To save his political future, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie needed to cover major ground in his marathon press conference Thursday over a scandalous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last September, political observers say.
Governor Christie (R), seen as a likely candidate for president in 2016, needed to apologize, fire someone, and look completely sincere in the process.
He did all of the above. But Christie’s not out of the woods on “Bridgegate.” His reputation for managerial skill and straight talk has been dinged, even as he maintained he had no involvement or knowledge of the traffic scheme. Some questions remain. And he is now on notice that if anything new comes out that contradicts what he said Thursday, he may not recover.
E-mails released Wednesday showed top Christie associates were involved in deliberately creating a four-day traffic jam last September in Fort Lee, N.J., after lanes onto the George Washington Bridge were blocked for a “traffic study.” Millions of commuters were stuck. Police and emergency response vehicles were delayed in reaching people in need. The blockage was an apparent act of retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, who did not endorse Christie in his reelection bid last fall.
The episode is “definitely a mark against him, but on the flip side it’s the first true test of whether he’s ready for prime time in a 2016 run,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Lord knows what Democratic trackers will pop up against him. But right now, he’s saying and doing the right thing.”
When asked if Christie was still a viable candidate for 2016, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters: “I think so. I think so.”
At his nearly two-hour press conference in Trenton, N.J., Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” to discover that a top adviser and other associates were complicit in the traffic jam after having been assured previously they were not involved.
In one e-mail published Wednesday in the Bergen (N.J.) Record, Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, wrote on Aug. 13: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” replied David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who went to high school with Christie. Mr. Wildstein, who ordered the traffic lanes closed, resigned last month after the scandal broke. At a hearing Thursday in the state legislature, Wildstein declined to testify, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
At his press conference, Christie announced that he had fired Ms. Kelly after discovering she had lied to him about her involvement in the traffic jam.
“I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust,” Christie said.
He also told his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to withdraw his nomination for state Republican Party chairman as well as his consultancy with the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie just became chairman.
Christie said he was “disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude, callous indifference, that was displayed in e-mails” by Mr. Stepien.
“I’ve come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey,” Christie said at the start of his news conference. “I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to members of the state legislature.”
Later on Thursday, he traveled to Fort Lee to apologize to the mayor in person. Christie’s tone of contrition came in marked contrast to the sarcasm he displayed in his first public response to the allegations over the cause of the traffic jam.
"I worked the cones, actually," Christie said at a news conference last month. "Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat."
"You really are not serious with that question,” he added.
Such language is classic Christie, known for being combative at times with the press, constituents, Democrats, Republicans – essentially anyone whose question he doesn’t like. He can be entertaining, or come across as a bully, or both.
But given the bridge scandal, his style now raises questions over whether payback is also part of his repertoire, and whether this episode compromises his ability to serve, as a reporter asked. Left unsaid was whether it also hurts his potential to become president.
“Politics ain’t bean bag, OK?” Christie said.
“I feel passionately about issues,” he continued. “And I don't hide my emotions from people. I am not a focus-group tested, blow-dried candidate or governor.”
He also recalled being asked after his landslide reelection in November – with strong bipartisan support – whether he would change his style to appeal to a broader audience.
“And I think I said no, because I am who I am,” Christie said. “But I am not a bully.”
That final statement will surely be replayed countless times in the months ahead, as press scrutiny continues over Bridgegate – and a potential presidential run.
For now, Christie remains a strong contender. Quinnipiac University released a poll Thursday showing that Christie is the “hottest” politician in the country. The survey asked voters to rate their feelings toward potential presidential candidates from zero (meaning cold) to 100 for hot.
Christie scored a mean temperature of 55.5 degrees. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) came in seventh overall at 48.5 degrees, but first among Democrats.