Yesterday Chris Christie spoke at length to a seeming novelty in American politics. Namely: the State of New Jersey deliberately held up traffic on a major bridge. Someone on Governor Christie's staff did this to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. Why ? Because Mayor Mark Sokolich (D-Fort Lee) refused to go along with the love-fest Chris Christie orchestrated for the two elections of last fall: the special election of then-Mayor Cory Booker (D-Newark) to the United States Senate, and Christie's own re-election as Governor.
History of George Washington Bridge lane closures
The New York Daily News has the best record of the frantic correspondence between Mayor Sokolich and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority runs the George Washington Bridge and almost every Hudson and East River crossing, plus the three airports in New York and Newark.
Fort Lee has four lanes on its on-ramp to the GWB. Beginning September 9, and for four days, New Jersey authorities closed three of them. So four lanes of traffic had to merge into one toll booth. On the second day, Mayor Sokolich sent an e-mail to Bill Baroni, Deputy Executive Director at the Port Authority:
Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one tool booth. The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening.
It was more than maddening. It was deadly. Florence Genova, age 91, of Fort Lee, died on that bridge. She was in an ambulance suffering from a heart attack. On account of the traffic, the ambulance could not reach the hospital in time. (According to the Daily News, her family "won't blame her death on the government-generated gridlock." More on that below.)
Four days later, orders came down, seemingly from New York, to reopen the lanes.
That much everyone knew when it happened. But The Record (Bergen, N.J.) did not accept this as an ordinary traffic jam. As this timeline shows, they started investigating and kept investigating. With shocking results.
Behind the scenes
This much, everyone knows: in August of last year, Mayor Sokolich refused to endorse Chris Christie for re-election as governor. Chris Christie, quite simply, wanted to orchestrate a total Era of Good Feelings scenario, to further his U.S. Presidential ambitions. Dwight Kehoe, a Tea Party activist in central New Jersey, said flatly to this Examiner yesterday:
Aside from the giggles this typical political ploy generated, I agree this will not help Mr. Conservative. But it really will have no long-term effects on anything.
But it does prove, as many of us have believed, that Christie and the Dems did in fact make a deal. Christie's governorship for the Senate seat handed to Booker.
This one Democrat Mayor decided he wasn't going to play, so the long knives came out. Notice how quiet it had been kept leading up to the election.
This is a clear sign that the temporary pact between them is all but over. There is no doubt in my mind that Christie could never have won and certainly not as big as he did, without help from the Dems. He got it. But now its over.
Mr. Kehoe, in short, believes the real history of the GWB lane closures must begin with the death of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J. His death empowered Chris Christie either to appoint a new Senator or to "issue a writ of election" according to New Jersey election law. Chris Christie did appoint a temporary Senator to fill the vacant seat. But he then called a special election, held on a special date and even a special day of the week (Wednesday, not Tuesday), to fill out the "rump term" that will expire in January of 2015. The schedule for that election, including nominating petitions and primaries, was the tightest schedule that New Jersey's election laws would allow.
Why didn't the governor schedule the special election to coincide with the general election that took place less than three weeks later? Is this the same Governor Christie who moved the school elections from April to November, to coincide with the general elections "to save money"? That special election cost the State an extra ten million dollars. Did Chris Christie seek to give Mayor Cory Booker a clear shot at becoming Senator Cory Booker? Consider what that special election did:
- Drew away all the turnout that would otherwise threaten Christie's own re-election, and:
- Cut off Chris Christie's coat-tails so Steve Lonegan, the Republican nominee, could not ride them.
The Democrats co-operated in two ways. First, county regular Democratic organizations gave "The Line" to Senator Barbara Buono - a classic "empty suit," or maybe "empty skirt," candidate. Second, big-city Democratic mayors, and Democratic county executives, endorsed Christie rather than Buono for governor.
But Mark Sokolich balked.
So on August 13, Bridget Anne Kelly sent this message to David Wildstein, Director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority:
Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.
And Director Wildstein answered:
Wildstein's scheme was a "traffic study" that somehow required closing three lanes of the four-lane Fort Lee on-ramp. The sequence of events could almost have come from any of a number of political thrillers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and later. Mister Smith Goes to Washington springs to mind. To make that analogy more apt, consider this e-mail exchange between Wildstein and Kelly on September 13, when the lanes reopened:
Wildstein: The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.
Wildstein: Yes, unreal. Fixed now.
The "Samson" is David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority.
If you have ever watched Smith, you will instantly recognize some lines that Actors Edward Arnold and Eugene Pallette spoke, about suppressing news of the Great Filibuster in the capital city of their fictitious State.
It gets worse. On September 17, Mayor Sokolich asked for a ten-minute face-to-face with Baroni "to enlighten me as to the errors of my ways." That same day, Wildstein alerted Baroni when a reporter from The Wall Street Journal called him on his mobile phone for comment. In reply, Baroni invoked the Name of the Lord and Savior of mankind and then suggested Wildstein call Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Governor Christie.
Over the last forty-eight hours the entire scheme unraveled. The Record has this full series showing their investigation. The Daily News, of course, published the e-mails two days ago. And yesterday, Chris Christie stood for nearly two hours, delivering what he must have hoped people would see as a heartfelt apology. (The New York Times has the full story.) In that news conference, he said he fired Kelly.
I fired her because she lied to me.
He also said he never knew the GWB lane closures were anything more than a "traffic study." Columnist Charles Stile at The Record is openly skeptical. He notes Christie only started asking Kelly anything about it (so he says) after Baroni and Wildstein both resigned from the Port Authority. Wildstein, for his part, now "pleads the Fifth." For that, the N.J. Assembly may hold him in contempt of that body. And worse: six New Jersey residents are suing the State in federal court. Their complaint alleges a “conspiracy” and a “willful, wanton, arbitrary, and egregious official misconduct.”
Is Chris Christie believable?
Charles Stile at The Record should be skeptical. After all, his colleagues brought this scandal to light when most other papers ignored it. But his is not the only skeptical voice.
To their shame, Fox News Channel seems bent on minimizing, even trivializing, this affair. Gerardo Rivera, Bob Beckel, Bernard Whitman, Jehmu Greene, and maybe Juan Williams are the only five commentators at Fox to ask the obvious: how does someone that close to the Governor lay on a scheme like this without his authorization or even his knowledge? Whitman charged only that Christie has "created an atmosphere" in which a Bridget Anne Kelly would consider such behavior acceptable. Rivera went further: he found "inconceivable" that Chris Christie didn't know about it, though he, Rivera, voted for Christie twice. But everyone else at Fox seems to want to blow this affair off.
Monmouth County activist Nick Purpura said much more to this Examiner last night. He called the affair absolutely typical of Chris Christie's vindictive style. But he also suggested Christie tried to imitate Barack Obama, but didn't know when to get off the stage. Purpura also took note of Chris Christie protesting,
I am not a bully.
Anyone who, like this Examiner, was alive at the time will remember Richard M. Nixon saying,
I am not a crook.
Mister Smith Goes to Washington is not the only dramatic project this affair reminds one of. Consider also a television program from the Sixties, from veteran producer Bruce Geller: Mission: Impossible. The premise: an inveterate con artist (Steven Hill in the first season; Peter Graves in all the others) gets "mission" orders for the sort of mission only a con artist can bring off. Those orders always include this dire disclaimer:
As always, should you or any member of your [Impossible Missions] Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.
That, and an instruction either to wait for the tape recorder to eat the tape with acid, or to "dispose of this tape in the usual manner."
Yesterday the country, and the people of New Jersey, saw a classic Bruce Geller-style disavowal. In this respect Chris Christie did Richard Nixon and Barack Obama one better: he actually fired someone. But as Charles Stile (see above) points out, he did this only after two other persons involved in this travesty quietly resigned.
Why was Mayor Sokolich so quick to accept the apology Chris Christie offered? Why did he go from
This is insane. It’s the worst example of a petty political vendetta . . . I’m embarrassed. And congratulations, you’ve just made New Jersey the brunt of every political joke for the next 25 years — again.
None of us was rooting for facts to come out to [implicate] Chris Christie.
in the short space of twenty-four hours? And why did Florence Genova's family conclude that fate was the only cause of their loved one's death? Maybe the lawyers for the six residents suing in federal court ought to ask whether any money changed hands.
The Chris Christie-GWB story has implications that go far wider than the Presidential campaign of 2016. We see corruption not only in the office of the Governor but also at the Port Authority. And for the first time in living memory, a government office closes down lanes on a major transport artery to "teach respect" to a local official.
This sort of thing happens in banana republics, not free societies. But that it even could happen should give everyone pause. Where, by the way, is John Stossel, one of the token libertarians at Fox? (The other is Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, late of the Superior Court of New Jersey, in and for the vicinage of Essex.) Why hasn't John Stossel weighed in with opinions, and citations, from libertarian privatization experts? Wouldn't this be the perfect argument for exploring ways to divest federal, State and local governments of all their authority over streets, roads, highways, and bridges? Private operators would not have that "sovereign immunity" that makes lawsuits against the government for a traffic jam so hard to prosecute. But could someone at Fox have told John Stossel to lay off, on account of what such a debate would do to Chris Christie at this juncture? Is the "fix" already in at Fox to support Chris Christie at all costs?
Stay tuned. (Oh, sorry.)
And if you still believe Chris Christie, Bob Beckel, Bernard Whitman, and Jehmu Greene, to name three, have a bridge to sell you. (Oh, sorry.)