As the fallout from what’s come to be called “Bridgegate” widens and reaches deeper into Gov. Chris Christie’s high-level staff, the emerging consensus is that, absent definitive evidence directly implicating the governor, he’ll succeed in moving past it and get his administration and his political future back on track.
No one, however, is ready to concede that the issue is closed. Investigations by the Assembly Transportation Committee and the United States Attorney will continue well into 2014, guaranteeing the story will dominate the political environment and each new revelation will land on the front pages and lead nightly television newscasts.
And one thing the investigations are almost certain to reveal is just how autonomous the governor’s senior staff actually is — a critical concern given Christie’s continue assertion that his staffers operated without his knowledge.
What began last September as an amateurish and ill-conceived political power play has exploded into a scandal, drawing comparisons to Watergate as it makes its way inexorably up the chain of command to Christie.
After months of insisting that closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee was part of an officially sanctioned traffic study by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the cover story collapsed when it was revealed that Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, set the events in motion with the now infamous e-mail to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Authority staff: “It’s time for some traffic troubles in Fort Lee.”
The lane closings were seen as inflicting punishment on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for rebuffing overtures for his endorsement of Christie’s reelection by creating traffic chaos, inconveniencing thousands of commuters, and jeopardizing public safety.
As the scandal grew, the administration was accused of an egregious abuse of governmental power in furtherance of political ends.
In a two-hour news conference, Christie apologized; insisted he was personally unaware of the scheme or of any staff involvement; eviscerated Kelly as a deceiving, betraying liar; and fired her. He also cut ties with his campaign manager Bill Stepien for his denigrating e-mail comments about the scandal.
Documents released since the news conference suggest that others close to Christie were aware of and played a role in an orchestrated effort to maintain the traffic study rationale and stonewall reporters pursuing the story.
All governor’s offices have their own staff structure, reflecting the desires and style of the chief executive. One trait in common, though, is those at the structure’s top — chief of staff, chief counsel, policy chief, and press secretary — are normally a fairly tight-knit group, often sharing history with one another as well as with the governor they serve, either through political endeavors or professional affiliation.
They share information and seek each others’ advice. Conflicts are a normal part of their workday and it is not at all unusual for a suggestion floated by one to be disputed by a colleague.
All have direct access to the governor and frequently call on subordinates in their respective offices to engage in debate and discussions of policy or political concerns.
What worries one, worries the group and it is logical to assume that, in the case of the access lane closures, information was circulated to guard against being caught unaware by public disclosure of an issue or an incident in which the office may be involved.
The top staffers are free to operate with a great deal of autonomy and discretion, having earned the trust and confidence to do so. It is their decision whether to bring an issue to the attention of the governor or deal with it at their level. There is no one single criteria for such decisions; each is different because circumstances are different.
(Full disclosure: I served as press secretary for Gov. Tom Kean for eight years and as communications director for Gov. Christie Whitman for three years.)
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has displayed adept and skillful leadership in chairing the investigating committee, has said he intends to subpoena Kelly, Stepien, and numerous other administration officials mentioned in the documents.
Presumably, when they are questioned, greater insight will be gained into the functioning of Christie’s office and how and with whom information was shared.
While thus far there’s been no indication in the thousands of pages of documents released under subpoena or in testimony before the investigating committee that Christie was personally involved in the scheme or in after-the-fact attempts to justify it as a traffic study, the governor has suffered serious damage to his credibility, reputation, and second-term effectiveness.
He’s been praised in some quarters for accepting ultimate responsibility for the scandal and for acting decisively to hold accountable those responsible.
To a person, those speaking in support of the governor, add a caveat that should he be implicated or should it develop that he was aware before or after the fact, his career is over.
Wisniewski, on the other hand, has been adamant in his belief that Kelly — despite being a part of the Administration’s inner circle — could have concocted and implemented the lane closure on her own. He has hinted repeatedly that in a governor’s office with a reputation for tightly controlling events and information, others were aware of the scheme.
While the Assemblyman may have gotten out over his skis a bit with his announcement that a crime was committed and that Christie risked impeachment if he was involved in any way, the mere fact that his comments were received as a newsworthy contribution to the debate is a jarring indication of how deeply the scandal has infected the climate.
Setting aside the speculation over the impact on Christie’s potential as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, the scandal has cut the ground from beneath his carefully crafted image as a strong and tough leader unafraid to seek common ground with opposition Democrats and reach compromises for the greater good of New Jerseyans.
He’s suffered hammer blows accusing him of creating a culture in his office in which retribution and vindictiveness can thrive, be accepted, and celebrated. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from former Gov. Tom Kean — still the most revered and respected governor in the state’s history — who, on national television, questioned whether the darker qualities in Christie’s nature were what Americans desired in a president.
To the legion of Christie watchers, his news conference response, “I am not a bully,” was startling, not merely because of its inherently defensive connotation, but because it reminded them of the governor’s public denunciations as idiots and jerks those who disagreed with him. Such language is, by definition, bullying.
Christie became a lame duck governor the instant his reelection was confirmed. The damage done by the scandal has exacerbated that status, potentially undermining his effectiveness in winning legislative approval of his agenda, or in maintaining the party discipline which marked his first term.
Legislators will no longer fear retribution for their actions from a governor who has been scandal-wounded and can no longer wield political clout with the same impact.
That may well be the ultimate lesson of the GWB.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
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