Christie faces speculation about aides’ real motives in New Jersey bridge scandal

In his annual State of the State address Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) vowed to take steps to ensure the “breach of trust” that led to a turbulent political scandal will not happen again. (New Jersey Office of the Governor)

Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) struggled Tuesday to regain his footing, giving an address in which he called upon the state to refocus on his agenda. But his inability to explain the actions of top aides and allies in causing a massive days-long traffic jam has spawned a storm of conjecture about what their real motives may have been.

The explanation — that it was a move to punish a Democratic mayor who had refused to endorse Christie’s reelection bid — is being met with skepticism, both in the halls of the state capitol in Trenton and in Fort Lee, where the tie-up occurred for several days in September.

On Thursday, two special legislative committees will begin investigating the episode. The panels will have subpoena power, which means that in the coming weeks and months, a parade of former and current Christie administration officials — as well as many of the governor’s closest political associates — will be called to testify.

In his annual State of the State address, the governor touched upon the controversy only briefly, employing a phrase that has become classic among politicians who are trying to distance themselves from trouble in their own ranks.

“Mistakes were clearly made,” he said.

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A look at the traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge
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See how lane closures created a traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge.

Read the e-mails

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Documents related to alleged retribution by the Christie administration against mayors who did not endorse the New Jersey governor's reelection.

“I know our citizens deserve better,” he added. “I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state.”

Christie pledged to “cooperate with all appropriate inquiries” regarding the closure of two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. Recently revealed e-mails suggest it was done for political purposes.

Whether the governor will be able to move beyond the strife, however, will depend on various factors.

The chief unknown is what the investigations will uncover. But the Republican also faces a test of his formidable abilities to maintain alliances within his heavily Democratic state’s many political factions.

At the same time, the national GOP establishment will be monitoring the performance of the rising star who is its top prospect for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

Christie has received “positive, proactive feedback” from leading Republican donors, and he will continue to travel nationwide to raise money for GOP candidates, Mike DuHaime, his political strategist, said in an interview before the governor’s speech.

DuHaime added that Christie will go to Florida this week to headline a series of fundraisers for Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running for reelection.

In Trenton, there remain more questions than answers about why Christie’s allies did what they did.

“The missing link for me has always been: Why would you do such a thing?” said Loretta Weinberg (D), the state Senate majority leader, a frequent Christie antagonist who represents Fort Lee.

“Because nobody has come forth with the answer, everybody is left to speculate. I can’t give a logical explanation,” she said. “I’ve heard so many different theories that I can’t really offer more than conjecture.”

“We all talk to each other with, ‘Do you think . . .,’ ” Weinberg said.

The most popular theory is that Christie’s deputies were trying to punish Mark Sokolich, Fort Lee’s Democratic part-time mayor, because he had not endorsed the governor.

Sokolich declined a request for an interview, but one longtime member of the borough’s all-Democratic council said that explanation makes no sense.

Councilman Joseph L. Cervieri Jr. said the mayor discussed the possibility of endorsing Christie late last spring or in the early summer and quickly dismissed it.

“The whole conversation was maybe a two-minute conversation,” Cervieri said. That such a minor slight could trigger such a major retaliation months later, as the governor was heading for a landslide victory, is “a possibility — but what is the probability?”

Nor would that be in keeping with the kind of immediate, targeted retribution exacted of another Democratic mayor, Steven Fulop of Jersey City, who said his relations with the Christie administration were abruptly cut off after he declined to endorse the governor in July. That same day, Christie’s aides canceled Fulop’s meetings with administration officials regarding recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.

Cervieri has his own take, gleaned largely from speculation that he has heard in the news media: Perhaps Weinberg, who had tangled with Christie over judicial nominations, was the target.

Still other conjecture swirls around a billion-dollar redevelopment project that is underway at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

“Part of the marketing is easy access to the George Washington Bridge,” Weinberg said.

State legislators from both parties said Tuesday that Christie’s difficulties will not necessarily damage his standing with the Democratic-controlled legislature, which has worked unusually closely with the governor since he assumed office in January 2010.

Several Democrats said Christie’s friendly relationship with state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D) will continue to reap dividends for the governor as he pursues his agenda, which includes education reform, property tax cuts and revamping the state’s pension system.

Sweeney, speaking in the state Senate earlier Tuesday to open up a new session, did not blast Christie or his administration but offered a suggestion to his colleagues, saying, “The headlines and the recent press cannot become a distraction.”

“It’s a natural marriage,” state Sen. Joe Vitale (D) said of the Christie-Sweeney alliance. “It’s kind of like the nuclear option. They know they can blow each other up, but they don’t want to do that. I don’t see the bridge issue affecting that bond. That bond goes beyond that.”

Christie’s goals will need strong Democratic support. In his speech, the governor said that “no state has shown more bipartisan cooperation over the last four years than New Jersey,” and he urged legislators to “do it again.”

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R) said that “compromise” is the way governing works in New Jersey and that Christie “knows you need to give a little to get a little.”

Christie’s Democratic critics acknowledged that he is unlikely to face wrath from a legislature known for its clubby cross-party dealings.

“Christie knows how to exploit power and the way some of the legislators are controlled,” state Sen. Ronald Rice (D) said. “This place is old school. It’s about power and big money, and he hasn’t shaken that up.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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