The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal.com’s “Best of the Web” written by the editor, James Taranto.
New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie has been tagged as a favorite, if not the favorite, for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. His landslide re-election victory in 2013, a quarter-century after the Garden State last voted for a Republican presidential candidate, made him look formidable.
But today a top political aide was implicated in a scandal that began late last summer. Although no evidence has emerged that the governor himself was involved, the story is certain to raise questions about his leadership.
“Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create ‘traffic problems in Fort Lee’ by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock,” the Record of Bergen County reports.
Here’s a primer for readers unfamiliar with New York-area geography and government: The George Washington Bridge, also known locally as the GWB, is one of three structures (the other two are tunnels) that convey automotive traffic between the Garden State and Manhattan. Fort Lee is a community of about 35,000 on the New Jersey side of the bridge. The bridge can be entered from various highways and Fort Lee surface streets, and tolls are collected on New York-bound vehicles only.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a joint venture between the two states, oversees a vast infrastructure empire including not just bridges and tunnels but also airports, bus and shipping terminals, an interstate subway known as the PATH, and the World Trade Center. Gov. Christie and Andrew Cuomo of New York each appoint six members of the authority’s Board of Commissioners and have the power to veto actions of their own appointees.
On Sept. 13 the Record’s “Road Warrior” columnist, John Cichowski, reported that the authority had closed two tollbooths and “narrowed the traffic patterns on its approaches from two Fort Lee streets.” Badly snarled traffic resulted. “I’ve asked the Port for an explanation, but they haven’t responded,” the paper quoted Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, as saying. “I thought we had a good relationship. Now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something I did wrong. Am I being sent some sort of message?”
Cichowski reported the next day that the tollbooths had reopened. “The Port Authority has conducted a week of study at the . . . bridge of traffic-safety patterns,” a spokesman told the columnist. “We will now review those results and determine the best traffic patterns.” Cichowski didn’t buy it: “Answers to basic follow-up questions: What was the goal? Who authorized this plan? And why didn’t the Port Authority publicly warn motorists about it?–were met with stone-cold silence.”
Sokolich’s and Cichowski’s suspicions appear to have been well-founded, as the Record’s Shawn Boburg reports today
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, one of three deputies on Christie’s senior staff, wrote to David Wildstein, a top Christie executive at the Port Authority, on Aug. 13, about three weeks before the closures. Wildstein, the official who ordered the closures and who resigned last month amid the escalating scandal, wrote back: “Got it.” . . .
On Sept. 9, the first morning of the lane closures, Kelly asked in an e-mail if Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s numerous calls to Port Authority officials had been returned.
“Radio silence,” Wildstein replied. “His name comes right after mayor Fulop,” an apparent reference to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
Although the Record cautions that “the explosive documents . . . don’t spell out the precise reason for the apparent retribution,” the paper notes that Sokolich and Fulop, who are Democrats, had both declined to endorse the re-election of the governor, who had the support of 61 other elected Democrats.
Here’s the most damning exchange:
In one exchange of text messages on the second day of the lane closures, Wildstein alludes to messages the Fort Lee mayor had left complaining that school buses were having trouble getting through the traffic.
“Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” the recipient of the text message responded to Wildstein. The person’s identity is not clear because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons.
“No,” Wildstein wrote in response.
“I feel badly about the kids,” the person replied to Wildstein. “I guess.”
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Wildstein, who “resigned last month amid the escalating scandal,” supplied the documents to state legislative investigators in response to a subpoena.
The New York Times’s Kate Zernike notes that the emails refute “Mr. Christie’s repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew.” It’s possible that Christie didn’t know they knew–but even so, as Zernike writes, the revelations undermine “the governor’s carefully crafted reputation as the rare politician who will tell it like it is. . . . And the pettiness described in the emails flies against the image Mr. Christie’s aides have sought to craft for him, of a new kind of leader, above the partisan politics and small-mindedness of Washington.”
We’d like to develop the point with a bit more specificity. Christie’s reputation as a straight talker has made for a flattering contrast with the smooth-talking Barack Obama. Obama’s deceptions, most notably his fraudulent claims about ObamaCare, have seriously damaged public trust in Washington. Christie’s supposed candor made him look as if he might be the man to restore it.
Worse, the Christie administration’s evident abuse of the Port Authority is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s abuse of the Internal Revenue Service. Neither the governor nor the president has been shown to be directly involved, but each must bear a measure of responsibility for his subordinates’ actions. One of Obama’s worst traits is his unvarnished contempt for his political opponents. The new revelations from Trenton suggest that Christie’s administration, if not the man himself, has a similar quality.
Its sheer pettiness is what distinguishes the GWB scandal from the ObamaCare and IRS ones. The ObamaCare fraud was in the service of an ambitious ideological agenda, and as we have argued, the 2012 election was close enough that it is possible the IRS’s suppression of opposition was necessary to secure the president a second term. Christie, by contrast, is not much of an ideologue and was cruising to an easy re-election.
In the latter regard, the bridge shenanigans look more like the Watergate burglary–agratuitous misuse of power. “Reporters will eventually demand to know . . . what Christie knew and when he knew it,” observes conservative blogger Sean Davis. “None of the defenses now available to Christie–intentional deceit or intentional ignorance–paint him in a favorable light.” That’s especially true if voters two years from now are looking for a corrective to the corruption and deception of the Obama years.
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