Update: December 19, 2013, 4:57 PM
Did Garden State Gov. Chris Christie (R) really paralyze Fort Lee, N.J. with gridlock to exact revenge after the local mayor crossed him?
It’s an allegation that sounds almost too weird to be true. But even though no one has found a smoking gun directly linking Christie to the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that shut down Fort Lee for five days in September, one prominent Democrat with intimate knowledge of the investigation is convinced political forces were behind Bridge-gate.
New Jersey state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg explained her Christie-centric traffic conspiracy theory to TPM in a phone conversation Wednesday.
Weinberg represents a district that includes Fort Lee, and for months she has been pushing for an investigation into the cause of the nearly week-long traffic jam. In the interview, she outlined all the reasons she’s convinced Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, had a “political reason” for ordering the lane closures.
“My first reaction was this is too bizarre to believe, so this couldn’t have happened,” Weinberg said. “Well, after going to three months of Port Authority meetings and not getting any other explanation, I think it’s very clear to me that this happened for some political reason.”
Two of Christie’s Port Authority appointees resigned this month amid the growing questions about the gridlock. Both men, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, are Christie allies and both attributed the lane closures to a “traffic study.” However, Weinberg said neither Wildstein or Baroni have shown any evidence to back up this claim.
“I do not believe and I’ve seen no evidence that Chris Christie called any of these two guys at the Port Authority or anybody else for that matter and said, ‘Close lanes,’ but I do believe that Gov. Christie is responsible for the behavior of his two top appointees. Behavior that, apparently, they thought was OK and that was engaged in,” said Weinberg. “They haven’t given us another explanation. I would have loved to have had something that was believable, rational, or something, but they’ve never given us anything.”
Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was the first to openly suggest there was a political component to the traffic jams. In September, Sokolich told local newspaper columnist John Cichowski he believed he was being sent a message.
“I’ve asked the Port Authority for an explanation, but they haven’t responded,” Sokolich said. “I thought we had a good relationship. Now I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something I did wrong. Am I being sent some sort of message?”
In October, the Wall Street Journal obtained a letter Sokolich sent to a Port Authority official in which he speculated the closures were “punitive.” Sokolich’s letter and earlier comments fueled speculation the closures were ordered because he failed to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. He has not responded to a request for comment from TPM.
Though Christie had a double-digit lead in polls leading up to Election Day last month, Weinberg said Christie still had ample motivation to aggressively seek endorsements from local New Jersey Democrats because wanted his victory over state Sen. Barbara Buono to be a “complete wipeout.” Weinberg also suggested Christie was concerned about endorsements from Democratic mayors like Sokolich to help build a bipartisan brand ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Because of this, Weinberg said Christie actively wooed Democratic mayors by rewarding them with state grant money for their cities and other perks.
“There were other mayors who wanted to be judges, so the reasons could vary as much as the mayors themselves,” Weinberg said of the rewards Christie offered endorsers who crossed the aisle. “The fact remains that Chris Christie came into this as being the frontrunner and that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted a complete wipeout … and to present this bipartisan image to, I guess, the great nation out there that’s looking at him as a potential presidential candidate.”Â
A spokesman for Christie did not respond to a request for comment from TPM. Christie has repeatedly denied he played any role in the lane closures. Attorneys for Baroni and Wildstein also did not respond to requests for comment.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisnieswki, who is chairman of New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee, is currently leading an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the lane closures. As part of this effort, Wisnieswki has sent subpoenas to seven officials, including Baroni and Wildstein, demanding any correspondence they had with the Christie administration from August until this month. Wisnieswki told TPM he’s not sure whether he’ll end up sending subpoenas to the governor’s office, because as of now, there’s no hard evidence directly linking Christie to the Bridge-gate gridlock.
“I don’t have any hard trail that goes there. There’s a lot of supposition, a lot of folks who would say where else would it go?” Wisnieswki said. “But I don’t have anything that takes me there yet.”
Update: This post has been updated to note the Wall Street Journal was first to obtain Sokolich’s letter.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct two instances in which David Wildstein’s name was misspelled.