Like many people, I was reluctant to buy the idea that September’s traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge were a political conspiracy because the conspiracy would have had to have been so stupid.
Well, now it looks like the conspiracy was real, and really stupid.
The purpose of closing local toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge was, I suppose, to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) for declining, unlike many other Democratic municipal officials, to endorse Gov. Chris Christie (R) for re-election. This morning, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers obtained emails and text messages among top Christie aides and Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey suggesting that was indeed the agenda.
In August, Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly emailed David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
But after closing the lanes, Team Christie refused to return Sokolich’s calls, leaving him confused about whether he was even being penalised. “My frustration now is trying to figure out who is mad at me” Sokolich texted Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni (R), a Christie appointee, three days into the traffic problems.
How does it work to punish somebody if they don’t even know they’re being punished?
Christie’s appointees were wrong to think this was a good way to pressure Sokolich (which I assume was their intention) and they were also wrong to think other people wouldn’t notice. A traffic jam, after all, doesn’t just affect Democratic officeholders; it affects all sorts of people who drive through Fort Lee at morning rush hour.
At first, the messages among Christie’s team about the traffic jams were gleeful (“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote of kids stuck on school buses) but that glee turned to alarm as both the media and Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), took notice. “Ted Mann just called my cell,” Wildstein texted Baroni on Sept. 17, referring to the Wall Street Journal’s transportation reporter. “Jesus,” responded Baroni.
Why wouldn’t the Journal’s transportation reporter be interested in an inexplicable traffic change that caused hours of traffic delays at one of the most important crossings in the New York area? And wasn’t it obvious that New York officials at the Port Authority would ask questions about why Christie’s people were screwing around with bridge traffic?
One of the key raps on Christie is that he’s a “bully” and that he engages in naked power politics. That rap hasn’t hurt him with voters — until now — because they perceived Christie as bullying people who deserved to be bullied and using strong-arm political tactics to make New Jersey’s government work better. Christie’s governing style led to bipartisan agreements on budgets and employee benefits reform, and the targets of his ire were unpopular: teachers’ unions and distrusted municipal officials.
But now we’re seeing an example of Christie’s team doling out punishment in a way that was both incompetent and petty. This isn’t just about the Christie administration engaging in unseemly retributive politics; it’s about them being bad at it.
The messages released today don’t provide any indication that Christie knew about the Fort Lee plan. But either he knew or he fostered a culture where his employees assumed this was what he would want them to do. Either way, it’s not presidential.
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