New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he was “misled” by an aide who told an executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey it was “time for some traffic problems” before lane closings that paralyzed a town whose Democratic mayor didn’t endorse him.
Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, sent the message to David Wildstein, a Christie authority appointee, on Aug. 13, according to e-mails obtained today. Wildstein, who ordered the four-day closings on the George Washington Bridge, replied: “Got it.”
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said today in a statement. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”
“This type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
Kelly, who lives in Ramsey, didn’t respond to an e-mail earlier in the day seeking comment on the closings and didn’t immediately respond to another after Christie’s statement.
Christie, 51, a Republican who may run for president in 2016, has said he had nothing to do with the tie-ups in September that froze traffic in Fort Lee, the New Jersey town that abuts the bridge to Manhattan.
“They were playing hardball politics and doing it with something that affected the lives of the average resident just trying to commute,”said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It furthers the accusation that Christie and the people who surround him are very tough political people.”
The governor, who has said the closings were for a traffic study, canceled an appearance today in Ocean County after the messages were revealed. Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed, spokesmen for Christie, didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Christie’s opponents have said the closings were orchestrated to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t break party lines to support the governor, who went on to defeat Democrat Barbara Buono by a 23 percentage-point margin in the Nov. 5 election.
“Right away, people were saying it was about me and the failure to endorse,” Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said on CNN. “I always dismissed it as not being important enough. Who would possibly reduce themselves to closing lanes at the busiest bridge in the world and putting my town in harm’s way?”
National Democrats said the governor should cooperate with investigations of the closing. The transportation committee of the Democrat-controlled New Jersey Assembly has held hearings on the matter and subpoenaed people to answer questions. Wildstein is scheduled to testify under oath before the panel tomorrow.
“Chris Christie’s statement tonight neither takes responsibility nor answers many of the central questions that were raised with this morning’s revelations,” Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a news release. “The governor, his administration and his allies broke the public trust, and New Jerseyans deserve more than his customary bluster and deflection.”
The closings spurred chaos on the roads in Fort Lee. At 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 10, Sokolich sent a text to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, saying the borough had “four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth,” on what the authority says is the world’s busiest bridge.
His text became part of a string discussing the closings. The record doesn’t include the identities of participants other than Sokolich.
“The bigger problem is getting kids to school,” Sokolich wrote. “Help, please. It’s maddening.”
The text string includes a response: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Baroni, a former state senator, resigned Dec. 13. Wildstein, a high-school friend of Christie’s, has also quit.
The e-mails link David Samson, Christie’s appointed Port Authority chairman, to the affair. In one message, Wildstein told Kelly that Samson was “helping us to retaliate” for New York traffic officials’ easing of the jam on what would have been the fifth day.
Christie’s leadership after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, devastating shore towns, earned him record approval ratings. The bridge affair shows that his strength as “a tough, aggressive, does-what-he wants kind of politician” also may be his biggest vulnerability, Zelizer said.
“Underneath that is another story about a guy who will go too far and seek retribution against those who don’t support him,” Zelizer said. “His opponents now see how you can turn his story against him.”