By Annie Linskey
Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) -- As New Jersey’s Democratic Party chairman from 2010 to 2013, John Wisniewski’s job was to attack Chris Christie on everything, from his spending of federal disaster aid to his personal use of a state helicopter. Few listened, and the Republican governor’s popularity soared.
These days people are paying attention. As leader of the Assembly Transportation Committee -- and armed with subpoena power -- Wisniewski is leading an investigation of lane closings at the George Washington Bridge that has dented any presidential ambitions for Christie. It was Wisniewski who subpoenaed documents that included the explosive and now-famous e-mail from a Christie aide, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The role is earning Wisniewski, a 51-year-old lawyer from Jon Bon Jovi’s native Sayreville, New Jersey, the kind of positive statewide name recognition that could propel him into the governor’s mansion, said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
“He was a voice in the wilderness, but now everyone is listening to him,” Baker said. “He is one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party.”
Along with the attention -- he’s a fixture on political television programs -- has come criticism. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Wisniewski lacks impartiality and should step down from the panel.
Wisniewski, in a Feb. 3 telephone interview, said politics aren’t driving the investigation.
“What the committee is asking for are the facts,” he said in an interview before an appearance on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” “There aren’t Democratic facts or Republican facts. There is the story of what actually happened here.”
The legislator, whose name is pronounced Wiz-NES-key, is trying to unravel why Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, ordered bridge-access lanes closed last September in Fort Lee, a town of 35,700 whose Democratic mayor refused to endorse Christie in the November election.
Wisniewski issued seven subpoenas in December, seeking documents from Port Authority officials. Last month, he issued another 20, including for Kelly, the governor’s office, his chief of staff and chief counsel, his longtime campaign manager and members of his press office. Feb. 3 was the deadline to deliver the documents. Most asked for extensions.
Wisniewski, who went to high school with Bon Jovi, towers over his colleagues at 6 foot 5 inches (1.95 meters). He graduated from Rutgers University before law school at Seton Hall University. He graduated in 1987, the same class as Christie’s, though they didn’t know each other.
Elected to the Assembly in 1995, Wisniewski built a record on consumer issues, including sponsoring legislation to require sprinklers in college dorms, drivers to remove snow from car roofs and more children to use booster seats. All became law. He’s also tackled transportation financing, using his committee to investigate EZ-pass toll collections.
He made a play to become the Assembly speaker in 2009 and considered a run for governor that year, he said. Instead he became party chairman in 2010 as Democrats, who control the legislature, contended with a popular Republican governor. Wisniewski was put in charge of redistricting, a torturous political exercise that has parties fighting over legislative boundaries.
Wisniewski again considered running for governor in 2013. He decided against it, citing obligations to his business and his wife and three daughters. His wife, Debbie, is office manager at his Sayreville law firm, which handles wills, land use and personal-injury claims.
Wisniewski first sought subpoena power for his transportation committee when he was probing the sudden announcement of a toll increase in August 2011, to $13 from $8, on two tunnels and four bridges operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. After initial objections from Republicans and some Democrats, in March 2012 the Assembly voted to grant him power to compel testimony. Even so, his hearings on the toll attracted little attention.
His committee’s subpoena power was still active when state Senator Loretta Weinberg, who represents Fort Lee, began complaining about the blocking of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which connects her district to New York City and is the busiest span in the world, according to the Port Authority.
“John reminded me that his assembly committee already had subpoena power,” Weinberg said in a telephone interview. “He said ’I can use it, but I don’t want to step on your toes.”
“I said: ’Feel free to step.’”
He did, and subsequently received 1,000 pages of documents including the e-mail from Kelly to David Wildstein, a one-time Christie ally who was a top official at the Port Authority and ordered the lane closings.
Christie, whose approval ratings are sliding, on Feb. 3 denied Wildstein’s claims that he was aware of the lane closures. He fired Kelly, while Wildstein and Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as the authority’s deputy executive director, resigned in December.
Wisniewski’s calm tone comes in handy under rapid-fire questioning. “Impeachment, resignation: What do those words mean to you in the context of your investigation?” CBS’s Major Garrett asked him on “Face the Nation.”
“One word: premature,” Wisniewski said.
“He’s an attorney, so he’s functioning as an attorney in the way he’s cross-examining and the way he’s reviewing information,” said Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney in an interview in his Trenton office. “That’s what he does for a profession.”
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican, described Wisniewski as smart and aggressive.
“He’s also known to be a fierce partisan,” O’Scanlon said. “I think his intelligence is enough to enable him to stay away from the partisanship, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.”
Wisniewski is an avid skier and biker. He just signed up for the 40-mile TD Five Boro Bike Tour in May. He’ll be crossing five bridges.