Chris Christie’s supporters will argue that Friday’s criminal developments in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal erase any tarnish on the New Jersey governor’s presidential chances. It may not be so easy.
David Wildstein, a former Christie ally, pleaded guilty to conspiring to create traffic jams to punish a mayor for not endorsing the governor’s 2013 re-election. Bridget Kelly, a former Christie aide, and Bill Baroni, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, were indicted for their roles in the controversy.
“I am relieved that someone stood up and accepted responsibility,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat and co-chair of a panel investigating the lane closings. “This is just the beginning.”
Christie, 52, has struggled to move past the scandal as he considers a 2016 bid for the Republican nomination. The governor said in a statement that the charges “make clear that what I’ve said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.”
“The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations,” he said. “Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job.”
Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for New Jersey, declined to answer numerous questions about Christie’s role, but made no indication he would be accused.
“Based on the evidence available to us today, we are not going to bring further charges on the bridge case,” Fishman said at a press conference in Newark.
Texas oilman Al Hill Jr., who donated the maximum $5,000 to Christie’s political action committee and is considering another donation to the super-PAC supporters have set up, said the charges are the start of a “resolution” in the matter.
“I feel good, but like everyone I’ll be glad when this finally gets sorted out,” Hill said. “It’s one of the things that had been used to smear him. This will start to take that off the table.”
The federal investigation continues, said Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas. He repeated his assertion that Christie knew of the lane closures “while they were occurring and evidence exists to establish that.”
“Mr. Wildstein is still being asked questions by the government and, if need be, is prepared to testify at trial,” Zegas told reporters outside federal court in Newark.
Even if Christie isn’t charged with a crime, voters will wonder “how did their governor surround himself with these kind of people,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“It will obviously raise questions for a presidential candidate,” Zelizer said. “It also brings the whole story back again very close to when Christie announces.”
Christie has said he expects to make his political intentions known in late May or June. The governor has trailed other Republicans in polls, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. His approval rating at home is at record lows after a year plagued by the traffic scandal, a lagging economic recovery and a record nine credit-rating downgrades.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University, said she believes Christie still intends to declare.
“The question at some point becomes why,” she said. “When you have 4 percent nationally in the polls and high negativity, eventually it becomes a fool’s errand. But I guess that’s for the governor to decide.”