Wildstein Operated Behind-the-Scenes Before Bridge AffairEsme E. Deprez, Mark Niquette and Michelle Kaske
Three decades before David Wildstein orchestrated the traffic jam now threatening New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s political future, his career as an elected official reached its peak.
Wildstein won a four-year term on the Livingston Township Council in 1984 and served a year as mayor. After that, he never sought office again, instead spending much of the rest of his career behind the scenes.
“David was a great, and probably still is a great, back-room guy,” said Republican Louis Bassano, now 71, who served in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly and employed Wildstein as a campaign manager. “He had the one taste of being an elected official and it really didn’t seem to grab hold. He thrived in the back room doing his strategy, putting the pieces of the puzzle together and helping elect people.”
In public statements and interviews with a dozen former colleagues, a picture of Wildstein, 52, emerges as a political operative who sought influence from a young age, working out of sight to control even the smallest details of municipal management in ways that struck some as intimidating.
Wildstein’s role in the September closing of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge thrust his work into the public eye. The furor over the events has dominated state politics, eroding Christie’s approval ratings and potentially derailing any national ambitions he holds.
Christie, 51, was a year behind Wildstein at Livingston High School. Years later, in 2010, Wildstein became the second-highest executive for the state at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He was named director of interstate capital projects during Christie’s first year in office.
E-mails that surfaced in early January indicated that a Christie aide, writing to Wildstein, suggested creating traffic in Fort Lee after Mayor Mark Sokolich hadn’t joined other state Democrats in endorsing the governor’s re-election.
In August, Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
In a letter released Jan. 31, Wildstein’s lawyer said Christie knew about the ensuing four-day traffic snarl at the bridge to Manhattan as it occurred, contradicting the second-term Republican’s assertions Jan. 9 that he had no knowledge of them.
The letter from the lawyer, Alan Zegas, said “evidence exists” of Christie’s knowledge, without citing any.
Christie responded by criticizing Wildstein in an e-mail to friends and supporters.
“Bottom line -- David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” Christie wrote. “In David Wildstein’s past, people and newspaper accounts have described him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not productive.’”
Christie’s e-mail pointed to statements by Zegas that Wildstein would talk about the closings if granted immunity from prosecution. Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during an appearance before lawmakers in January and refused to answer questions.
No one answered a knock at Wildstein’s home in Montville, New Jersey, or returned a call, seeking comment for this report.
Both Christie and Wildstein began their political careers before they graduated from high school in suburban Livingston, 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of New York City. Christie has said they met as youth volunteers on the Tom Kean for Governor campaign in 1977.
Wildstein was still in high school, bespectacled with a mop of dark-brown hair, when he sought a position on the Essex County Republican Committee, suing unsuccessfully to run after he was denied for being under 21, said Renee Green, the town clerk at the time. He also ran as a write-in for the board of education, winning just a handful of votes.
Wildstein gave away little of himself in his 1979 senior-year high-school yearbook. Classmates wrote inscriptions by their portraits listing honors and memberships, recalling trips and parties, and quoting lyrics from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Paul Simon. Wildstein wrote nothing.
Christie, a year behind him, posed with a grin as president of the junior class.
“We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school,” Christie said during his two-hour apology news briefing on Jan. 9. “You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”
Wildstein stood out for his meticulous detail while logging statistics for the baseball teams, said Tony Hope, who coached and taught physical education. Christie also played baseball, though the two were never on the same team, Hope said.
“They were two totally different individuals,” said Hope, 86. “Chris was always part of everything, a leader, a captain, a class president, whereas Wildstein very much kept to himself, very quiet, didn’t have that outgoing personality.”
After college, Wildstein returned to Livingston, where he was elected at 23 to a four-year term on the Township Council, including the year as mayor.
Wildstein’s role in the bridge imbroglio didn’t surprise Robert Leopold, a Democrat who served on the Township Council with him.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘David hasn’t changed in 30 years,’” said Leopold, who described Wildstein as a “bully.”
“The things he’s done are totally consistent with the way he behaved in the past,” he said.
Green, who was town clerk from 1976-2001 and later served on the council and as mayor, remembered Wildstein once asking her to work after hours and said he “got ballistic” when she refused.
“He was obsessed with power,” said Green, now 82. “He wanted power, power over everybody, and his way was through politics.”
Charles Tahaney, town manager from 1985 to 2005, disputed those characterizations. He said Wildstein was “friendly” and “nothing out of the normal.”
From the late 1980s to 2007, Wildstein split his time working in various roles in the state legislature and as an executive at Apache Mills, a family-owned manufacturer of floor mats sold globally and based in Calhoun, Georgia.
Wildstein’s work also included helping run campaigns. Bassano said Wildstein was instrumental as campaign manager in his first re-election to the Assembly, by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Only 22, Wildstein excelled at addressing residents’ concerns and lining up support from local officials to show unity, Bassano said from his home in Naples, Florida. He parsed voter information to find veterans, then sent them mailings showcasing Bassano’s legislative record addressing their concerns, the former lawmaker said.
Even as he worked in private industry, Wildstein remained a player in politics.
In 2000, he started PoliticsNJ.com, now called PolitickerNJ.com. He wrote a blog under the pseudonym Wally Edge, after the former New Jersey Republican governor. For years, readers didn’t know who “the Edge” was until he revealed himself and gave up the column to join the Port Authority.
In 2007, Jared Kushner, a New York City real-estate developer and chairman of the Observer Media Group, which publishes The New York Observer, provided financial backing to start a new site with Wildstein called Politicker.com.
Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt wrote in a Jan. 9 article about his experience working with Wildstein there, calling him “a big, forceful presence -- someone who made the floorboards rattle when he walked and gave the impression of a guy who you didn’t dare mess with.” He wore fancy suits, expensive shoes and a big, shiny watch, and was hard to read, Isenstadt wrote.
In December 2008, Wildstein fired the Politicker staff as revenue flagged. After calling Isenstadt personally to tell him, Wildstein held a conference call with the other reporters to fire them, and directed the tech staff to disable the employees’ e-mail accounts during the call, Isenstadt wrote.
In May 2010, Wildstein arrived at the Port Authority, which oversees crucial infrastructure for the biggest U.S. metropolitan area with an operating budget of about $3.5 billion. His salary was $215,020, which was later reduced by $65,000 without explanation, according to public records.
A 2012 article in the Record, a Bergen County newspaper, quotes Bill Baroni, a former Republican state senator and friend of Christie who was named the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, saying he hired Wildstein to “aggressively pursue” the governor’s priorities.
At Wildstein’s house in Montville Feb. 1, cars filled with reporters idled outside. Dogs inside barked. A copy of the New York Times, featuring a front-page article on him, sat untouched in the driveway.