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Politics in the Garden State

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Conservative political commentator George Will says the bridge scandal won’t damage Governor Chris Christie’s presidential chances in 2016. “The American people are convinced, not without reason, the political class is composed of synthetic figures” Will told Fox News Sunday. “[Christie] has established his authenticity.”

Authentic what? Authentically corrupt New Jersey pol? Bully? Political hardball player? Ego?

Ego for sure, judging by how often Christie invoked himself in his nearly two-hour news conference last week. As Frank Bruni points out, Christie “found a way to spell apology with a thousand I’s.”

The governor’s narcissism betrayed his apologies and claims of responsibility for the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September. It’s instructive that he terminated Bridget Kelly’s employment because “she lied to me.” Nowhere did Christie express outrage that thousands of people were inconvenienced by Kelly’s involvement in a silly and petty act of apparent political revenge. Nowhere did he condemn her actions for possibly endangering lives by tying up traffic on the world’s busiest bridge.

Bully? Political hardball? Corrupt? Depends on your definition. The governor defended himself on the bully charge by declaring, “Politics ain’t bean bag, OK?”

One thing’s for sure, politics in Governor Christie’s New Jersey is not for the timid. As The New York Times notes, “unfortunate stuff happens” to people who cross the governor on matters large or small. A former governor blocked Christie on an issue; the superintendent of the State Police pulled his police escort. A political scientist at Rutgers opposed a Republican-inspired legislative gerrymander; the governor’s office stripped $169,000 for his institute from the state budget. And The Wall Street Journal reports that Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop believes the Christie administration cancelled meetings with the mayor after Fulop decided not to endorse the governor.

Coincidences? Who knows?

Then there’s the case of three prosecutors in one county who obtained an indictment of a Republican sheriff. The New Jersey attorney general's office, which is under the aegis of the governor, promptly seized the prosecutor’s office and tossed the indictments. The three lawyers lost their jobs.

Christie did not invent New Jersey-style “hardball” politics. He’s just the latest practitioner of the art. But what’s so surprising about the whole bridge scandal is the ineptness of his staff.

Punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by tying up traffic on the George Washington Bridge during rush hour? If that were the motive, did the mayor know he was the target?

Then there’s this question: Why retaliate against the mayor of a small town for not endorsing your boss when he’s cruising to a landslide? How many votes would the mayor of Fort Lee have delivered? How many might the governor have lost because voters spent hours in a traffic jam?

Christie insists he did not know until last Wednesday that some of aides were involved in the lane closings. New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of the legislative panel investigating the incident, is skeptical. “It’s hard to believe in the middle of a gubernatorial election that the governor didn't have a conversation with somebody on his senior staff about a big problem in Fort Lee," he said.

Wisniewski holds Christie responsible for creating “the atmosphere that allowed this to start… and to be covered up.”

Does the bridge scandal damage Christie’s presidential aspirations? Perhaps the best take on that comes from former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a Republican who Christie considers a mentor though the two men have since had a falling out. “On the one hand,” Kean says, “I think he’s got a lot to offer. I think he’s the most able politician since Bill Clinton. On the other hand, you look at these other qualities and ask, ‘Do you really want that in your president?’”

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