A county clerk is the unglamorous workhorse of local government, a keeper of records who is tasked with everything from processing passport applications to maintaining property deeds.
In New Jersey, it's an elected position that doesn't typically make headlines or fill campaign coffers. But then Bridget Kelly is not your typical political candidate.
“People tried to destroy my life. Am I going to let them win?" Kelly said in an interview with the New Jersey Monitor.
Kelly wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email that helped spark the scandal known as Bridgegate. She was convicted in 2016, along with another official working on behalf of then-Gov. Chris Christie, on various fraud and conspiracy crimes and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
But in May 2020, nine days before she was set to report to prison, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed her and co-defendant Bill Baroni's convictions, declaring the plot showed deception, corruption, and an abuse of power, but wasn't a crime under the federal fraud statute prosecutors misapplied.
As a woman convicted of federal crimes, Kelly couldn't even vote.
But as a woman exonerated by the nation's top court in one of New Jersey's most notorious political scandals, Kelly could be a serious contender for elected office — at least in the eyes of the man who heads up the Republican Party in Bergen County, where Kelly lives.
“Certainly, she has name recognition. People know her story," Jack Zisa said. “Frankly, candidates at every level of campaigning invest a lot of money in marketing themselves and trying to get name recognition. She has it already."
Certainly, she has name recognition. People know her story.
– Jack Zisa, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization
So Zisa, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, asked Kelly to run for Bergen County clerk against incumbent John Hogan, a Democrat seeking his third term in the five-year post.
“She's a dedicated public servant who has served in government at different levels and is good at what she does," Zisa said. “She would make a great county clerk."
Kelly isn't shy to share how tough life was after the scandal broke and Christie fired her. A single mother of four, she couldn't land a job. She and her family went into hiding from the press camped out on her Ramsey lawn. She was on the receiving end of threats, she said.
“I couldn't sleep for seven years. I still have nightmares," she said. “Going through a trial as a mom was horrible. I joke that my kids have a good college essay now, but that's about the end of it."
But she agreed to run — her first-ever bid for elected office — because she needs to work. She was a part-time consultant for a bit before the pandemic, but said she hasn't held a full-time job since 2013 largely because “every job application asks about prior convictions." She's on Medicaid and relies on family and friends to help pay her living expenses.
More, though, she said she just really digs the government.
“I was working for one of the most powerful governors in the country, but for me, it was never about the celebrity. I'm just a nerd who would get chills every time I pulled up to the Statehouse, with its gold dome, because that is where life happens," Kelly said. “I liked being the playmaker. I liked getting people answers. I just loved figuring out government."
Even with her name recognition, Kelly's quest for the seat seems quixotic.
Hogan has plenty of name recognition of his own, hailing from a political dynasty that spans four generations of the Hogan family. Bergen County is heavily Democratic. And the Bergen County Republican Party has struggled to regain its former dominance, a mission made tougher by the recent corruption indictment of Robert Kugler, the GOP nominee for county sheriff.
“Her odds are uphill to begin with, even if she wasn't tainted by Bridgegate," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “She's got the name recognition, which is half the battle in a race like this, but if all voters know about you is scandal, then how much is it really helping?"
She's got the name recognition, which is half the battle in a race like this, but if all voters know about you is scandal, then how much is it really helping?
– Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics
Indeed, Hogan has pounced on Bridgegate to battle Kelly, even announcing his candidacy at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.
“What she did with that bridge makes me question her whole ethical being, and I'm not so sure she can preserve the integrity of the office, which handles a lot of personal information," Hogan said. “Bridget Kelly already has let the voters down — she participated in the largest political scandal that ever occurred in the state. She got off on a technicality. I think she's unfit to run for political office."
Yet even while he has plenty to say about Bridgegate, Hogan said he isn't happy it has become the central campaign issue.
“It's just unfortunate that my accomplishments don't become center stage," he said. “Instead, her notorious story becomes everything about the race."
Hogan is happy to tick off everything he says he's accomplished in his 10 years as county clerk. He said he modernized the office, increasing access to services by making many available online; expanded access by holding “pop-up satellite offices" in communities countywide; cross-trained many of his 55 staffers so they can perform duties beyond their assigned roles; began reporting election results and trends in real time; and stayed operational through the pandemic.
His office also handled the shift to mail-in voting largely without problems, a daunting duty in a county with the most registered voters statewide. And he said he has saved taxpayers $2 million over the past decade in election printing costs.
“Our budget and staffing is at a 30-year low, and we've maintained it that way since I've been there," Hogan said. “Our office makes a lot of money — we closed 2020 with a total revenue of over $100 million. That's phenomenal, considering the building was closed throughout most of that year."
If elected, he said he will continue to modernize the office and aims to open a historical research center where the public can access the many historical documents the office maintains.
“I've proven I can do the job. Why hand the reins over to someone who has already let down the public?" he said. “Bridget Kelly is running for this position because she needs a job. She doesn't talk about how she can benefit the office, she talks about how the office can benefit her. And that's not the reason you should be running."
A strong primary showing
Kelly, for her part, contends she would benefit the office, if elected. She vowed to improve office efficiency, “clean up" the voter rolls, and examine staffing and spending to cut waste.
She pointed to problems with mail-in ballots in Teaneck and Emerson, where Hogan's office mailed erroneous ballots last year and this year, as proof that Hogan's election oversight needs oversight itself. Hogan said both errors were corrected right away, and he has recused himself from his election duties this year because of his candidacy.
Despite Bridgegate and Hogan's efforts to remind voters of it, Kelly surprised some election observers with a strong showing in the primary. She ran unopposed but still snagged the second-most votes of any Republican in the county and 40% more than Jack Ciattarelli, the GOP nominee for governor. (She fell 5,133 votes short of Hogan's 26,044 votes.)
Kelly still stings from being “scapegoated" in the Bridgegate scandal. But she's eager to talk about it to clear her name.
“To me, it's therapy. I have nothing to hide," she said.
She's confident, despite the GOP's struggles in Bergen County, she can win the county clerk seat.
“Am I running to redeem myself? No," she said. “Once people get to know me, they know I'm a public servant at heart. This position, to me, is the ultimate public service, to facilitate the needs of residents, and it doesn't have to be about politics. It just has to be about efficiency."
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