“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chiefs of staff, wrote on August 13, according to emails subpoenaed by Democrats in the New Jersey legislature.
“Got it,” responded David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
With the release of those emails, any doubt as to the true reason behind the closure of most of the traffic lanes leading from the North Jersey town of Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest crossing, evaporated. It was not, as Christie had claimed, a poorly communicated traffic study. Rather, the intent was baldly political — to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, for refusing to endorse Christie during his 2013 gubernatorial reelection.
Christie was a shoe-in, and even took the majority of votes in Fort Lee. But the idea was to assemble a broad coalition of Democrats to bolster Christie’s electability in the 2016 presidential race for which he is, or at least was, widely assumed to be gearing up for a run. Sokolich did not get on board.
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” texted one person to another on September 10, as the lane closures were happening. (The names of the sender and recipient were redacted.)
“No,” replied the other.
“I feel badly about the kids,” the first replied, following it up with a half-hearted, “I guess.” It was, after all, the first day of school and Fort Lee had become a parking lot.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” responded the other, referring to Christie’s 2013 Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
As it turns out, the kids weren’t the only ones the texter should have worried about. The Record, based in Bergen County, reported on Wednesday:
Emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations — including one in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious — due to traffic gridlock caused by unannounced closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, according to the head of the borough’s EMS department.
The woman later died, borough records show.
While nobody has accused Christie of direct involvement in the incident, leadership is all about delegation. The governor’s choice of whom to delegate authority to clearly led to some less-than-ideal outcomes.
Christie, though, has denied that this is indicative of anything more than a few bad apples. Here’s the statement his administration released late on Wednesday, after a day of dodging reporters’ phone calls and a canceled public appearance:
What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
While many had suspected that the lane closings were indeed political retribution, the blatantness of the emails still came as a surprise. Christie’s ally-turned-rival, former gubernatorial candidate Richard Merkt, spoke with New York magazine about it:
He had no need to engage in an abuse of power to win re-election, and, in fact, he won by a landslide. But Nixon just couldn’t help himself; he did it anyway; he eventually got caught, and it cost him his office and political career. One might surmise that it was the arrogance of power that did him in, but I suspect it was really his control-freak nature and deep vindictiveness fundamental to his nature.
Remind you of anyone we know? I doubt the comparison will long be lost on New Jersey Democrats, who already smell blood in the water.
Just in case that wasn’t subtle enough for you, there’s more:
You know, reading the reports about the GW bridge fiasco, I recalled how similar the governor’s conduct during the re-election campaign was to that of President Nixon during his victorious re-election campaign in 1972…
Given his vindictive nature, I always sensed that Christie would implode at some point, but I did not foresee it happening so soon or over such a petty matter… By the way, my recollection is that Nixon crushed McGovern by a 60 percent to 38 percent margin, a margin virtually identical to Christie’s victory over Buono. Funny how history repeats itself.
Ouch. Well, it’s not like nobody called it.
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.