ago, two of the three toll lanes in Fort Lee leading to the George Washington Bridge were mysteriously closed, creating a three-day traffic jam in the New Jersey city. The Port Authority, which owns the bridge to Manhattan, claimed that it was for a traffic study, but rumor quickly spread that it was retribution against Mayor Mark Sokolich’s withheld endorsement of Chris Christie — perhaps not helped by the fact that Port Authority police reportedly told commuters as much. Sources told the Wall Street Journal that there was no traffic study, and the bridge was shut down instead on the order of David Wilstein — a surrogate of the Christie administration and certainly not a traffic engineer — as punishment for the mayor’s gubernatorial endorsement snub.
The governor’s office denies any involvement, but at this point the most charitable interpretation to the administration is simply that Christie installed an overzealous subordinate who took matters into his own hands, against the wishes of his boss. But the incident raises questions about Christie’s staffing choices, and especially his reputation for patronage and cronyism.
David Wildstein is Christie’s top man at the Port Authority, his “eyes and ears” at the agency according to The Record, charged with placing loyalists at the agency and making sure Christie’s interests are represented. But, as The Record’s Shawn Boburg wrote last year, the interests of the Christie administration and the general public don’t always align:
The Port Authority, criticized as wasteful and dysfunctional, is the largest and most complex agency yet to be singled out by Christie as being in need of reform. And in Wildstein, an experienced political strategist who went to high school with the governor, the Christie administration may have found the perfect instrument to help shake things up, some say.
Longtime employees, however, privately describe a man intent on carrying out a political agenda rather than one built on reform or improving the region’s transportation system. They believe the appointment of Wildstein and dozens of others recommended by the governor — for jobs ranging from toll collector to deputy executive director — are evidence that political loyalty trumps merit.
Earlier that year, The Record reported that Wildstein was just one of 50 people that Christie had recommended that the Port Authority hire. The agency has had a bit of a reputation in recent decades for patronage and capture by the two state governors, but Christie took the practice to a whole new level, said Port Authority chronicler Jameson Doig. “Whereas Christie might have 50 people, the other governors might have four or five,” he told WNYC.
Trouble at the Port Authority and its gargantuan World Trade Center redevelopment project started long before Christie was governor, but Christie has shown no sign of improving the situation or reining in the free-spending authority. Despite that, Christie has been masterful at playing the reformer card, even going so far as to blame former Executive Director Chris Ward and unspecified “secret deals he was making to reward his cronies” for the toll and fare hikes imposed in 2011.
None of this has hurt Chris Christie, whose popularity and general electability in a struggling Republican party (he won the female vote and split the Latino vote with his Democratic challenger – impressive for a Republican) has propelled him to the top of the early battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
At least, not yet. But it’s worth keeping in mind some of the reasons that Chris Christie was passed over by Mitt Romney as a running mate in 2012, recently revealed in a book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about the campaign. They included his penchant for staying at expensive hotels on the government’s dime as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and skirting spending limits to do so and an “overbearing staff.” Also on the list was his decision to “steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies such as former attorney general John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.