photo by Hugh Kimura
A cop or a prosecutor would say a story like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s just doesn’t add up. We can assume that Christie, a former federal prosecutor himself, knows this.
But Christie’s political stock-in-trade is bravado. The governor practically exhausted his inventory at last week’s marathon news conference, in which he said he was “blindsided” by revelations that some of his top aides orchestrated a monstrous four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee to punish the town’s mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
There are not enough vehicles in the Port Authority Bus Terminal to cover the procession of aides Christie has tossed under the wheels in an effort to convince us that he would never, ever, stoop so low. He announced Thursday that he had fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, for supposedly lying to him after she helped instigate the tie-up by writing in an August email that it was “time for some traffic problems” in Fort Lee. Two Christie associates at the Port Authority, David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, responded to that message by blocking all but one lane leading from Fort Lee’s streets to the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 9. Thousands of travelers were delayed in the ensuing chaos, while schoolchildren were trapped on buses and at least one ambulance was reportedly kept from promptly reaching an elderly woman who had a heart attack. She later died.
Baroni and Wildstein resigned their Port Authority positions last month. In addition to firing Kelly, last week Christie pushed aside his longtime political adviser Bill Stepien for showing “callous indifference” to Fort Lee’s plight. Stepien’s awareness was made clear in a pile of documents released by Democrats in the state Assembly. Those documents, many obtained under a subpoena to Wildstein, do not show any direct involvement from Christie - but Wildstein redacted the documents heavily before he turned them over. (Subpoenaed to testify before a legislative committee on Thursday, Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination and was cited by the committee for contempt.)
The already-disclosed documents are mostly emails and text messages that were sent to and by public employees, presumably on public equipment. Christie, through the state’s technology staff, must have access to the unredacted versions. He could have reviewed them at any time to get a full picture of what happened. He claims he didn’t. He could immediately release the full documents to the public, or to the Assembly, to show who else might have been involved. He hasn’t.
At his news conference, Christie said he had never even heard of Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, before the traffic bedlam erupted. Sokolich reached out to the governor’s office for help as soon as the chaos began, but instead received “radio silence,” according to the newly disclosed messages. Christie has been the governor of New Jersey for four years. He had never heard of the mayor whose city straddles one of the most important transportation arteries in the state?
It doesn’t add up.
By Christie’s account, as far as he knew the traffic jams resulted from a “study” the Port Authority was supposedly conducting. But with the mess spread all over the evening news, in the middle of a re-election campaign, Christie did not pick up a phone to tell someone to get Fort Lee’s streets cleared before someone died because an ambulance or a fire truck couldn’t move?
It doesn’t add up.
The documents already released indicate that Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, David Samson, helped to “retaliate” after New York officials at the bi-state authority took steps to relieve Fort Lee’s misery. No action has been taken against Samson thus far, and not enough material has come to light to indicate whether any should be taken. New Jersey’s current U.S. attorney is investigating. But the implication that some of the people literally and politically closest to Christie hatched this scheme during a campaign without the knowledge, participation or even implicit permission of the man in charge just doesn’t add up.
For months after the incident, New Jerseyans were treated to the governor’s characteristic bluster. He wasn’t the guy moving the traffic cones, he said. He ridiculed the notion that he or his people would be involved in such mundane matters. But for a governor who is not shy about advocating for his state, and for alerting the media when he does so, he was conspicuously uninterested in how or why the Port Authority caused his constituents so much grief.
It adds up to just one thing: Christie may have already blown his best chance to get past this story before he becomes irreparably damaged goods in the eyes of potential donors and supporters for a 2016 White House run.
Instead of simply apologizing for the misdeeds of his aides and portraying himself as a victim of their deceit, Christie should have acknowledged that his own tendency toward sarcasm and arm-twisting may have created an environment in which abuse of the public could be seen as acceptable hardball politics. He should have promised never to let that happen again.
He could have come to his news conference with an armful of unredacted documents and a pledge to release every scrap of information within his reach. He owes that much to the citizens of north Jersey whose lives were needlessly disrupted.
He could have promised to help clean up the administrative superfund site otherwise known as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Controlled by the governors of those two states, the agency is a depository for political cronies, hacks and hatchet men. It runs the three major New York airports, which happen to be three of the worst big-city airports in the Western world. It runs the aforementioned George Washington Bridge, and other major Hudson River crossings, where hour-long logjams are routine. It even runs the port and the World Trade Center complex. These facilities provide essential public services, but they do so almost incidentally to their role as a source of employment and influence for politicians and their supporters.
There is no guarantee that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would go along with any proposed reforms, such as making authority’s board of commissioners an elected rather than appointed body, and thus accountable directly to the public. But in a lucky coincidence, Cuomo, like Christie, is on the short list of presidential aspirants for 2016. Cleaning up the authority after this scandal might be good politics for Cuomo, a Democrat - just as it would be for the Republican Christie.
Christie did not do these things. Instead, he virtually ensured that this public relations nightmare will drag on. He may hope to bully his way through it. He might succeed - as long as his executive ambitions don’t extend beyond Trenton. But Christie as a viable presidential candidate, now that he has appeared as someone willing to torment the public to punish a political adversary?
That doesn’t add up.