DOVER, New Hampshire – Chris Christie can cross state lines, but he can't escape Bridgegate.
Indeed, the scandal followed the New Jersey governor more than 250 miles to this crucial, early voting state on Friday, when a woman confronted the potential presidential candidate at a town hall about the politically-motivated plot -- allegedly carried out by his former allies -- and what it says about who he allows in his inner circle.
At Fury’s Publick House, an Irish pub where the town hall took place, Durham resident Eileen Sahagian told the governor that he was going to get “a slightly tougher question from an old Jersey girl,” and noted she was born and raised in Teaneck, N.J., while her father used to work in Fort Lee — the borough affected by traffic jams created by the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
“When I heard about the bridge scandal, I was beyond horrified,” she told the Republican, noting that while she believes the governor’s insistence that he didn’t know about the scheme, “people with whom you work with very closely somehow got the idea that that was okay.” She then expressed concern about what that said about his management style should he become president. Sahagian added, “I feel like the people of Fort Lee were the sacrificial lambs. It reminds me of feudal times … when the king would say 'who cares about the peasants.'”
Christie, who is struggling in the polls – especially after federal prosecutors brought charges exactly a week ago against three of his former allies over the scandal – told Sahagian and the standing-room only crowd that he too was horrified when he found out that people close to him were involved. The governor stressed, however, that he quickly fired those he believed were to blame, reiterated that he had no prior knowledge or involvement in the scandal, and emphasized that there have been three probes into the incident that have not uncovered any new evidence.
“I can’t promise you, nor can anybody who is in a position of responsibility in the government that they will be able to prevent every bad thing form happening. The best you can say is that I’ve learned from the mistake,” said the governor. “I don’t believe [those charged] thought this was okay by me because if they did, they would have told me. That’s the greatest proof. If they thought they were doing something I would have loved, why wouldn’t they tell me?” During his six-minute response, he later added, “mistakes are going to happen. It matters what you do in the aftermath.”
Federal authorities maintain three of Christie’s former allies plotted together to create traffic jams on the bridge – on the first day of school—to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid. Then, the three allegedly used the excuse of a bogus traffic study to cover up their actions.
Former Port Authority executive (and Christie appointee) David Wildstein pleaded guilty last Friday for his role in the politically-motivated lane closures. A grand jury also unsealed a nine-count indictment against Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff and Bill Baroni, the governor’s then-deputy executive director of the Port Authority, for their alleged involvement in the scheme. Both pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that included conspiracy and fraud, and a trial date has been tentatively set for July 7.
After the town hall, Sahagian told reporters that she didn’t know if she was satisfied by the governor’s answer, adding “we’re going to see how it comes out in the courts to see if the truth is out there.” Another reminder of Bridgegate was outside the town hall, where half a dozen protesters – who identified themselves as Democrats—held signs that read “Depose Christie” and “Chris Christie, bridge to nowhere.”
The rest of the town hall was friendly, with the governor taking about a dozen-and-a-half questions on several hot-button issues. On climate change, he reiterated what he said earlier in the week in New Hampshire, that “I think global warming is real. And I do think humans contribute to it.” Christie said he had “grave concerns” about Common Core.
He also took a jab at potential competitor, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, arguing she is “completely pandering” on immigration.
Christie branded himself as a truthteller, willing to take on even unpopular issues like entitlement reform. “You’re not going to have to worry about not knowing what I think,” he said, referencing his outspoken personality. He also said that unlike several in the emerging GOP presidential field, he has experience dealing with a Democratic-controlled legislature. “I’ve had to fight and cajole and charm and punch and yell and hug and do everything that I can do to try and get progress in our state. I think that’s extraordinary training for Washington D.C.,” he said.
John Gens, a 71-year-old surgeon from Portsmouth who was in attendance, said he liked Christie’s demeanor and that he “seemed to stick to his word.” Gens said he believed Christie did not know about the lane closure scandal and that the issue was “not important” enough to be a deal breaker.
Next week, Christie will be back in New Hampshire, which is quickly emerging as a do-or-die-state for the governor should he run in 2016. During that trip, he’s expected to deliver an economic policy speech. The governor has said he’ll make a decision on whether or not he’ll run for president either this month or next.