Last September, the Port Authority announced a traffic study would shut down two lanes of the George Washington bridge. Massive traffic jams ensued in Fort Lee, the town connected to New York City via the bridge. Reporting by The Wall Street Journal and the Bergen Record revealed that the traffic delays might have had a somewhat more sinister origin. Fort Lee’s mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, failed to endorse Christie prior to November’s gubernatorial election. Christie still won by 22 percent, but his deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly still thought it wise to email Port Authority and tell them it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” It's not clear what the lane closures were payback for but judging from Kelly's tone they were payback for something.
The number of investigations
Two, with an option for a third. Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey is looking into the matter, and a state Assembly commission has already issued 20 subpoenas. Yesterday, the separate state Senate and Assembly groups joined forces.
The key players
Mark Sokolich: The mayor of Fort Lee, who bore the brunt of many of the released emails and texts. When Christie said he was going to visit Sokolich to apologize, the mayor told Christie, using CNN as a conduit, "Call the folks that had to deal with traffic Armageddon that week. Don't call me." After Christie insisted on apologizing anyway, he said, "When I was also speaking to you folks while the governor was conducting his press conference, I had indicated that, you know, maybe it wouldn't be productive (for him) to come up now, and I explained to the governor that wasn't to be disrespectful. It was just to -- wouldn't it make more sense to do this once the investigation was concluded? The governor respectfully insisted, and we certainly would welcome any governor, and especially our governor .... with open arms, as we did."
Port Authority: The agency responsible for the traffic jam, which happens to be filled with spoils-system appointees of the Christie administration. Elizabeth Kolbert sums up the history between New Jersey’s governor and Port Authority: “As soon as Christie took office, in 2010, he set about staffing the agency with his supporters. A lawsuit filed by a former employee revealed that within two years the new administration had sought berths at the Port Authority for nearly fifty loyalists. These included Wildstein, who attended high school with Christie, in Livingston, and was hired as the agency’s interstate-capital-projects director, at a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. (Wildstein resigned last month.) The patronage push made front-page news in the Bergen Record in early 2012, a development that should have been chastening to the Christie administration, but wasn’t. By the end of the year, the patronage count at the agency had reportedly reached eighty."
Paul Fishman: The U.S. attorney of New Jersey, he was nominated to succeed Chris Christie when he became governor in 2009. He’s at the head of all the current federal inquiries into the governor’s office. When it comes to his job, he’s also Christie’s polar opposite. As a Wall Street Journal story on Fishman phrased it, “while Mr. Christie is known for his tough-talking, tell-it-like-it-is style as governor and as the U.S. attorney preceding Mr. Fishman, Mr. Fishman takes a low-key approach. ‘He is no swashbuckler.’”
His office is currently “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated." His office also said "It is the policy of our office to neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations."
John Wisniewski: A Democratic assemblyman from Middlesex, who is the co-chair of the commission investigating the bridge scandal. Rudy Giuliani thinks he should recuse himself from the commission because, "In his mind, he has already completed this investigation even before it starts, and will attempt to use his committee to prove his conclusion. This should be more than enough to disqualify him from heading up the investigation." Wisniewski responded that he has no intention of stepping down, but he has also stepped away from previous statements that Christie should be impeached. He is the only lawmaker to mention this as a potential outcome of the investigation.
Chris Christie: The entire purpose of the multiple investigations is to ascertain whether Christie was in fact a key player in the traffic jam. He has denied involvement, and has fired the staffers who were tied to the scandal.
The basic details
The U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey is looking into accusations that Chris Christie withheld Hurricane Sandy relief in Hoboken--a city of 52,000, about 11 percent of which are Republican--for political reasons. Hoboken’s mayor said she applied for $130 million in aid and only received $300,000.
The number of investigations
One, so far. The joint-legislative committee looking into the Fort Lee scandal has not decided whether to widen their probe to include the accusations in Hoboken. Based on what they’ve been saying, it looks likely, but not so soon after they launched their first committee. The Hoboken spending shortage isn’t the only Sandy-related issue getting federal attention. Auditors from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are also looking into some storm funding that was allocated, namely $25 million set aside for a post-Sandy tourism campaign.
The key players
Dawn Zimmer: The first female mayor of Hoboken. She took office after her predecessor, Peter Cammarano, went to jail for a pay-to-play scheme. Zimmer racked up some national attention for Hoboken’s crumbling infrastructure in 2011. After Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, she became a go-to specialist in the devastation for the cyclone of journalists that also descended upon New Jersey. Her first political achievement was stopping a high-rise redevelopment project while on the Hoboken city council. She told reporters in May 2011 that she would endorse Christie “if the election was tomorrow, yes. But there’s two more years. A lot can happen in two years.” Zimmer has met with federal prosecutors regarding her allegations, and has provided diary entries and emails to back up her statements. Zimmer has made it clear she’s not positive there’s a direct connection between the funding shortage and the slow development developments.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno: Zimmer says that Guadagno told her in a Shop-Rite parking lot(!) in Hoboken last May that the city’s remaining Hurricane Sandy funding would be held up unless the mayor expedited a development project that Christie had a special interest in promoting. The Rockefeller Group, which is in charge of the 2 million square feet of planned office space, is represented by a law pal of Christie, and as Hunter Walker reported this week, has a history of making campaign donations to New Jersey politicians. At a Martin Luther King Jr. event on Monday, Guadagno said the allegations were “particularly offensive” to her because she thought they were friends. "The mayor asked me to help her find a company to fill it and we did. Right now Pearson Education is on the waterfront — they created hundreds of job — so yes I'm very surprised, by the mayor's allegations and I deny wholeheartedly those allegations. I thought we had a good relationship."
Port Authority: The agency is also at the center of this scandal, thanks to the fact that Rockefeller Group is represented by Wolff & Samson PC, the law firm of the chair of the Port Authority, David Samson. Samson also happens to be a Christie adviser. Former Christie aide Lori Grifa is also a lobbyist at Rockefeller.
Chris Christie: Did he withhold Hurricane Sandy aid from Hoboken? Did he know about Guadagno's stealth supermarket visit? Does he just have an especially rogue band of staffers? Who knows.
What this could mean for Christie
Unless the two investigations manage to find that the governor did know about his office’s angry traffic-jam orchestrating—or worse, that he was in on it —the George Washington Bridge scandal looks like it will remain in the relatively low-stakes zone of being bad PR for Christie—burning bridges rather than being implicated for backing them up. Christie’s approval ratings have dropped by nearly 20 percentage points since his re-election according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released today. His popularity among voters who use the George Washington bridge regularly has dropped to 37 percent. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that the hypothetical match-up between Christie and Hillary Clinton has the Democrat in the lead where they were once tied … but hold your horse race. With nearly two years to go until the presidential election, we have no idea who will win the primaries, no idea who will run in the primaries, and no idea what voters will remember about the candidates by the time they head out on the trail.
What about the potential criminal consequences of Bridgegate? As mentioned above, Wisniewski has said "using the George Washington Bridge, a public resource, to exact a political vendetta, is a crime. Having people use their officials position to have a political game is a crime. So if those tie back to the governor in any way, it clearly becomes an impeachable offense." However, he’s since backed away from this statement, and Democrats pursuing the investigation seem most intent on quashing his future electoral ambitions instead of kicking him out of office. The scandals are also revealing the holes in New Jersey Republicans’ political strategy since Christie was elected. As a political scientist at Monmouth University told Politicker NJ last week, “It’s been the Chris Christie Party, and now that Christie is off the scene we have no indication of what’s going to take his place.” Between the staff firings—likely to continue if the investigations continue to ramp up—and the waning popularity of Christie’s brand of politicking, rank-and-file Republicans may stand to lose the most from the Fort Lee and Hoboken scandals.
The Hoboken scandal, however, has the potential to be more than a political headache for Christie. A story published by the Star-Ledger today quoted a Fordham law professor saying, "Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls. But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.” State senate president Steve Sweeney echoed this statement when interviewed by the Wall Street Journal this week: "These new revelations suggest a pattern of behavior by the highest ranking members of this administration that is deeply offensive to the people of New Jersey. If true, they could be illegal."
The many, many New Jersey Democrats who have spoken out against Christie since the emails and texts from his office were released mean that the governor is likely to have political difficulties ranging outside the realm of hypothetical future elections too. Expect the George Washington Bridge and Hoboken’s Hurricane Sandy aid to be frequent supporting players in Christie’s remaining policy battles while governor.
The most likely outcome of both of these investigations is a noticeable drop in Christie’s electoral influence and promise. Republicans across the country are starting to get scared of what the scandals in New Jersey could mean for them—especially since Christie is the most visible Republican governor in the country right now because of his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association. Ken Cuccinelli, who failed to beat Terry McAuliffe for Virginia’s gubernatorial seat last November said that Christie should step down, an opinion that could gain support if the investigations continue for months and, especially, if the bad publicity makes it difficult to raise money for the organization.
In the end, the chief outcome of this investigation seems to be character study rather than criminal charges. As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson asked in her summation of the two investigations, “What are we ready to believe about Christie now—and about the kind of President he might be?”