ASBURY PARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 05: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie arrives to speak at his election night event after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
Hide Caption

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces political fallout over traffic jam

a a a a
Share this story

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- This was supposed to be a month of celebration for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's political future.

But after personal messages revealed that his administration may have closed highway lanes to exact political retribution, the prospective Republican presidential candidate is faced with what may be the biggest test of his political career.

Wednesday's revelations thrust a regional transportation issue into a national conversation raising new questions about the ambitious governor's leadership on the eve of a second term designed to jumpstart his road to the White House.

The critics quickly emerged across New Jersey and beyond, high-profile Democrats and Republicans among them, including some who know the 51-year-old governor best.

"What are these people doing?" asked a baffled former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean, whom Christie has often described as a mentor. "The closer to the governor this is, the more harm that it's going to do."

Emails and text messages released Wednesday suggest that one of Christie's top aides engineered traffic jams in a New Jersey town last September to punish its Democratic mayor. The messages do not directly implicate Christie, but they appear to contradict his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved.

An "outraged and deeply saddened" Christie responded late in the day by saying he was misled by his aide, and he denied involvement.

"This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," he said in a statement. "People will be held responsible for their actions."

The messages that prompted Christie's response were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations amid a statehouse investigation into whether the lane closings that led to the tie-ups were retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily-traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.

Beyond the specifics of the lane closures, critics suggest the incident reflects a darker side of Christie's brand of politics that contradicts the image he'd like to project as he eyes the presidency.

The governor repeatedly sidestepped criticism that he bullied adversaries in an overwhelming re-election victory in November. Facing a little-known and underfunded opponent, he cast himself as a different kind of Republican: a compromising, consensus builder who ultimately earned strong support from minorities, union members and even many Democrats.

It was described as the opening argument for Christie's prospective White House run. That argument is now clouded, at least temporarily, during one of the most important transitions of his political career.

In less than two weeks, he is scheduled to celebrate his second inauguration in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on historic Ellis Island, a symbolic beginning to a second term designed to expand Christie's bipartisan appeal. He also is expected to unveil his second-term priorities - solidifying his presidential resume - in a state-of-the-state address later this month, while beginning an aggressive national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Even if Christie navigates the current situation quickly, Republican operative Hogan Gidley said it would almost surely come back to haunt him in a presidential run. He described Christie's "bulldog style" as both a political asset and a liability.

"I don't necessarily think it's Christie's policy that's going to ultimately catapult or sink his campaign; I think it's his personality," said Gidley, a senior adviser to 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

The messages also raise questions about Christie's most recent appointee to the Republican Governors Association, Bill Stepien, who was in communication with Wildstein about the lane closures while managing Christie's re-election campaign. Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, is scheduled to testify Thursday before a state Assembly committee but is fighting the subpoena.

National conservative opinion leaders joined Christie's critics Wednesday, while the Democratic National Committee released a web video that details Christie's earlier assurances that neither he nor his staff had anything to do with the closures.

"I've made it to very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it, and they've all assured me that they don't," Christie said in mid-December, mentioning Stepien by name.

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said the "revelations are troubling for any public official."

But she said: "They also indicate what we've come to expect from Gov. Christie - when people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies and attacks."

Other Republicans have been critical of Christie's politics in the past.

In a book released in November, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney raised concerns about Christie's insistence that Romney obtain Christie's approval to raise money in New Jersey. Romney found Christie's position "galling, like something out of `The Soprano's,'" according to the authors of the book "Double Down: Game Change 2012."

Kean said it was imperative for Christie to address the latest issue head on.

"He's known as a straight shooter and a straight talker. He's got to be the same on this one," Kean said. "Whatever's there, get it all out, and do it now."

Previous
1 2
Next

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Print this article

Comments

Hmm... It looks like you’re not a WCPO Insider. or Subscribe now to contribute!

More National Politics
GOP has built-in advantage in fight for US House
GOP has built-in advantage in fight for US House

Even if Democrats recruit great candidates, raise gobs of money and run smart campaigns, they face an uphill fight to retake control of the…

Ohio helps show how GOP tilted House balance
Ohio helps show how GOP tilted House balance

To help analyze voting patterns, The Associated Press divided the votes from the 2012 presidential election into all 435 congressional…

Health law concerns for cancer centers
Health law concerns for cancer centers

Cancer patients relieved that they can get insurance coverage because of the new health care law may be disappointed to learn that some the…

US cites security more to censor, deny records
US cites security more to censor, deny records

The Obama administration has a way to go to fulfill its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history.

John Boehner questions Senate unemployment deal
John Boehner questions Senate unemployment deal

House Speaker John Boehner said Friday he thinks a bipartisan Senate deal to renew expired benefits for the long-term unemployed isn't…

Crowley: No trust equals no compromise in DC
Crowley: No trust equals no compromise in DC

The host of CNN's "State of the Union," brought her insights on Washington politics to the Tri-State Thursday for…

Senator: CIA improperly searched networks
Senator: CIA improperly searched networks

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday the CIA improperly searched a stand-alone computer network established for…

Military sex assault bill heads for Senate vote
Military sex assault bill heads for Senate vote

Legislation to curb sexual assaults in the military by stripping senior commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious…

Obama 2015 budget focuses on boosting economy
Obama 2015 budget focuses on boosting economy

President Barack Obama is unwrapping a nearly $4 trillion budget that gives Democrats an election-year playbook for fortifying the economy…

DJ: Better late than never for Obama initiative
DJ: Better late than never for Obama initiative

Will President Barack Obama be remembered for enacting an initiative aimed at getting young minority men on the margin to take control of…