An expanding investigation into lane closures on the nation’s busiest bridge has given Democrats an opportunity to damage New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential prospects.
Access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed on Sept. 9, creating massive traffic jams around Fort Lee, N.J. The closures were ordered by a duo of Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who said they did so to carry out a traffic study.
No evidence of any such study has surfaced. Democrats have suggested the move was political retribution from Christie’s allies against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who refused to endorse the governor for reelection during a campaign where Christie’s bipartisan support played prominently in his argument to voters.
No one has publicly accused Christie of ordering the lane closures. And even some Democrats admit they don’t believe Christie’s fingerprints will be found near the traffic cones that blockaded the lanes.
But the New Jersey state legislature, the inspector general of the Port Authority and now Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the Port Authority, are all investigating the closures. The two Christie appointees resigned this month and have retained attorneys.
The controversy comes as Christie faces heightened scrutiny from Democrats. He leads multiple polls of the GOP presidential field, coming off of a blowout reelection win in a blue state that’s earned him respect and esteem from Republicans nationwide.
The Democratic National Committee and Correct the Record, an arm of the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge with ties to Hillary Clinton — another prospective presidential contender — are pledging to keep hammering the investigation.
Democrats believe the probe will make public what they say is privately known about Christie in New Jersey: He fosters a culture of intimidation within his administration.
And that undercuts Christie's brand, as a straight-talking, no-nonsense governor who acts for his state and not for himself.
Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-N.J.) said Christie "prides himself on creating an atmosphere of fear of and intimidation by him that really put something like this [situation] in place.”
Correct the Record Communications Director Adrienne Elrod suggested the situation offers voters the first taste of a prospective Christie presidency.
"This is a possible glimpse at how Chris Christie thinks government should work and how it should be run, in a way that leads to serious allegations of abuse of power for political retribution,” she said.
Correct the Record launched a new memo, obtained by The Hill, outlining the timeline from the ordering of the closures to Christie’s Thursday press conference. In his presser he asserted that the situation is “not that big of a deal.”
The memo includes a picture of Christie they plan to blast out, captioned with the hashtag #TimetoRespond, emphasizing what the party sees as Christie’s insufficient answers on the closures.
Lesniak noted the investigation could cut deep at Christie’s regular-guy appeal, something Republicans see as a major asset for him, if he chooses to run in 2016.
“To me, the biggest concern for Chris Christie is that he has been able to boost his popularity by being perceived as a non-politician who calls it as it is, who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of the political fallout,” he said. “Does this make him look like a petty politician?”
Democrats point to what they see as a telling moment at a hearing before a committee of the New Jersey legislature earlier this month. An assemblyman asked George Washington Bridge General Manager Robert Durando if there was a “culture of fear” at the Port Authority.
Durando remained silent — an unspoken affirmation, Democrats say, and evidence that Christie’s governing style behind closed doors doesn’t match his public profile.
But Christie’s allies are quick to defend him. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a New Jersey Democratic powerbroker who endorsed Christie for reelection, told The Hill he had never experienced any intimidation from Christie or his associates and worked well with the governor.
He said even in New Jersey, most people he talks to aren’t concerned about the investigation.
“Every place I go, people say, ‘What do I care? Why are we talking about it? Get people back to work!’ ” DiVincenzo said.
DiVincenzo warned Democrats should focus on “getting our own house in order” before tearing down Christie.
“It’s not about Chris Christie; it’s about repairing our party in the state. And I think people are losing track” of that, he said.
Christie has been taking steps to right the ship. A top adviser to the governor says he’ll continue to focus on his agenda and tout accomplishments like the tuition equality bill he signed Thursday and the drop in unemployment in the state.
The governor has held three press conferences where he’s answered every question asked on the controversy.
But questions still remain. Though Christie said when announcing the resignation of Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni that his exit was not a direct result of the GW Bridge investigation, a top Christie adviser told The Hill the appointees involved in the closures “have been held accountable.”
Asked whether that meant they were, in fact, fired because of their roles in the closures, the adviser said “they left sooner [than planned], I suppose, to avoid being a distraction.”
When asked to clarify whether they were fired as punishment for apparent misconduct or left because their continued service had become a distraction, the adviser simply said, “It’s a level of both.”
The murky details of the appointees’ exits contributes to the Democratic argument that there are still significant questions unanswered.
Christie’s team admits focus on the bridge and away from his legislative priorities is problematic. He's preparing to wage battle in competitive gubernatorial races nationwide as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association.
However, they insist the governor will weather this storm, as he’s done with greater ones before.