Political insiders agree when campaign season rolls around, it usually brings out the 'best' in politicians jockeying for position in November. The gloves come off and political opponents dig in their heels and retreat to their prospective sides of the ring. Perhaps some mud-slinging and digs may get thrown into the mix in an effort to sway voters to their side. It's a political tug-of-war where Republicans and Democrats spar over a chess-like battle of wits involving issues of choice important to their constituents.
But what happens when it goes too far and campaign managers and staffers inside the Governor's office use their political influence to affect the lives of others?
Just weeks before the election, Governor Chris Christie, directly answering to his Democratic gubernatorial opponent State Senator Barbara Buono's inquiries into lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, flatly denied there was any political motivation behind the traffic snafu in retaliation toward the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee for not supporting his re-election bid.
During his campaign, nearly four dozen New Jersey mayors from across the state crossed party lines to support the governor for a second term in office. However when Mayor Mark Sokolich complained about the closings in a text to Bill Baroni, a former Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority stating, “Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth. The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.” the traffic problems were only prolonged for a number of days rather rectified on the spot.
Baroni, a former state senator, was called before the state Assembly Transportation Committee to testify about the traffic tie-up he described as a “traffic study”, and further insisted the problem was merely a lack of communication between local officials.
On Thursday, Governor Christie fired Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, citing 'stupidity' after Kelly used her personal Gmail account to contact David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, boldly writing, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Another member of Christie's inner circle and long-time political advisor, Bill Stepien, also fell prey to the chopping block after he, too, jumped into the mix writing Wildstein, “It’s fine. The mayor is an idiot.”
Wildstein responded by saying it will be a “...tough November for this little Serbian."
Both Baroni and Wildstein have since resigned from their positions.
A rising star in the Republican Party, Stepien managed Christie's re-election campaign against Buono. He was tapped to take a consulting role with the Republican Governors Association and was on the path to becoming the chairman of the state Republican Party.
Last week, Christie called him "the best Republican operative in the country". On Thursday, the governor said "he no longer trusts his judgment."
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” said the governor in a press conference inside the state house Thursday. “One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
Meantime, Barbara Buono wasted no time penning a letter to US Attorney Paul Fishman requesting a thorough investigation to determine what, if any, laws were broken and whether Chris Christie knew of any abuse of power from inside his office.
Buono believes the e-mails, texts and testimony of the General Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee reveal sufficient evidence to warrant such an investigation.
All subpoena requests came under the authority of the Assembly Transportation Committee which Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Middlesex heads. Wisniewski convened an investigation and issued subpoenas to Port Authority officials, including Wildstein, who actually ordered the lane shut downs.
In response to the subpoena, Wildstein provided the explosive emails sent by Christie's staffers to a panel of state lawmakers who were in the process of investigating the unprecedented road closures. The messages suggest that members of Christie's inner circle concocted the tie-ups as political retaliation against Sokolich.
Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman, was also named in the coup d’état. The emails contradict repeated statements made by Christie that his staff was involved with shutting down the lanes snarling traffic for miles throughout the borough of Fort Lee, which is nearly three miles long and lies just across the Hudson River overlooking the borough of Manhattan. The emails also provide additional insight into the staff's indifference to such traffic woes.
During the melee, paramedics had a hard time getting to an unconscious 91-year old woman. Emergency responders were delayed nearly double the average response time and had to meet an ambulance en route to the hospital instead of responding directly to the scene. The woman later died of cardiac arrest.
Political insiders say it's too early to tell whether the aptly-dubbed “Bridgegate” will have any detrimental impact on Christie’s future presidential plans.
Nonetheless, the Assembly's Transportation Committee continues its investigation. Late Thursday, Wisniewski issued this statement: “Mr. Wildstein’s performance before the committee today was perplexing and disappointing. He left the committee no choice but to find him in contempt. It’s our intention to refer the contempt charge to a county prosecutor’s office in the coming days. It’s hard to understand how testifying to employment history, dates and communication formats require Mr. Wildstein to protect himself against self-incrimination. It makes one wonder what exactly he doesn't want to discuss, and it raises even more questions about what happened with these lane closings when it comes to finding out who knew what and when. We intend to continue our investigation, but this would all be made easier if Gov. Christie did the right thing and voluntarily released all communications so everyone could find out with certainty what happened. If he’s truly dedicated to transparency and the truth from here on out, he will take this step and cooperate fully with the committee’s work.”