Did Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration cripple a New Jersey community with a deliberate, brutal traffic jam, purely out of petty and partisan spite? The question is not as outlandish as it may appear.
To recap our report from yesterday – and if you missed last night’s segment on this, trust me, it’s worth your time – Fort Lee, New Jersey, was effectively turned into a giant parking lot on the first day of school in September, after the Port Authority closed two of the three lanes leading from the community to the George Washington Bridge. The Christie administration later defended the move, saying it was part of a “traffic study,” though we now know there was no study.
So why cause the massive congestion on purpose? New Jersey Democrats allege the Christie administration was punishing Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse the governor’s re-election campaign. And while that seems hard to believe – Christie was cruising to an easy win, anyway – the burgeoning controversy is increasingly difficult to dismiss.
[O]n Friday, the man who ordered the closings – a high school friend of the governor’s who was a small-town mayor and the founder of an anonymous political blog before Mr. Christie’s appointee created a job for him at the Port Authority – resigned, saying the issue had become “a distraction.”
And testifying under subpoena in Trenton on Monday, bridge workers described Mr. Christie’s associates’ ordering the closings, and called the different maneuvers “unprecedented,” “odd” and “wrong.” There was, they said, no study.
Mr. Christie’s associates at the Port Authority, they said, ordered bridge workers to shut down the lanes with three days’ notice despite warnings that it would cause havoc, and that changes of this magnitude typically took years of planning. They were instructed not to tell anyone — not the news media, not Fort Lee, not even the Port Authority’s executive director, who is an appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, they said. They protested, but went along, they said, because they feared retribution.
At the heart of the story is David Wildstein, a pseudonymous political blogger and high-school pal of Christie, whom the governor appointed to serve as the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority. He ordered the lane closures and instructed Port Authority officials not to tell anyone – not local police, not the local mayor’s office, no one – while ignoring the chain of command.
I keep thinking there must be some reasonable explanation for this, but (a) no one can come up with one; and (b) the Christie administration hasn’t offered one. Relevant officials keep sticking to the “traffic study” excuse, but there’s literally zero evidence the study ever existed, and the director of the bridge, Robert Durando, testified yesterday “that in 35 years at the Port Authority, he had never heard of lanes being closed down for a traffic study.”
It’s hard to fathom the idea that the governor would literally order his ally to cripple a New Jersey community on purpose, but Wildstein has a reputation as a loyal Christie soldier, and Christie has a reputation for being a bit of a micro-manager. Would Wildstein have made a move like this without direction?
It’s too soon to say how significant this story may yet become, though it’s worth noting that much of Christie’s “brand” is tied to the notion that he’s “above politics.” If the allegations in this controversy turn out to be true, and we learn the governor tied up a community out of partisan spite, that brand will probably be damaged permanently.
Looking ahead, Wildstein, who is intensely private, will be subpoenaed by state lawmakers investigating the matter.
Postscript: I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention this gem:
Assemblyman Wisniewski pressed Mr. Durando, the bridge director, to explain why he had not sought to reverse Mr. Wildstein’s order, even after residents and local police officials described the operation as “a monumental failure.” Mr. Durando said he did not want to violate the chain of command.
“Your testimony tells me that there is a culture of fear at the Port Authority,” Mr. Wisniewski said. “Is there a culture of fear?”
Mr. Durando sat silently.
“I think your answer speaks for itself,” Mr. Wisniewski said finally.