Christie Traffic-Jam Crisis Poses Test of 2016 Prospects

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called a news conference today after disclosures that an aide triggered a days-long traffic jam as revenge, a revelation that threatens his national image and possible 2016 presidential run.

Christie's handling of claims that politics spurred lane closings that paralyzed a town at the end of the George Washington Bridge whose mayor didn’t endorse him will offer evidence of his leadership style and staying power. It also may be fodder for opponents portraying him as a bully.

Christie aides ordered the shutdown of the Fort Lee approach lanes to the bridge during four days in September to punish a Democratic mayor, according to e-mails obtained yesterday. Though Christie responded with harsh words for the aides, the furor endangers his claim to bipartisan leadership and distracts from his growing role within his party as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

“Every presidential candidate has issues that arise,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and press secretary in former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “How you handle it becomes a test of how good a candidate you are going to be.”

Christie, 51, sought late yesterday to slow the spreading damage from e-mails that showed one of his top aides telling an executive for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, that it was “time for some traffic problems.” The revelation showed for the first time that one of Christie’s leading assistants encouraged the closings.

Easy Win

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich didn’t break ranks -- as some other leading New Jersey Democrats did -- to endorse Christie for re-election last November against his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono. Christie swamped Buono, 60 percent to 38 percent.

“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,” Christie said in a statement. “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.”

Traffic Cones

The governor scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. today at the Statehouse. Last month, he said he had nothing to do with the lane closings, joking with reporters in Trenton that he personally blocked the traffic with cones.

The resulting gridlock delayed crews responding to four medical emergencies, including that of a 91-year-old woman who later died, according to an account yesterday by The Record, a daily newspaper covering North Jersey.

Part of Christie’s national appeal stems from his tendency toward spontaneous tough-guy moments replayed on Google Inc.’s YouTube. During his first term as governor, he used the terms “numb nuts” and “jerk” to describe some Democratic lawmakers, and told reporters to “take the bat out” on a 76-year-old state senator who was collecting a state-funded pension and paycheck. One summer night on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, he exchanged insults with a critic while holding an ice-cream cone.

‘Big Story’

For all his bravado, though, Christie cooperated with Democrats who dominate the legislature to change benefits for public workers, including raising the retirement age and requiring higher employee contributions for health benefits. And days before the 2012 presidential race, he praised and publicly embraced Democratic President Barack Obama -- who was seeking re-election -- for the White House’s initial response to the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

The Christie administration’s ties to the September traffic jam is “the first big story that has stuck” as a negative for him on the way to a possible 2016 presidential run, said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs.

The Christie aides “were playing hardball politics and doing it with something that affected the lives of the average resident just trying to commute,” Zelizer said. “It furthers the accusation that Christie and the people who surround him are very tough political people.”

The potential fallout “suggests his great vulnerability,” he added.

Two Years

The episode comes roughly two years before any votes will be cast in the battle for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie “needs to be aggressive and blunt” in his response, said Ari Fleisher, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush.

“He needs to show his anger and dismay, and he needs to announce staff dismissals and apologize to all the travelers who were inconvenienced and to the mayor of Fort Lee,” Fleisher said in a telephone interview.

Democrats reveled in Christie’s predicament, seeing it as a way to undercut their potential opponent for the White House. The Democratic National Committee has produced videos on the lane closings and repeatedly termed it a “scandal.”

The statement Christie issued yesterday “neither takes responsibility nor answers many of the central questions that were raised” by the new e-mails, Michael Czin, the DNC’s national press secretary, said in a statement. “It’s time that the so-called ‘straight talking’ governor takes some of his own advice -– and he can do that by cooperating with all investigations surrounding the politically-motivated lane closures and ensuring his staff and associates do the same.”

Talking Point

More important for Christie is how the traffic-jam story will be viewed by Republican activists in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that hold the early nomination contests.

“I suspect those Republicans already cool toward a Christie candidacy have a new talking point, but for the vast majority of Iowa Republicans this issue is not remotely on their radar screen,” said Matt Strawn, a former state party chairman.

An outline of the Christie administration’s link to the jams was contained in a cache of e-mails and text messages obtained yesterday by Bloomberg News and other news organizations.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, wrote to David Wildstein, a high-school friend of Christie’s whom the governor appointed to the Port Authority.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

‘Going Nuts’

From Sept. 9 to 12, delays in crossing the George Washington Bridge that typically last about 30 minutes stretched to 4 hours or more. On the fifth day, officials on the New York side re-opened lanes on what the Port Authority calls the busiest bridge in the world, a key link for U.S. East Coast traffic on Interstate 95.

“We are appropriately going nuts,” Wildstein wrote to Kelly on Sept. 13, as traffic flowed. David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman, was “helping us to retaliate” for the easing of the snarls.

The Port Authority media staff didn’t respond to telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment yesterday.

At 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 10, Sokolich sent a text to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, saying Fort Lee had “four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth.”

Buono Voters

His text became part of a string discussing the closings. The record doesn’t include the identities of participants other than Sokolich, who at times is referred to as “the Serbian,” and his town, Fort Lee, as “Serbia.”

“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 from the port authority on Dec. 13. Wildstein also has quit.

Buono yesterday called for a federal investigation.

“The governor has created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens’ lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance,” she said in a statement. “It’s beneath the dignity of his office and a breach of New Jerseyans’ trust.”

The transportation committee of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly has overseen hearings on the matter and subpoenaed people to answer questions. Wildstein is to testify under oath today.

A judge this morning is hearing an emergency request to quash a subpoena compelling Wildstein’s testimony. His lawyer claims that Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is chairman of the committee, issued the subpoena without proper authority and may not have signed it.

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