ICYMI: Stile: Christie won’t easily shake GWB flap

December 14, 2013


Governor Christie described Friday’s abrupt departure of a trusted ally from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as part of a predictable staff shake-up that occurs before any governor begins a second term.

“This was nothing that I hadn’t planned already,” Christie said at a State House news conference announcing Bill Baroni’s resignation.

But make no mistake about it. Despite his business-as-usual nonchalance, Christie was in full damage-control mode, attempting to contain a crisis that threatens to tarnish the Christie brand at a time when national polls and pundits are certifying him as the early front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

As it stands now, the widening furor over the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge in early September does not appear to be the kind of issue that will doom Christie’s presidential hopes. Other candidates surmounted far more significant controversies on their way to the White House. George W. Bush survived troubling questions about his service in the Texas Air National Guard. Bill Clinton prevailed despite feeding frenzies over the alleged extramarital affairs.

Still, Christie’s brand is central to his success. It’s what gives him his own niche in the fractured Republican Party — a results-oriented conservative with the persona that appeals to Democrats and independents. It’s an image built on his boasts of managerial competence — the ability “to do big things” — and for not letting partisanship stand in the way of the greater public good.

But if you believe the official explanation that the two feeder lanes at the foot of the bridge in Fort Lee were closed as part of a traffic study, then the picture that emerges is one of gross managerial incompetence. The purported study, ordered by David Wildstein, another Christie ally who resigned last week, was hastily planned and carried out with Baroni’s knowledge. But it was kept secret from top Port Authority officials, the public and the police in Fort Lee, who suddenly found themselves managing four days of unexplained traffic jams at the start of the school year.

If you harbor suspicions shared by many Democrats that there was no real study and that Christie or one of his associates ordered the lanes closed to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection, then the potential damage to the Christie image is worse. Despite his denials, Democrats are hoping that further investigation will prove that the post-partisan leader who embraced President Obama after Superstorm Sandy is just a petty Jersey politician who put his payback ahead of public safety.

“Chris Christie’s bridge scandal explained,” is the title of a Democratic National Committee Web video released Friday, hours before Baroni’s resignation was announced.

Either version undermines the brand.

So Christie moved on a number of fronts to protect it. He replaced Baroni, a smooth, fast-on-his-feet political lawyer, with Deborah Gramiccioni, a troubleshooting ex-federal prosecutor and a Christie loyalist who rarely talks in public.

Without prompting, Christie stressed Gramiccioni’s role as the administration’s watchdog on waste at quasi-independent authorities, like the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.

Christie also stressed that he did not order Baroni or Wildstein to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich by closing the lanes, and that he checked with his government and campaign staff to see if they took it upon themselves to punish Sokolich.

“I made it clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anybody had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward and tell me about it and they all assured me that they don’t,” he said.

And he took general responsibility for the fiasco.

Christie’s office then packaged his remarks in a YouTube video that was distributed later in the day.

Yet Christie attempted to minimize the bridge flap, just as he has done when challenged by other missteps. When caught using the state police helicopter for political travel in 2011, Christie argued that it was overblown by Democrats eager to score points. He blamed petty U.S. Department of Education bureaucrats for rejecting the state’s bid for coveted education grants, when in fact, his staff bungled the application. And the bridge flap that clogged local traffic for four days and hindered emergency vehicles in Fort Lee? That was just human error.

Christie, who lashed out at Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission officials for bloated patronage and waste and spearheaded an overhaul of the agency, refused to raise his voice at an authority partly run by his own patronage hires. He commended the overall job performance of Baroni and Wildstein and said that it was “unfortunate for them that a mistake got made at the end of their tenure.”

Christie has made a career out of excoriating Democrats, but he carefully avoided any attacks on them, even though Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is spearheading the investigation, has been one of Christie’s favorite targets. Even though Christie suggested that the controversy was becoming old news — “we’re turning the page now,” he said — Baroni’s resignation only emboldened his Democratic foes.

“Governor Christie continues to casually dismiss legitimate concerns about Bridgegate, but his claim to have nothing to do with it rings hollow,” said Democratic State Chairman John Currie. “The governor may believe that he has addressed the political controversy, but he has not begun to address the causes or consequences of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.”

Democrats have been boosted by Monday’s testimony by Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he never heard of the purported traffic study, said it was abusive and possibly illegal. Seven more subpoenas were issued Thursday, seeking documents from Foye, Baroni, Wildstein and others. More hearings are likely.

And the national Democrats will be nipping at Christie’s heels. They will attempt to drive the national news cycle with every development.

It’s clear that New Jersey’s second-term governor will have far more on his plate than a routine reshuffling of his personnel.

“National Democrats will make an issue about everything about me,” Christie said. “Get used to the new world, everybody.”

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