A petty act of vengeance has left the governor of the state made famous by the fictional mob family woefully short of political allies
From The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire, Frank Sinatra to TV personality Snooki, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in New Jersey. Not least in Fort Lee, a dormitory town almost in the shadow of the George Washington bridge, where the ambitions of New Jersey governor and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie have been dealt a serious blow.
A few miles to the west is a roadside bar proclaimed as the original home of Tony Soprano's Bada Bing! club. The fictional Sopranos boss may have provided a template for the tough-guy style of leadership that Christie embodies, but even Tony would probably never have dreamed up a scheme for petty retribution like the one that Governor Christie's office implemented last September.
In a bid to punish Fort Lee's Democrat mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his refusal to endorse Christie's re-election bid, Christie's aides caused four days of traffic chaos. The George Washington bridge, which connects New Jersey to Manhattan, was in gridlock last September, with thousands of commuters inexplicably delayed. Emergency services caught up in the chaos reported that the hold-ups had contributed to the death of one patient in need of emergency care.
In damning email and text message correspondence made public last week, Christie's aides and political appointees merely congratulated each other on their handiwork. "Is it wrong that I am smiling?" asked one. Those smiles are now grimaces over a stunt that appears to carry huge political costs for no discernible gain.
On Thursday, Christie offered a meandering, 107-minute TV apology, denying any knowledge of the scheme and pronouncing himself shocked that three of his aides and appointees at the agency that administers the crossings should have engaged in such a plan.
However, a daily drip of revelations suggests that efforts to cover up the stunt reached deep into the governor's circle. Christie, who has been riding high in the polls as a rare, moderate Republican drawing diverse political support, may have been badly damaged. Whatever Christie's political future, Sokolich told him last week: "You just made New Jersey the brunt [sic] of every political joke for the next 25 years."
Fort Lee residents were split over whether to accept Christie's lengthy mea culpa and view the dismissal of three senior aides as a show of leadership, or to take it as a display of weakness in which loyal subordinates had been made to accept blame. "He's like a five-year-old child – an adult baby," said administrative aide Sasha Lagranskaya. "It's upsetting because it's inconceivable he knew nothing about this."
Documents released on Saturday appear to show that officials loyal to Christie went to elaborate lengths to obscure the true motivation for the snarl-up by trying to make it appear to have been part of a traffic study.
A local teacher, who as a state employee declined to be identified, said that even if Christie had no knowledge of the plan, it was typical of his bombastic style of politics: "There's an undertone of bad politics and corruption. It's punitive. New Jersey looks bad enough as it is."
Others, mindful that Christie represents the state's best chance for the top political office since Woodrow Wilson a century ago, said they were inclined to accept the governor's explanation.
"I believe he had nothing to do with it," said state employee Steve Goldstein. "He promptly got rid of his overzealous underlings and issued a mea culpa. Even if people thought he had anything to do with the affair, they'd also see that he's highly detail-orientated."
The release of emails sent in August calling for "traffic problems in Fort Lee" came as Christie, who was re-elected last year in heavily Democratic New Jersey with 60% of the vote, appears to be gaining momentum as the Republican presidential frontrunner who could win crucial Hispanic and black voters in 2016.
With timing that political commentators describe as odd, the "Bridgegate" correspondence came to light hours after the release of passages from the memoirs of former defence secretary Robert Gates claiming that Hillary Clinton told President Obama that she only voted against the 2007 Afghan troop surge for political reasons.
In a bad week for the 2016 frontrunners, both appeared to be lumbered with images they would sooner shed: Clinton as a political animal who will do what she needs to do for power; and Christie as a thin-skinned and heavyhanded man who has faced prior accusations of vindictive behaviour.
But the question of why his administration constructed an elaborate punishment for a seemingly insignificant slight remains unanswered. "I am who I am, but I am not a bully," Christie said in his address. But the Republican party leadership has been notably slow to come to his defence, suggesting that while he may be popular among voters, he lacks key political support. Still, Christie represents a rare conservative politician able to cross the political gulf that divides America.
But with the bridge episode now under federal investigation, wider attention is being paid to controversies that had remained largely unnoticed beyond New Jersey.
More than 1,300 state prisoners escaped in Christie's first 29 months in office, after New Jersey handed over inmates to privately run halfway houses. His administration spent money from a $60m federal fund earmarked for Hurricane Sandy recovery on advertising. And he has been accused of spending lavishly on trips and hotels only loosely connected to state business.
Longtime Fort Lee resident and businessman Robert Sisti said Christie had betrayed his own tough-guy values. "If you do something wrong, you apologise and that's it. You don't take up two hours of TV time giving a speech about how you didn't know. Stand up. Be a man."
To make matters worse, Sisti says, Christie followed that up with a trip to Fort Lee to apologise in person, snarling the town in more traffic.
"Harping on about it makes you look guilty. I would have more respect for him if he had said, 'Okay. I knew about it. It was a vendetta'. But now he just looks like a liar who doesn't even have control of his own people."
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