A series of controversial text messages and emails between top staff members of Gov. Chris Christie’s office discussing the closing of two lanes on the George Washington Bridge, a major artery for commuters in Fort Lee, N.J., surfaced last week, providing support for the accusation that Christie’s office caused the four-day gridlock as retribution against the town’s mayor.
The governor apologized for what he described as unknowingly betraying the public in a press conference Thursday. ”Someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust,” he said, The New York Times reported.
The messages, published by The Bergen Record and several other outlets, strongly implied that the four-day gridlock was initiated to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for supporting Christie’s Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, during last year’s gubernatorial race, which Christie won by 22 points.
A 2,000-page set of documents released Friday contained emails and text messages sent by top Christie administration and Port Authority officials. Friday’s release indicates that local Fort Lee officials and workers ordered to close the lanes found the orders very confusing, The New York Times reported.
Christie’s administration worked closely with Princeton’s local government during the merging of the former township and borough in 2011, and offered a $340,000 grant to further the process. Former Township Mayor Chad Goerner, a Democrat, said he had a “very good relationship” with the administration throughout the process.
Goerner said he did not feel pressured to provide anything in return for the generous contribution.
“Anybody that knows me knows that I don’t get pressured to provide endorsements. I endorse people that I want,” he explained. Goerner is now a consultant.
Although Christie strongly contested these allegations in September, he revised his statement after the communication was released, saying that he was “misled” by his staff and is “deeply saddened” by their behavior, according to The New York Times. Christie is an ex-officio trustee of the University due to his position as Governor.
Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said she has a “positive relationship” with Christie’s staff and that they have been “very helpful” over the course of the consolidation process. She added that she suspected the allegations were true when they were first raised last year. Lempert endorsed Buono and said she was not approached by Christie during his campaign.
“I had thought something like that had gone on but to actually see it in print is shocking. I was surprised to read how cavalier it was,” Lempert said, referring to the jovial tone of the exchanges.
Goerner criticized Christie’s leadership and called the affair “shameful.”
“To say that I was disappointed is an understatement. Being a leader means showing people the way through your actions and trying to forge partnerships where you can. Not shutting down traffic on the [George Washington] Bridge because someone doesn’t support your reelection campaign. Especially when you’re up by 20, 25 points in the polls. I think it represents politics at its worst,” Goerner said of his reaction to the news.
Although Christie confirmed that he would comply with future investigations, political strategists are beginning to assess the impact of the scandal on Christie’s 2016 election prospects. Christie has been discussed as a likely candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post and many other forecasters.
“I think it’s an embarrassment. I think it’s a major challenge. I don’t think it’s disqualifying. It’ll just make things much more difficult,” politics professor Nolan McCarty said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. He added that if the investigation proves Christie’s prior involvement with the ploy in any way, “it would pretty much disqualify him from higher office.”
In any case, McCarty said that speculations will hurt Christie’s platform as a straightforward, bipartisan candidate.
“If it turns out the way he worked with Democrats was to threaten them, and then to retaliate when they didn’t come around, that’s going to undermine the message that he wanted to send to national voters,” McCarty noted. “It kind of destroys a reputation for bipartisan effectiveness that he wanted to make the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.”
Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” in an email addressed to Christie Port Authority appointee David Wildstein, who replied, “Got it.”
Another party involved in the incident, whose name was redacted, claimed to “feel bad about the kids,” many of whom missed school due to hour-long traffic jams. “They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein responded.
The order to close both lanes was reversed four days later by the Executive Director of the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, who said in an email to colleagues that he was “appalled” by the lack of communication concerning the alleged traffic study.
Wildstein resigned once these allegations began to surface last month. Kelly was dismissed from her position this week.
In an interview with MSNBC, Sokolich said Christie’s administration should reach out to those who suffered from delayed emergency vehicles rather than apologizing to him personally. Christie said he does not remember ever meeting Sokolich, but did so after his press conference to apologize.
However, this incident is not the first time that Christie, a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential elections, has been tied to allegations concerning political retribution.
“Politics ain’t beanbag,” Christie said when asked about his reputation as a bully in a press conference following the scandal. Although he acknowledged his “passionate” character, Christie denied the accusations. “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”
Staff writer Chitra Marti contributed reporting.