It’s telling that nearly anyone who identifies themselves as a Republican in Fort Lee today declines to give their full name when sharing what they think right now of Governor Chris Christie and the scandal of the closed lanes last September onto the George Washington Bridge. Retribution happens.
That is what is at the heart of the scandal that is swamping Mr Christie just as he was positioning himself as the favourite to fight to regain the White House for his party in 2016. Emails this week show that personal appointees and top aides ordered the closure of two traffic lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge over four days, triggering a monster traffic snarl-up, to punish the local mayor for not backing his re-election bid last year.
“If I saw him now, I’d say ‘Governor you’re in a deep hole, though that’s not the word I would really use,’” offers 84-year-old Jean M, who is waiting for an early-day pedicure at the Salon Mirage, just steps from one of the access lanes’ to the bridge, the busiest in the world. She quickly adds: “I mean deep s***.”
John, a regular user of the bridge - we’ll call him John (his wife works for the local Republican Party) - offers a still more unvarnished view of things. “He is history and he should resign,” he said bluntly. “He’s incompetent and he’s a bully. He’s a typical politician”.
Mr Christie wasn’t resigning. Rather, he was on his way here to offer his apologies to Fort Lee residents and for a separate face-to-face with its mayor, who is a Democrat, Mark Sokolich, for the same purpose. It was to be step two in a process of repentance that may or may not save his presidential ambitions.
Step one was a morning press conference and his announcing that he had fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, identified as having unleashed this particular manure slide when she emailed David Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie and personal appointee at the Port Authority that manages the bridge, with this remarkable request: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”. He replied, “Got it”.
As vigorous as ever, Mr Christie was adamant he had zero idea of what Ms Kelly, with subsequent help from Mr Wildstein (he has already resigned) and another top Port Authority official, Bill Baroni, had set in train. Instead, when questions were starting to be asked before Christmas about what exactly had happened at the bridge, she had flatly lied about it, he insisted.
In his version, he was as astonished by the conspiracy - which snarled things so comprehensively three traffic-locked ambulances couldn’t get heart patients to hospitals and scores of children were late to school – as the rest of the political firmament. “I was blindsided... I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”
Stupid is one word. Petty, callous and vindictive are others. More than just the act of closing the lanes, it is also the tone of some of the texts and emails that followed that jars. Some made light of concerns about the school kids being held up. “They are children of Buono voters,” Mr Weildstein mocked in a reference to State Senator Barbara Buono, the Democrat who ran against Mr Christie in last year’s governors’ race.
Another associate of Christie refers at one point Mayor Sokolich as “that little Serbian”. He is of Croatian background. In response to pleading messages form Sokolich to the Port Authority to do take action when the gridlock first set in, one message from a Christie associate read: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” The messages also show some of the same people attempting a cover-up of what they had wrought.
The Bridgegate affair, as it is called, will trail Christie for a long time. It hardly helps that the US Attorney in New Jersey has announced an official probe. When it comes to running for president, sometimes it is only one misstep that crashes the ship, especially if it resonates for a long time.
“People don’t forget,” says Jean, eyeing a box of Russian chocolates offered by the salon. It threatens to ruin a carefully cultivated image of a politician who cares first about taking care of people day to day and second about partisan gain, which was notably on show in responding to Super-Storm Sandy.
“He’s very two-faced,” Jean adds. “He has put out this wonderful picture of himself helping the people, saying I’m there for you, and then you see this. It’s just politics as usual.” It may also fuel a narrative already out there that behind the plain-talking politician is a man with sharp elbows with a tendency to punish and do harm to his enemies just as enthusiastically as he rewards his political friends. The bully.
“This is the epitome of crony politics,” says Sy Weiss, 83, a retired communications data business owner who, taking an oatmeal breakfast in a Fort Lee Starbucks, recalls not even being able to get into the driveway of his nearby apartment building at the time of the closures. As for the notion that Christie, however artful, can emerge from this intact in time to lead the national party in two years, forget it.
“The Republican Party is so ashamed of this guy that it’s over for him, he’s finished,” says Weiss, who votes Democrat. “They are not so stupid that they are going to choose a Mafia man like him. That is the impression that is left, isn’t it?” As for Mr Christie saying he was duped by his own staff, “bulls***,” says John, also in Starbucks. “If he didn’t know anything about it on day one, he surely did by day two.”
Back in Trenton Mr Christie was doing his darndest to repair matters. “I am a very sad person today.” Indeed. “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.” Maybe.