In his run-up to a monster re-election win, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie began wooing support from Democratic mayors and politicians throughout the state, in a bid to showcase his bipartisan chops. Over 50 democratic politicians, for one reason or another, decided to back Christie. But Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of the North Jersey town of Fort Lee, refused to join the herd.
On Sept. 9, two of the three lanes leading from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge, the busiest in the country, were magically closed for a “traffic study,” without notifying police, emergency officials or anyone within the New York side of the Port Authority. The closure created a “horror story” of traffic jams in Fort Lee the next day (which also happened to be the first day of school) and endured for four days, finally re-opening on Sept. 13 on the orders of the Port Authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye, who called them “abusive.”
Public policy in preparation for the Super Bowl, or political retaliation for defying Christie’s wishes?
Political pundits across the country have picked up this story. Dubbed “Bridgegate,” Democrats smell blood in the Hudson River, and contend this episode of political bullying showcases a hidden side of Christie that upends his well-crafted image of bipartisan-in-chief. After a few days of enduring the traffic snarls, Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich sent a letter to former Port Authority executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, saying, “We are reaching the conclusion that there are punitive overtones associated with this initiative.”
Sokolich has since backed off the letter and gotten remarkably quiet, and Christie has downplayed any role in the scandal. That leaves it resting on the shoulders of two of his political appointees in the Port Authority – Baroni and former director of interstate capital projects David Wildstein.
I have to admit – it was a bit weird drawing this cartoon, because unlike most of the figures that end up in my political cartoons, I know David Wildstein. Under the alias “Wally Edge,” Wildstein hired me to draw cartoons for the then-PoliticsNJ.com, and later for the New York Observer when they bought out Wildstein and renamed it PolitickerNJ.com. It was my first staff cartooning job, and I’ll always be appreciative of Wildstein for giving me the opportunity, and respect his encyclopedic knowledge of politics.
I want so badly for Wildstein’s documents to show clearly that it was indeed a legitimate traffic study that shut down the lanes on the George Washington Bridge. That he was just doing his job and not participating in what amounts to a political prank that could have threatened the lives of people waiting for police or EMS vehicles snarled in traffic.
But so far, there’s no indication that will be the case. Baroni has said it would be necessary to do a study of traffic lanes dedicated to Fort Lee, host town of this year’s Super Bowl, but Foye testified that there was no such study. In fact, according to emails obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Baroni personally tried to keep the public in the dark about the lane closures.
Both have submitted subpoenaed documents to the Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, so we’ll see what comes out of it. However, don’t expect a political Rosetta Stone showing Christie’s explicitly ordered the lanes closed as political retribution. Christie is many things, but he’s not dumb enough to expose himself to the fallout this type of hair-brained plot promised to deliver
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible.
He may claim he had no involvement in the lane closures, but Christie vetoed legislation back in 2012 that would have brought greater oversight to the Port Authority, and prevent the type of partisanship and politics that Baroni and Wildstein are alleged to have promoted. It would have also helped to reign in spending – overtime costs reached $90 million in 2012, and are up 30 percent this year, and questions still remain how revenue from toll hikes across area bridges and tunnel are used. Christie also called New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to complain about Foye’s attempts to get to the bottom of why the lanes were closed, according to the Wall Street Journal.
So what did the Governor, who rails all the time about being a straight-talker and the need for transparency say when asked why he was pressuring an investigation into the lane closures? Nothing. But his spokesman said he talks to Cuomo regularly, but “those conversations are private.”
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.