Lying low as the lane closure storm blows all about him hasn’t really been an option for New Jersey’s Chris Christie, least of all today. His diary said “State of the State”, the speech every Governor must give at the start of each year just as the President must give the State of the Union. There was no ducking it.
Nor was it really possible to stand before lawmakers and omit all mention of the scandal that has so suddenly swamped him and possibly his presidential aspirations also.
In the end, after being welcomed by protracted applause, Mr Christie chose to get “Bridgegate” out of the way at the very outset and to keep talk of it brief. Thereafter he transitioned quickly to the normal stuff of these addresses – the improving state economy, his plans to rev up the record of its schools and so forth.
But the first minutes were awkward. He didn’t mention the George Washington Bridge by name, or cars or traffic cones. He didn’t have to. “The last week has certainly tested this administration,” he ventured, wearing an appropriately rueful face. “Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better.” He also made a pledge. “We will co-operate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure that this breach of trust does not happen again.”
He might have hoped the rest of his speech would change the subject. No chance. The scandal is too fresh and its chapters are not all written. A new special investigating committee at the State Assembly is about to step up its work, first by pressing some of those allegedly involved to testify. Notable among them will be Bridget Kelly, the fired deputy Chief of Staff, who famously sent that text message to David Wildstein of the Port Authority that controls the bridge that read: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Fort Lee is the township through which commuters must drive to reach the bridge that connects Jersey to Manhattan. As the story goes, its mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, had failed to endorse Mr Christie for re-election last year; the lane closures and the ensuing four-day traffic nightmare were his punishment.
Mr Christie said in a press conference last week he had been in the dark ever since last September when this happened. His White House hopes are not cooked yet but they will be if anything new surfaces that exposes that to be a lie. “It’s clearly an abuse of power,” State Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, a Democrat, offered. “The question is, who abused their power and how high did it go?”
There was something else he said in that press conference – that he had barely talked with Mr Wildstein after putting him in his top post at the Port Authority. So it was tricky when the Wall Street Journal dug up a picture of the two of them at a Ground Zero ceremony in Manhattan on one of the days that the gridlock was in full swing. Did they not talk about it then?