Bridgegate energizes N.J. Democrats. How much trouble for Christie? (+video)

N.J. Democrats, their investigatory zeal renewed by the Bridgegate dirty-tricks e-mails, are reviving old grievances, including how Chris Christie used federal relief funds after superstorm Sandy.

By , Staff Writer

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    New Jersey Assemblymen John S. Wisniewski (c.) (D) of Sayreville, N.J., Lou D. Greenwald (l.) (D) of Vorhees, N.J., and incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D) of Secaucus, N.J., address the media Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. Greenwald, says an investigation into massive local traffic jams that has ensnared Gov. Chris Christie's administration has grown into an abuse of power probe.
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The inner workings of political power are rarely on such vivid display.

It’s no secret that, in the blood sport of American politics, incumbents holding the government’s purse strings, or the reigns of its powerful bureaucracies, can finagle the system to their advantage – ordering a “traffic study” to punish a political opponent, say.

But now that a cache of e-mails has revealed how allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a leading figure in the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes, played a dirty trick on the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse the wildly popular governor, the state’s once-denuded Democrats are fighting back, trying to reignite old political grievances and find even more “traffic-study”-styled tricks that only those holding power can perform.

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It’s one reason why US Representative Frank Pallone, an ambitious 12-term Democrat from New Jersey’s 6th District, is reviving another controversy from last summer’s campaign: Governor Christie’s use of federal relief funds to put together a $4.7 million national tourism ad, which briefly featured the governor, even as he was running for reelection.

Democrats are also pointing to more documents released Monday, which show how Christie aides may have punished other Democratic mayors who rebuffed their aggressive requests for endorsements.

Last May, members of the governor’s staff, including deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who was fired last week for her role in the George Washington Bridge payback scheme, courted the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, promising him a “Mayor’s Day,” a series of meetings with state officials to see what the governor could do to help the city.

But after booking this day of meetings with some of Christie’s commissioners, the governor’s aides immediately cancelled the meetings when they heard Mayor Fulop would not be endorsing the governor.

“Certainly, that's not the way the governor should be treating the mayor of one of our largest cities,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who heads the State Assembly’s special committee investigating the GW Bridge payback scheme, according to NBC News. “You look at this in a totality, you're looking at essentially an enemies list.”

Fulop’s name also came up in the e-mails about the bridge’s lane closures. As Christie’s staff discussed how to respond to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s calls about the traffic nightmare in his city, David Wildstein, the Port Authority official who first ordered the closures and resigned in December, wrote: “Radio silence. His name [Sokolich] comes right after Mayor Fulop,” which Democrats say indicates such an enemies list.

Before last week’s revelations, Christie had built a political juggernaut in the state, leveraging his smash-mouth Jersey image, his pitch-perfect handling of superstorm Sandy, as well as massive bipartisan support in a landslide victory last November, to dominate state politics and become the most well-known Republican governor in the nation – if not the leading presumptive candidate for the White House.

But his vaunting ambitions and rough-and-tumble political style are now being put into a new political light.

On Monday, Representative Pallone announced that the inspector general from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would begin a full audit of Christie’s use of federal funds for Sandy relief. The agency will look into whether the New Jersey governor improperly used a $25 million grant from the federal agency to promote state tourism – and at the same time his own political ambitions.

Last August, Pallone and other Democrats had already complained about the governor’s appearance in the federally funded TV spot, “Stronger Than the Storm.” They charged that the ad, open to competitive bidding, cost $2 million more than the next highest bid – an ad that didn’t propose to feature Christie. They also complained that the top official on the ad selection committee, a Christie appointee, had once received a loan from the governor, back when Christie was the state attorney general.

Even Christie’s GOP presidential rival, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, criticized the New Jersey governor for the TV spot. “Some of these ads, people running for office put their mug all over these ads while they are in the middle of a political campaign,” Senator Paul said in November at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing reviewing the ongoing recovery from Sandy. “In New Jersey, $25 million was spent on ads that included somebody running for political office.”

The HUD audit comes after the US Attorney General announced that he, too, is looking to see whether the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge violated any laws.

Responding to Pallone’s announcement on Monday, Christie’s office said the "Stronger Than the Storm" campaign was approved by the Obama administration.

“Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly,” the governor’s office told CNN in a statement. “We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history.”

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