The day after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the furor over calculated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge won’t stymie a possible White House bid, he followed through by appearing at a Las Vegas meeting that included other Republican presidential prospects.
Christie, 51, was one of the speakers yesterday at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose leaders include billionaire casino owner and major political donor Sheldon Adelson.
Christie on March 28 had faced reporters in his home state after a review he commissioned cleared him of responsibility for four days of punishing traffic on bridge approaches in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the mayor didn’t endorse his re-election. The report instead blamed aides for the September snarls.
“It is always confidence-shaking and disappointing when people that you trust let you down,” Christie said when asked about the scandal at yesterday’s event. “As a leader of an organization, you’re ultimately responsible for that.”
Revelations that Christie aides and allies deliberately disrupted traffic at the world’s busiest bridge -- turning 30-minute commutes into three-hour ordeals -- have become the biggest political crisis in his career. Christie’s popularity among U.S. adults fell to 32 percent this month from 50 percent last June, according to a Bloomberg National Poll. The governor placed fifth among major candidates for president in a George Washington University Battleground Poll released March 25.
David Samson, Christie’s highest-ranking appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the George Washington Bridge, resigned as its chairman March 28. The former attorney general of New Jersey, Samson was linked by e-mails to the traffic jams.
Another appointee, former Deputy Executive Director William Baroni, resigned from the Port Authority in December.
Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to the governor, sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority, that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who ordered the closings, replied: “Got it.”
Kelly and Wildstein ordered the closings for “unclear ulterior motives,” the internal report concluded. Both declined to be interviewed by lawyers for Christie’s administration. Separate investigations are also being conducted by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and state lawmakers.
Kelly was fired by Christie after the disclosure in January of the e-mail exchange; Wildstein resigned his post the month before.
The governor’s hour-long March 28 press conference -- his first in 11 weeks -- featured him returning to feisty exchanges with reporters that had marked his interaction with the media before the scandal broke.
While acknowledging the dip in his poll numbers, he said he has time to recover before he has to make a decision on seeking the presidency.
“There’s nothing permanent about that -- like the same where there was nothing permanent about my standing being extraordinarily high,” Christie said. “In terms of my decision-making, it’s simply not the way I would make a decision. The way I’ll make a decision about whether to seek any future office would be -- do I think it would be what’s best for me and my family? And secondly, do I think I have something unique and particular to offer.”
Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant in South Carolina who worked on President George W. Bush’s 2000 primary campaign in the state, said the report and Samson’s resignation worked to put the scandal behind Christie. The scandal took place far enough before the vetting process for the 2016 presidential race to give the governor time to recover, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any question the momentum he had took a hit,” Felkel said yesterday in a telephone interview. “But I think it’s way too early to tell whether or not this has any long-term carryover.”
The gathering of the Republican Jewish group featured other possible Republican contenders in the 2016 White House contest, including Governors John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida was the group’s main dinner speaker on March 27.
Adelson was a major contributor in 2012 to the presidential bids by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He opposes Internet gambling, and has sparred in the past with Christie over New Jersey’s legalization of such wagering.
Christie told audience members that in the wake of the bridge affair, he will be less trusting.
“I think it’s about me being a lot more questioning about things that are going on,” he said, promising that he would no longer rely on “long-term relationships or past performance.”
The former U.S. attorney said he would “constantly ask questions and never become comfortable.”