It’s no longer in dispute that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration crippled the community of Fort Lee last September on purpose. It’s also no longer in dispute that the governor’s team did so as an act of political retaliation. But what was it, exactly, Christie’s aides were retaliating against?
The working assumption has been that the administration sought to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election. But the governor’s incredulity over this explanation is not without merit – it’s unclear if the local mayor’s endorsement was ever even sought. Indeed, the governor’s insistence yesterday that he had no idea who Sokolich was seemed relatively persuasive.
And if Team Christie was in the habit of retaliating against fairly obscure Democratic officials who balked at endorsing the governor, there would be a more expansive record of statewide revenge from last fall.
So perhaps the working assumption is mistaken. Maybe Christie’s aides targeted Fort Lee, but it wasn’t related to a campaign endorsement that wasn’t even solicited. If so, we’ll need a different explanation for one of the key questions at the heart of the scandal: what happened to cause a top Christie aide to say it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” on Aug. 13 at 7:34 a.m.? What, specifically, prompted that message on that morning if Sokolich’s preference for governor was irrelevant? What was it, exactly, that Team Christie was retaliating against?
Rachel offered an alternative theory on the show last night and it’s important to consider it in detail.
In New Jersey, state Supreme Court justices serve an initial term of seven years, at which point the sitting governor decides whether or not to reappoint them. Since the New Jersey constitution was revised and adopted in 1947, every governor has reappointed every state Supreme Court justice without exception.
That is, until Christie took office. In 2010, soon after Christie’s inauguration, he did something unprecedented: he declined to reappoint one of the justices: New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, the court’s only African-American member. Wallace was not burdened by scandal or allegations of wrongdoing; Christie simply didn’t want him on the high court anymore.
Democrats in the state Senate were livid. Rachel described the political firestorm that soon erupted in Trenton:
Senate Democrats made Chris Christie’s first nominee to replace Justice Wallace, they made her wait until somebody else’s seat came up on the court then they would consider her for that one, but not Justice Wallace’s.Then, Chris Christie nominated a man named Phil Quan for the state Supreme Court, Senate Democrats said no. Then, Chris Christie nominated a man named Bruce Harris for the court, Senate Democrats said no.Senate Democrats were so mad about what Christie did to take John Harris off the Supreme Court when he was up for re-nomination that they would not let anyone through. It’s been a big political crisis in New Jersey. Senate Democrats rejected every one of those Christie nominees, one after the other.And then when another of the justices on the Supreme Court, a Republican, came up for re-nomination just like John Harris had, and the Senate Democrats signaled that they were going to give her a whale of a time at her re-nomination hearing, Chris Christie just flipped out. He had enough. He pulled that justice off the Supreme Court rather than submit her to re-nomination before the Senate Democrats.
No governor had ever failed to reappoint a sitting state Supreme Court justice, but Christie had suddenly done it twice – once for the court’s only African-American jurist, infuriating Democrats, and then again for a justice he actually liked. The governor, enraged, held a press conference to tell reporters, “I was not going to let her loose to the animals.”
The “animals,” in this case, were the Democrats in the state Senate.
Christie said that on the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2013.
On the morning of Aug. 13, 2013, Christie’s deputy chief of staff told the governor’s guy at the Port Authority, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The leader of the Senate Democrats at the time was a senator from … Fort Lee.