“I compare [fortuna] to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 25
“Every loyal citizen of the United States owes New Jersey a grudge. The State is corrupt; so are certain other states. . . . The offense which commands our special attention, however, and lifts this state into national distinction is this; New Jersey is selling out the rest of us. . . . If there is such a thing as treason by a state, then New Jersey is a traitor state. My first feeling was that I’d like to see the citizens of this selfish state pickle in the corruption of Hudson County, and Essex, of Camden, and Passaic, and Middlesex, and Ocean [New Jersey] deserves all the punishment we can give her. . . . But. . . I know my feeling about punishing Jersey is wrong: it is too Jersey-like.”
—Lincoln Steffens, “The Traitor State,” McClure’s Magazine, 1905
In the annals of American political corruption, the New Jersey scandal now known as “Bridgegate” is something of a puzzle. No one, as far as we know, received any payoffs. Compared to Watergate or Iran-Contra, it seems an almost laughably trivial abuse of power. Rather, the novelty here lies in the episode’s cheap venality: it was prompted by a near-operatic sense of personal pique and a seemingly insatiable will-to-punish, with pols conspiring to snarl automobile traffic in the backyard of a political rival, and then exulting over the truly idiotic achievement of stranding motorists in traffic outside a bridge on-ramp in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Casual connoisseurs of political scandal were taken aback by the sheer, gratuitous pettiness of the thing—especially since it now jeopardizes the political future of Gov. Chris Christie, one of the stars of the Republican Party, who had cannily positioned himself as a no-nonsense problem-solver, sworn to serve the people’s interest amid the partisan rancor and money-drenched inertia of contemporary American politics. The initial Bridgegate dispatches out of New Jersey’s state capital of Trenton have revealed Christie not only to be an intense partisan, but to be a single-issue politician, whose sole concern appears to be the political power of Christopher J. Christie.
To get a clear fix on the Christie team’s runaway quest for penny-ante vengeance, let’s revisit some of the scandal’s sordid details. Allies of the Christie administration—whom the governor appointed to head key positions of influence managing the state’s transportation and infrastructure—retaliated against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid, by blocking two out of three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the nation’s busiest span, for four days in September 2013.
For observers outside the Garden State, closing a few lanes of traffic may not seem like a big deal—but New Jerseyans are perhaps more dependent on the automobile than residents of any other state. Commuters can rattle off the pros and cons of taking 287, the Garden State Parkway, or the New Jersey Turnpike, and residents routinely inquire “What exit?” upon meeting one another. In a state more densely populated than India, New Jersey drivers—especially in the state’s packed northeastern quarter—are not renowned for politeness. Failure to slam the accelerator to the floor like a drag racer the instant a stoplight turns green can unleash a cacophony of honking.
Only three automobile routes—the Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel, and George Washington Bridge—connect New Jersey and Manhattan. Plugging any of these routes, like stopping up a shower drain, can cause massive traffic backups in the state’s congested northeast corner. This is why an official decision to deliberately create gridlock, as an act of spite, was so appalling to most New Jerseyans. As the New York Times observed, “By now, the people of New Jersey are well steeped in political scandal, shrugging off tales of sticky-fingered lawmakers and admitted embezzlers, ties to organized crime and, in at least one case, the attempted trafficking of human organs. But disruptions to car travel, it seems, cannot be taken in stride.”
Casual connoisseurs of political scandal were taken aback by the sheer, gratuitous pettiness of the thing.
True. Voters’ eyes quickly glaze over when they are confronted with the byzantine maze of New Jersey government, but messing with traffic is as easily understood as a sex scandal—and far less forgivable. Bridgegate, like the Nixon administration scandal that has lent it (and nearly all other political scandals in our republic) the “-gate” suffix, has caused Christie’s precipitous fall from likely presidential candidate to embattled governor. And it led to even more troubling revelations about Christie’s rampant cronyism in stocking the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which manages the bridge, with political supporters.
The Port Authority does much more than collect tolls on the George Washington Bridge. A mammoth bureaucracy with an annual budget of $8.2 billion, the Port Authority oversees the daily operations of ports, bridges, tunnels, and airports (including Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia), and includes a potential treasure trove of political patronage jobs for allies of the governors of New York and New Jersey. Christie appointed longtime adviser David Samson to the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners. (Federal prosecutors are now investigating allegations that Samson used his position to steer lucrative contracts to clients of his law firm. Samson recently resigned from the Board of the Port Authority. Christie tapped another loyalist, Bill Baroni, as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, and Baroni, in turn, created a new position for Christie’s childhood pal David Wildstein.
The heart of the Bridgegate affair is a series of email messages among Christie’s appointees, which reveal that Wildstein ordered some of the access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge to be closed to punish Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid, and to stand pat for his own party’s nominee, state Sen. Barbara Buono. That’s right: Christie’s team punished the constituents of a Democratic mayor who merely refused to endorse the governor in a re-election campaign that was safely in the bag months before Election Day. This, too, was a distinctly Nixonian flourish—after all, the Watergate burglary was carried out after the Democrats had all but nominated George McGovern, their doomed standard-bearer in the 1972 presidential campaign, who would be buried by a landslide in the November balloting. Bridgegate, like Watergate, revealed the seemingly boundless sense of entitlement of a lifelong power-monger.
Something of the Christie administration’s hostility to political opponents (not to mention its indifference to the public) is evident in the cavalier tone of the emails in question, which call to mind the callous banter of Enron managers, circa 2000, boasting about the exorbitant profits they earned by fleecing “those poor grandmothers in California.” “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie aide Bridget Kelly emailed Wildstein. “Got it,” Wildstein replied. When another official confessed to feeling a twinge of guilt about the ensuing havoc and the busloads of schoolchildren stuck in traffic, Wildstein replied flippantly, “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Since the damning email trail has gone public, Wildstein has said that “evidence exists” that Christie was aware of the traffic-snarling caper in Ft. Lee, an allegation that Christie forcefully denies. An internal inquiry, performed by lawyers retained by the Christie administration (at a cost of a million dollars to taxpayers) found no evidence that Christie personally ordered the bridge closure. In a sense, though, it would probably be a greater insult to his mastery of New Jersey governance to learn that Christie did not know anything about the bush-league chicanery taking place in his office. The state’s fallback approach to most matters of public import has, for centuries now, been a combination of graft, arm-twisting, and deal-making. For Christie to have been unaware of such misdeeds among his own inner circle of political appointees would undermine his public image as a capable manager of the State of New Jersey. And so Christie now finds himself in a fix not unlike Ronald Reagan’s during the Iran-Contra scandal. If he knew about Bridgegate, he’s complicit. If he didn’t know about it, he’s lost control. Take your pick.
New Jersey’s legacy of political corruption has led journalists Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure, veteran Trenton reporters for the Gannett newspaper chain, to dub it the “Soprano State.” Corruption and scandal have long been endemic to the Garden State’s politics and have become an indelible part of its image. Journalists still blithely and accurately use the term “boss” to refer to county potentates and Trenton power-brokers. From On the Waterfront and Atlantic City to The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and American Hustle, the Garden State has seethed with crookedness and outright criminality in Americans’ imaginations.
Government by graft is as much of a fixture of Garden State political lore as the traditions of local control that enable it.
The usual rationalization for New Jersey’s tradition of all-but-open graft is that businesses and developers use money to cut through the state’s seemingly impenetrable thicket of government and bureaucracy. New Jersey has accrued layers of at times dubiously-functional government over its long history. The tiny state has a strong tradition of localism, containing 565 municipalities; county governments also wield considerable power and control sizeable budgets. Officials at the local, county, and state level can place strategic speed bumps and roadblocks in developers’ path. Zoning and planning boards can schedule a seemingly endless series of mind-numbing hearings or reject proposed construction projects. As a result, much of the money that fuels New Jersey politics flows from developers, construction companies, real estate lawyers, realtors, architects, engineers, and paving companies. Businesspeople with a stake in real estate write checks to political campaigns; politicians in turn permit developers to build the office parks, strip malls, and condos that fill the Garden State; politically-wired developers and law firms trade on their connections to officeholders.
This routine practice of government by graft is as much of a fixture of Garden State political lore as the traditions of local control that enable it. New Jersey politicians and business interests have long been accustomed to wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Benjamin Franklin famously described New Jersey as “a barrel tapped at both ends,” its agricultural bounty siphoned off by New York to the north and Philadelphia to the south. More than two centuries later, New Jersey continues to be overshadowed by those cities: although New Jersey still supports its share of local newspapers and television stations, as well as a few intrepid political websites and blogs, the state’s media landscape is dominated by the New York or Philadelphia media markets. As a result, coverage of politics in Trenton is slim, and coverage of local and county government slimmer. But scandal will out, and when political scandals do come to light, New Jerseyans typically shrug: “Whaddaya expect?” Voters here are distrustful, if not downright jaded, and are accustomed to looking upon their state and local politics as a glorified front for real estate deals and patronage jobs.
More than three centuries of history have conditioned New Jerseyans to view corruption as almost inseparable from politics. The colony’s first royal governor, Lord Cornbury, immediately began pocketing bribes from landholders and favor-seekers upon his arrival in 1703. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Camden and Amboy Railway, which cut across the state, linking Philadelphia and New York, wielded so much political clout that the Garden State became known as “the State of the Camden and Amboy.” In the Gilded Age, power in the state was alternately held by a Democratic machine (dubbed “the racetrack and saloon ring” by its opponents) and by a Republican machine that championed the interests of business corporations. As one champion of reform wrote in 1914, “It made small difference. . . whether a Democrat or Republican was elected,” because political bosses and vested interests controlled the state.
The state political establishment’s strategic blurring of partisan differences via the ready expedient of the open wallet gained even more currency with the onset of the industrial age. The 1889 New Jersey corporation law, one of the most lax such statutes in the nation, enticed many companies to rent an office in New Jersey and to call the state their home, at least for legal and tax purposes. By 1904, half of the America’s 300 largest corporations were chartered in New Jersey. The following year, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens dubbed New Jersey the “traitor state,” because its lawmakers raked in corporate tax revenues by creating a haven for the monopolies that strangled democracy, exploited workers, and gouged consumers throughout the nation. Reformers in both parties struggled valiantly in the Progressive era to implement open and honest government, but New Jersey’s political machines and bosses endured and flourished.
During Prohibition, Republican pol Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (the party boss immortalized by Steve Buscemi in HBO’s aptly named period series, Boardwalk Empire) built a political machine that ruled Atlantic City and transformed it into America’s most famed resort. Meanwhile, in Jersey City, Democratic boss Frank Hague presided for three decades over a political machine whose power and notoriety rivaled those of Boss Tweed, Huey Long, and Richard J. Daley. Decades after Hague’s death, remnants of the Democratic machine he built still clank along in Hudson County, and local and county party bosses still wield considerable clout across much of the state. New Jersey’s distinctive patchwork of political fiefdoms has not been dismantled in the new millennium. The only real difference now is that Garden State leaders pay lip service to “transparency” and the other pieties of good government in the information age—and then proceed to conduct politics as usual.
Even a cursory review of the past fifteen years of Jersey scandals offers a reminder, if any were needed, that New Jersey was awash in corruption long before Christie took charge. In 2000, former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine anted up more than 60 million dollars of his own money to gain the support of powerful Democratic county bosses and ensure his election to the U.S. Senate. Only weeks before Election Day in 2002, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) was forced to abandon his re-election campaign after allegations surfaced that he had accepted illegal contributions and gifts from Korean-American businessman David Chang. Torricelli, who lacked Corzine’s riches, forfeited his Senate seat for a big-screen TV and some jewelry—the kind of haul that greets your average contestant on, say, The Price Is Right. (Say what you will about the sticky-fingered members of our governing elite—they still retain a common touch, even in the act of auctioning off their constituencies’ interests.)
In 2004, Gov. Jim McGreevey—another protégé of the Democratic machine—abruptly resigned when voters learned that he had appointed his lover, Golan Cipel, as an adviser, despite Cipel’s evident lack of qualifications for the job. But, as the New York Times pointed out, McGreevey’s personal life and political cronyism were among the least of his problems. A crooked land deal gone sour, in which the governor signaled his approval by uttering the code word “Machiavelli,” already clouded his political future. After McGreevey’s precipitous fall, in 2005 (New Jersey holds state elections in odd-numbered years—politics here never sleeps) Corzine again spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money to become governor.
The Sopranos-meets-Frankenstein nature of the kidney-trafficking operation managed to raise eyebrows among even the most jaded New Jerseyans.
These were the sorts of blatant and routine abuses of power and office that swept Chris Christie into the governor’s mansion in 2009 on a platform of political reform. Like previous would-be reformers, ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Thomas Kean, Christie campaigned on a pledge to clean up Trenton once and for all, and to give the citizens of the Garden State an effective advocate for their interests in the statehouse. As U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christie launched his own political career by prosecuting corrupt politicians, especially those who stood in the way of his political ambitions. Campaigning for governor against Corzine, the pugnacious prosecutor vowed to make New Jersey politics more honest and more transparent. In July, only months before the gubernatorial election, Operation Bid Rig, a sting investigation begun during Christie’s tenure as U.S. Attorney, culminated in the arrest of forty-four people, including three Democratic mayors and several other public officials. Among the crimes alleged were not only the usual bribes to expedite construction projects, but also charges of trafficking of human body parts (paying individuals to donate one of their kidneys for transplantation, and then making those kidneys available to desperately ill patients at a huge markup). The Sopranos-meets-Frankenstein nature of the operation managed to raise eyebrows among even the most jaded New Jerseyans. In November, Christie ousted Gov. Corzine, winning the governorship in a state that Barack Obama had carried by fifteen points only a year earlier.
The New Jersey governor’s office is the nation’s most powerful state executive. Only the governor and lieutenant governor are elected statewide, and the governor controls appointments to many state jobs, boards, and commissions. Christie immediately exerted his hold over Trenton, clashing with Democrats in the state legislature, seeking to reduce state employees’ pensions, and antagonizing the powerful teachers’ union. Yet he portrayed himself as a moderate Northeastern Republican, capable of cooperating with Democratic legislators and successfully governing a blue state. Journalists, smitten with Christie’s colorful mince-no-words personality and his status as a likely presidential candidate, often gave the governor’s spotty economic record a pass. But New Jersey’s unemployment rate remained stubbornly high during Christie’s term and the state government’s indebtedness grew deeper. While many Republicans urged Christie to enter the presidential contest in the spring and summer of 2012, his approval rating in New Jersey remained barely above water, just over 50 percent. Christie’s poll numbers began to rise a bit in the early fall, but his re-election was by no means guaranteed. And then the governor benefited from an act of God.
On October 29, 2012, “Superstorm” Sandy slammed into the Jersey Shore, leaving in its wake thousands of devastated homes and businesses. The hurricane left a trail of devastation along the Shore, and wreaked $65 billion in damage on business and homes in the U.S., including damage in New Jersey totaling at least $37 billion.
For Christie’s political aspirations, Sandy was less a disaster than a godsend. It permitted him to display both his take-charge personality and his genuine concern for the storm’s victims. The Jersey Shore, a string of towns, boardwalks and beaches stretching 217 miles from Sandy Hook to Cape May, is the state’s most popular tourist destination. As the storm bore down on the Shore, the Governor won praise for his no-nonsense way of bluntly ordering residents to “Get the hell off the beaches!” In the storm’s aftermath, he surveyed the destruction visited upon Shore towns and shed his tough-guy image to bear hug and console residents whose homes and businesses had been damaged or destroyed. Christie’s forceful, well-publicized response to Sandy galvanized public opinion behind him once more, and his approval rating soared above 70 percent; even a majority of Democrats hailed the governor’s job performance.
When Congress balked at appropriating funds for Sandy relief, Christie positioned himself as a possible presidential candidate by lacing into the do-nothing ways of Washington, Tea Party intransigents, and House Speaker John Boehner. Christie’s broadside eventually spurred Congress to appropriate $50.7 billion for Sandy relief, much of it destined for hard-hit New York and New Jersey. Sandy offered Christie ample opportunities to trumpet his hands-on leadership and distribute relief money—and both these pursuits proved ideally suited to promoting his 2013 re-election bid. When selecting a video production company to produce television advertisements publicizing Sandy relief programs, Christie spurned the lowest bidder, choosing instead a company whose proposed spots featured the governor and his family. Gauzy images of Gov. Christie, accompanied by his wife and children, visiting the Shore and proclaiming New Jerseyans “Stronger Than the Storm” soon filled television screens. While these ads did not literally say “Christie 2013,” they scarcely needed to. Sandy became Gov. Christie’s own miniature 9/11, his central campaign theme, and his virtual running mate.
Christie’s future political ambitions were thus built atop Sandy’s wreckage. Any governor, of course, would have rushed to reassure citizens and help rebuild his state following a catastrophic storm. But something more was at play here than a conscientious leader’s concern for his constituents. As the most recent round of revelations about the inner workings of the governor’s administration have demonstrated, Christie also saw Sandy relief money as a windfall that could not only rebuild the Shore but cinch his re-election and launch his 2016 presidential campaign. Given his barely concealed presidential ambitions, Christie was determined not merely to win re-election in 2013, but to rack up a huge margin of victory and prove that he could attract Democratic voters, including women, Latinos, and African-Americans. However, Christie’s idea of compromise was not to broker bi-partisan legislation, but to do things the usual Jersey way: cutting deals with Democratic pols in order to boost his re-election campaign and presidential aspirations. In public, he often refused to compromise with Democrats in the statehouse, recently referring to them as “animals.” At the same time, though, he was making overtures to local Democratic legislators and mayors and handing out parcels of the federal government’s Sandy aid in exchange for more Democratic support to pad his inevitable 2013 victory.
Christie’s carrot-and-stick combination of largesse and intimidation secured the support of dozens of prominent New Jersey Democrats, including some of the state’s most powerful political bosses, who abandoned Buono, their own party’s nominee to endorse Christie. And why not? New Jersey Democrats knew that Buono stood little chance of unseating the popular, storm-tested incumbent. Throughout 2013, New Jersey’s vaunted Democratic machine sat idling while Buono’s campaign struggled to remind voters of the governor’s failure to reduce New Jersey’s unemployment rate and the state government’s ballooning debt.
Christie’s misuse of Sandy funds was not hidden away in secretive backroom deals, but was broadcast online for anyone to see.
This is precisely where Christie’s obsession with winning by a landslide proved perilous; the effective nullification of Democratic opposition tempted Christie and his vast retinue of cronies and fixers to believe they could get away with using virtually any means to promote the governor’s re-election. Christie’s determination to crush Buono by the largest possible margin became even more evident after Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) died in June, triggering the need to schedule a special election to fill his seat. Worried that the popularity of the Democratic nominee, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, would dent his own margin of victory by luring Democrats to the polls in November, Christie jettisoned his self-proclaimed fiscal conservatism to schedule a special Senate election in mid-October, less than three weeks before Election Day. The taxpayers’ tab: $12 million. On Election Day, scarcely a year after Sandy, Christie rolled to victory by 22 points and seemed like frontrunner for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Yet, only weeks after the election, reporters belatedly began uncovering details about Christie’s strong-arm political tactics, and the governor’s approval rating and political prospects ebbed. Bridgegate and the possible misuse of Sandy relief money confirmed many voters’ suspicion of Christie’s mean-spiritedness and undermined his reputation as a straight-talking foe of corruption. After basing his re-election campaign on his response to Sandy and his ability to work with Democrats, the governor was revealed as just another Jersey pol. And so the political fallout from Bridgegate is following a depressingly familiar script. Those accused of wrongdoing issue carefully worded denials and get lawyered up. A few tantalizing bits of information dribble out. Subpoenas are issued. Hearings are convened. Federal investigations are underway.
Most New Jerseyans doubt Christie’s claim that he was unaware of Bridgegate, and his reputation for trustworthiness has plummeted in recent opinion polls. The governor’s well-tended reputation for being in charge seems jarringly at odds with his assertion that aides acted without his knowledge, and the same cynicism that leads New Jerseyans to shrug at political scandals also leads them to question Christie’s professed innocence. The Christie administration’s use of Sandy relief funds raises troubling questions about the governor’s honesty, since it undermines his carefully honed campaign image as the rescuer of the Shore. Thousands of the 365,000 homes damaged along the Shore have yet to be repaired, and a majority of Sandy victims say that they are frustrated by the slow pace of the state’s recovery efforts. A recent Senate investigation has revealed the Christie administration may have discriminated against African-Americans and Latinos who applied for Sandy aid.
Meanwhile some of the recipients of Sandy relief money seem far removed from the Shore’s devastation. For example, the Christie administration appropriated $4.8 million in Hurricane Sandy relief funds to help build a luxury high-rise building in New Brunswick. Thirty miles inland, New Brunswick was hardly destroyed by Sandy. Tree branches snapped. Basements flooded. Some residents lost electricity for a few days. But that was the extent of the storm’s ravages. The local politicians and Christie loyalists who still justify spending hurricane-relief funds on this project contend that it will include units for low-income residents, some of whom may have been displaced by Sandy. But that tenuous claim seems to have little to do with the Christie administration’s real motive. The builder, Boraie LLC, has little experience in constructing low-income housing, but it has contributed extensively to political candidates at the local, county, and state level.
In his determination to rack up Democratic endorsements for his re-election bid, Christie appears to have rewarded politicians who cooperated and intimidated those who refused. He helped to steer $6 million in federal Hurricane Sandy recovery dollars to the construction of an $18 million retirement community in Belleville, another inland town that wasn’t badly damaged by the storm. Shortly after funding for this project was announced, Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble, a Democrat, endorsed Christie for re-election, as did Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, one of North Jersey’s most powerful Democratic bosses. In Hoboken, meanwhile, Mayor Dawn Zimmer alleges that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy relief money if the city refused to approve a billion-dollar development project proposed by the Rockefeller Group and strongly supported by the governor.
Christie’s misuse of Sandy funds was not hidden away in secretive backroom deals, but was broadcast online for anyone to see. The State of New Jersey maintains several Web pages detailing Sandy relief efforts, which crow about using relief money to assist the construction projects in New Brunswick and Belleville. The Christie administration apparently saw nothing controversial about politics-as-usual in New Jersey: developers support politicians, who in turn promote and subsidize developers.
Still, the daily revelations involving both Bridgegate and the disbursal of Sandy funds have combined to make Christie appear to be the one thing that even New Jersey’s ethically expansive political system may not be able to tolerate: a deflated bully. Christie’s tough-guy persona seems to have evaporated, and he no longer cows politicians, journalists, or citizens. Bridgegate and Sandygate have emboldened reporters, who had too often failed to scrutinize the governor’s actions, to investigate his record as both a prosecutor and a politician. The governor, who once dominated town hall meetings with his blunt talk, is now compelled to endure pointed questioning and criticism from voters.
Chris Christie, who swept across New Jersey like a hurricane in 2009, has been downgraded, his strength and bluster dissipating by the hour as he wheezes out to sea. It’s tempting to gloat about Christie’s sudden diminution, but the larger implications of this scandal hardly seem auspicious. Chris Christie’s political future may be ruined, but too many citizens, in New Jersey and across the nation, remain inured to the toxic role of money in American politics. Christie’s precipitous fall seems to have surprised no one, nor has it inspired calls for political reform in New Jersey or anywhere else. After all, Whaddaya expect?