The gray steel girders of the George Washington Bridge loom a few hundred yards from The Plaza Diner in Fort Lee, N.J., the small borough where Gov. Chris Christie's closest aides orchestrated an apparent dirty trick on its Democratic mayor, who wouldn't support the pugnacious Republican governor in last year's election.
The diner is just a quick swing off one of the same exits that these aides finagled to partially block in September, unannounced, in an act of political retribution that caused a traffic nightmare in this borough of 36,000 – though locals note that the area is a "concrete jungle" of boxy office buildings and strip malls, and that the first exit this side of the Hudson is always packed with I-95 overflow.
"It's always backed up, whether I cross at 11, 12, 1, whatever – bumper to bumper," says Charlotte Cesarski, a retired tap dancer who crosses the bridge every week to come to The Plaza, her dining haunt for decades.
And like the vast majority of diners here Thursday morning, she believes the governor whole-heartedly. "I give his speech an A+," she says, watching Governor Christie, a likely GOP presidential contender, continue to answer questions afterwards. "Do you think in a million years that he would stoop so low? I don't think so. Why would he be so stupid to do this? Who in their right mind would do this?"
"Stupidity" is a refrain said over and again by most patrons here – before and after hearing Christie's somber and "heartbroken" press conference. "I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," the governor said.
Most here agree, praising their governor even as they note the "hell" of the four days in September when lanes onto the George Washington Bridge were blocked, ostensibly for a traffic study. "I was in that traffic – it took me two hours to go 7 miles," one waitress told a patron as she watched, later saying she did not want to give her name. "I was a victim! But this, this is all political. I don't think he knew anything about it."
The US Attorney for the District of New Jersey said Thursday his office is reviewing whether any federal laws were broken during the episode that some are calling "bridge-gate." In Trenton, N.J., meanwhile, a Christie associate, formerly with the transportation agency that authorized the lane closures on the bridge, refused to answer questions of state lawmakers investigating the matter, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
At the Plaza Diner, most patrons were not catching any whiff of Richard-Nixon-style dirty tricks as they watched the governor's marathon press conference on the eatery's wall-mounted TVs. Many mentioned Christie's reputation as a no-nonsense, straight-talking everyman – a person many here said they could relate to.
"I'm a Jersey guy, so there's a certain affinity," says Robert Chernin, a bus insurance broker who now lives in New Hampshire but who comes here for business a couple times a month – always stopping by The Plaza for breakfast, he says. "I like the no-b******t approach, I like that he's a little tough and in-your-face, and sometimes that means being politically incorrect.
"When you grow up in New Jersey, and you're used to smash-mouth politics, you know it's a rough and tumble game," continues Mr. Chernin, who describes himself as a conservative libertarian. "You try to hire the right people, you try to hire them to do the job, and occasionally they make bad decisions, and they have to be held accountable. But did the governor know? I don't know."
A few tables away, three old friends are discussing the governor, too. John Coursen, a salesman from Connecticut, Noel Seerattan, a local window installer, and Robert Iorio, a retired salesman who lives 15 minutes up the road in Rockland, N.Y., each praises the governor and doubts he had anything to do with the exit closings.
"I don't believe that he'd be involved or act in concert with something like this," says Mr. Iorio, a Republican and "strong supporter" of Christie. "He's too smart to be that stupid to do that. And it's a lot of danger involved with that, too, with ambulances, people getting sick, people in traffic, people in distress –lives are at stake, and I don't think Governor Christie would even think of doing something like that."
New Jersey officials say emergency responders were caught in the traffic produced by the unannounced closing of exits to the George Washington Bridge, doubling response times to accidents, and in one case delaying their response to help an unconcious 91-year-old woman, who later died.
By day's end, the governor would make an appearance in Fort Lee, where he paid a visit to Mayor Mark Sokolich to apologize for what happened. "I accepted his apology, yes I did," Mr. Sokolich said afterwards. "I'm glad he came." Christie himself had earlier characterized the meeting as "productive," and the mayor gave every indication that he did not believe the governor himself was involved in the order to close the lanes to the bridge. "We take him for his word," Sokolich said.
Even Democrats dining at The Plaza echoed the "stupidity" refrain.
"I don't think he's stupid enough to do something petty like that," says Seth Addo-Yobo, an attorney and regular customer from Nutley, N.J. "When you're somebody who's going to go onto the national stage, you're not going to waste your time on a Fort Lee mayor. His staff might think he's important, but the governor? He's much bigger than that."
"People here like his abrasiveness as sort of down-to-earth," continues Mr. Addo-Yobo, a registered Democrat who voted for state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic challenger in last year's election. "But when something like this happens, it makes him look like he's a bully, even if he's not responsible for what happened."
Two tables away, Mary and Robert Miller, a retired couple from Vero Beach, Fla., who still own property in Fort Lee, where they used to live, are more critical of Christie.
"I think he's really arrogant," says Mr. Miller, a registered Democrat who voted for President Obama twice. "I don't know exactly what he did, but I'm sure that the people who are close enough to him, that he should've known what's going on – and I wouldn't put it past him to do something like this."