Nobody ever said politics in New Jersey was beanbag. More like rough-and-tumble – “do unto others before they do unto you” – and Governor Chris Christie became a master of the art, more likely to shout down an aggressive reporter (or constituent) than to suffer gladly those he saw as fools.
So it may not have come as a surprise (certainly not a shock) to many New Jersey politicos to learn that close allies of Gov. Christie had planned and carried out a little dirty trick against a Democrat perceived as an enemy: lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which caused massive traffic problems in Fort Lee, N.J., whose mayor (a Democrat) had declined to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.
This week, David Wildstein, a director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in the lane closure. Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and his former top appointee to the authority that controls the bridge, Bill Baroni, have both been indicted in the scheme inevitably dubbed “Bridge-gate.”
The documents unveiled Friday paint the trio as vindictive and petty bullies who plotted – and then covered up – a scheme to gridlock the town of Fort Lee to punish its mayor.
“These high level government officials misused the Port Authority, its employees, and their public positions for political purposes with total disregard of the negative consequences it would have on the public and Port Authority,” Port Authority Inspector General Michael Nestor said as the indictments were announced. “This case should serve as a wake-up call and warning to those public servants who might consider abusing their official positions for their personal benefit, or the benefit of others.”
The Governor had to respond, asserting that “Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act."
"The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done,” Christie said in statement.
Were the three ex-allies of Christie working on their own in this case? Even if he didn’t give a wink and a nudge to the bridge scheme, did Christie create an atmosphere in which such dirty tricks would have been seen as acceptable? As with Watergate and former President Richard Nixon, the key questions become: “What did he know, and when did he know it?”
In any case, “The scandal has exacted a tremendous political toll on Christie’s political aspirations, overshadowing him at a time when presidential contenders are racing to lock up the donors and supporters who are critical to their 2016 hopes,” writes Alex Isenstadt in Politico.com.
“He has watched as his poll numbers, both at home and nationally, have plummeted.,” Isenstadt writes.
“And he has watched as powerful former supporters – a list that includes New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, one of the most prolific Republican donors in the country, and state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who chaired Christie’s 2009 campaign – have ditched him in favor of another candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.”
For now, at least, most Republicans apparently take Christie at his word.
"Nobody's paying any attention in New Hampshire," said Steve Duprey, a Republican national committeeman in that important early voting state. "I think everyone's accepted the governor's explanation and, barring a bombshell that contradicts what he's said in the past, people want to hear what he'd want to do as president."
But bombshell or not, some in the GOP are wary of Christie because of the bridge scandal.
Pete Rogers, a Republican county chair in the lead-off presidential caucus state of Iowa, puts it this way: "I would say, personally, Iowa likes its politics a little cleaner than what one expects from Chicago or the East Coast.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.