By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014) Bridges have a beginning, middle, and an end—with a lot of access ramps and lanes to shepherd the traffic in, or to divert it away. And sometimes, there are obstacles.
So it is with some of the great political love affairs of the past generations. Gary Hart was once held in such high esteem by the progressives and reformers within the Democratic Party (especially after Walter Mondale’s crushing defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984) that Hart’s ascendancy to the nomination was regarded as a fait accompli. It did not happen. More recently, in the election cycle of 2011 and 2012, Herman Cain was so popular with GOP conservatives and Tea Partiers that his brief, meteoric rise seemed to upend the Republican procession and disrupt the status quo of both parties. But Cain crashed.
In each case, partisan euphoria was replaced with harsh reality: politicians are not saviors, but flawed mortals, though we still have the tendency to want to elevate some political figures to sainthood.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been, by some accounts, the most talked about potential savior the Republican Party has had in some years, and the GOP’s de facto front runner. Given a top speaking slot at the GOP convention in Tampa in 2012, and more recently chosen to lead the Republican Governor’s Association, he shares the top tier of presidential hopefuls with a small handful of well-known names: Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal. But Chris Christie’s name is the one most often considered at the top of that short list.
Now, that position of preeminence appears to be challenged by what has become, surely, the biggest challenge to Christie’s political reputation as tough-talking and blunt, but an honest broker and a man of the people.
David Wildstein, an administrator for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey, now claims that he has written proof that the governor was aware of a deliberate campaign of lane closures which caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge back in September. The four-day long vehicular gridlock was the apparent result of political payback, retribution against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not publicly back Christie during the governor’s re-election campaign.
Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority a few months ago, has previously said that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. Wildstein’s former boss at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, has also said the lane closures were part of a long-term study, though the Port Authority has stated that there was no official clearance for any such study. Wildstein and Baroni were both known to be Christie allies.
But in December, text messages and emails revealed what appeared to be a pattern of cooperation between top members of the governor’s staff and some employees of the Port Authority, and the bridge scandal quickly became front page news across the country. Then, in what some regarded as a “piling on” by Democrats eager to puncture the governor’s presidential prospects, things got worse for Christie, very fast.
There were accusations that the governor misused Hurricane Sandy funds to create slick television ads touting a return to normalcy for business and tourism. Though the ads were technically an appropriate use of the money under federal guidelines, they were regarded by some critics as little more than political ads designed to boost his re-election chances, and others complained that the ads—at the least—were simply wasteful spending in a state still beset with problems of reconstruction and repair. At worst, the television spots were political ads. A production company with a higher bid than others had been selected, and its scripts all called for the governor and his family to make appearances in the ads. Scripts prepared by the other film and video companies competing for the contract did not feature the governor.
Then, days later, there were more accusations of bullying and threats of withholding funds, most notably from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. Zimmer said that she was approached by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and told, in essence, that her ability to receive Sandy relief funds would be contingent upon her support of a major redevelopment project worth billions backed by investors with close ties to the governor. And despite Guadagno’s denials that any such threat was issued, Zimmer says the proof could be found in her own journal entries from that same day.
The governor held an epic two-hour long press conference as the entire nation watched, and during that appearance he denied any wrongdoing, claiming he had been blindsided by the events. He was apologetic and contrite. Most regarded his explanations as sincere. In his State of the State address days later (in what have been the most watched state speech in American history), he briefly touched on the scandals, but said that New Jersey needs to move forward.
Was it possible that the governor was truly betrayed by vindictive staffers for whom perhaps the wrong top-down standard of leadership had been set? Without a smoking gun, Christie could still survive. Maybe.
By last week most reporters and analysts suggested ominously that the entire mess had reached a precarious tipping point—one more surprise, and the governor’s political path to the presidency would end abruptly.
Now Wildstein tosses a new, potentially lethal stink bomb into the mix.
Through his attorney, the former Port Authority official says that Chris Christie’s seemingly sincere mea culpa to that packed room of reporters can be disputed by way of documents—as yet unseen and undisclosed—which prove the governor was aware of the political retribution (though the letter does not specifically mention the bridge fiasco). If true, and if Wildstein’s new evidence demonstrates a direct link between the lane closures on the G.W. Bridge and the governor, Christie’s political future could be limited. In fact, some in New Jersey are already calling for his resignation.
Christie’s defenders are quick to point out that Wildstein is seeking a plea bargain with the investigators who are circling ever more closely to the core of the case. Wildstein is also demanding that the Port Authority pay for his legal defense. And like other aspects of this unfolding political drama, some observers question why Wildstein has waited until now to claim to be in possession of evidence which investigators say he should have made available six weeks ago. (There were similar questions raised when Hoboken’s mayor Zimmer waited nine months to reveal the alleged quid pro quo on Sandy relief funds).
Among Republicans, Christie has his defenders and his detractors. His advocates suggest that there is credible evidence that the entire affair is an organized hatchet job, pointing out that the only person to gain long term advantage from the mess is potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner for Democrats. Indeed, some polls have shown the New Jersey governor as the only Republican able to best the Senator in theoretical match-ups for 2016. Former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani has suggested that because of that polling parity between the two top candidates, the whole brouhaha has been engineered by Democratic strategists as a way to derail any threat to Clinton.
But a few in the GOP see that affair as being about as well-timed as it could be: either the governor is shown to be innocent of any direct connection to the various charges, including Wildstein’s recent allegations, in which Christie walks away, perhaps stronger for the ordeal (especially if it is shown that Democrats engineered a witch-hunt); or, Chris Christie goes down now, early, before his political collapse damages the Republican primary and debate narrative beginning, presumably, 15 or 16 months from now. Some in the GOP suggest that a Christie meltdown in, say, late 2015, would spell disaster for a party seeking to find its way back from its poor performance in November 2012. One independent friend said that for Republicans it would “be like watching the Hindenburg collapse in flames in Lakehurst, N.J.”
In the meantime New Jersey takes a break from the scandal and enjoys a long weekend of Super Bowl activity. On Monday the business of politics returns, and with it, more potential bombshells in what has become known, too easily, as Bridgegate.
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Photo composite above by Alan Clanton; Chris Christie photo and Republican National Convention photo, Alan Clanton for Thursday Review.
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