Chris Christie was my favorite Republican – he seemed genuinely interested in bipartisanship; and to be so popular in a traditionally Democrat state had to be a good thing, right? Sure, I was troubled by his typically Republican bashing of public employees – especially teachers; and his right-wing views on abortion even though he was not constantly advocating for draconian restrictions on the procedure. And some of his tirades against those who displeased him occasionally seemed abusive. But if the Democrats continue to be unable to get their act together and lose the White House after Obama, I thought Chris Christie would be the easiest to stomach of the entire Republican pack.
Bridge-gate is only marginally about what Governor Christie knew and when he knew it. Far more important is what it says about the kind of operation he runs, the tone he allows to be set and the people he chooses to help him execute his vision for the state of New Jersey. Somehow, Bridget Ann Kelly thought it was OK to use her political power to punish people perceived to be political enemies of Governor Christie’s. Ms. Kelly had been on the Governor’s staff for 3 years. The governor was impressed enough with her work to promote her in April 2013. She knew his work style, she knew what was important to him, and she knew what she could get away with. A deputy chief of staff is not a clerk. They are involved in high level planning and policy making decisions. They have an extremely high level of access to the boss; and they have the authority to make decisions in the bosses name. Her decision to order the closing of those lanes was petty, childish, unempathetic and uninsightful. It demonstrated an inability to consider the possible consequences to her boss. She was a bully. But, as a very experienced political staffer, she must have thought she could get away with it. Either that, or she was following instructions from someone higher than her.
Her colleague at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, doesn’t fare much better. At his level, he shouldn’t be a yes man. The public has a right to expect to be equally served by public servants like Mr. Wildstein. He could have stopped this simply by refusing to do it. But he was a Christie political appointee and childhood friend or acquaintance, depending on who you talk to, of the Governor’s. So he did nothing. Not even a wimpy “are you sure you really want to do this?” He went along with it, like a lamb led to slaughter. Maybe because he knew it was futile; maybe because he knew the Governor expected payback of some kind for the promotion.
I find it hard to believe that Governor Christie knew nothing about Ms. Kelly’s actions. But even if he was so grossly uninformed, it is still not good for him. He had a deputy chief of staff who had no problem lying to him about an issue that could derail his political future. Are we to believe the Governor had no idea that his deputy was so ethically challenged? He’s either a bad judge of character or he was just fine with Ms. Kelly, just the way she was.
Those of you who are waiting for Ms. Kelly to “straighten everything out” are in for a long wait. She’s going to lay low. She has a career as a political staffer to protect and if she allows herself to be thrown under the bus by this boss, chances are she’ll get another job with another politician once Bridge-gate blows over. The only deal breaker I can see is if she is criminally charged.
One thing Chris Christie cannot get around is his past behavior. He’s bullied before – we have all seen it. He’s been accused before of retaliating against those who publicly disagree with him. The second thing he cannot get around is that we are known by the company we keep. Is he just a smart, no BS guy who doesn’t know a bully when he sees one? Or is he a smart, no BS kind of guy who bullies to remind everyone that he’s top dog and figures he can get more done if his staff behaves the same way?
The third thing he cannot get around is the timetable. This played out over an extended period of time. Three of his close political appointees resigned their positions over the last 3 months as a direct result of Bridge-gate. Are we to accept his word that these people did not tell him the truth about why they were leaving? And that he accepted their reasons? Isn’t Chris Christie too good a politician for that?
So what is it? Is Chris Christie a gifted, articulate, plain-spoken politician with aspirations to the highest office of the land who bullies his underlings to make a point or is he an affable buffoon who doesn’t know what is happening in his own office?
For those of you who think this scandal compares in any way to the faux Obama scandals desperately drummed up by congressional Republicans, consider the following points. The IRS scandal was started in a regional IRS office by overzealous local agents not under the direct supervision of the President; and a close investigation proved that just as many left leaning as right leaning non-profit groups were targeted. The investigation fizzled because no one in the Obama administration did anything wrong. And it can be convincingly argued that no one in the IRS did anything wrong. The same is true for Benghazi. No dereliction of duty linked to anyone on the President’s staff. If there were anything at all to pin on the President in either of those “scandals” I really think the Republicans in Congress would be getting somewhere in their efforts to impeach the President. The fact that they are not speaks volumes.
Getting back to the Governor, this is only the beginning of the investigation and scandal. The New Jersey legislature is now involved as is the US Attorney General’s office. After his marathon press conference, where his willingness to answer questions was praised by many, Chris Christie seems to be lying low. We’ll have to wait and see what unfolds.