My favorite bit from Friday’s news reports about the guilty plea by a former patronage appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, comes courtesy of The Washington Post: “A guilty plea by the longtime aide could spell trouble for the New Jersey governor.”
Indeed it could.
The key to understanding one of the most bizarre recent scandals in U.S. politics is to understand what political operatives do. David Wildstein, Christie’s former high school classmate, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to create, in September 2013, horrific traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge.
Wildstein is not a career bureaucrat. He is not an expert in traffic or logistics or government agency bonds. He is a political guy.
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The reason that Christie appointed Wildstein to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, despite any substantive expertise in ports, roads, airports or bridges, was to be a direct extension of Christie’s political arm. Nothing more, nothing less.
We don’t know yet whether prosecutors will successfully work their way up the New Jersey political hierarchy to indict Christie himself. (Though we are very close to knowing that the report by Christie’s hand-picked lawyer, Randy Mastro, was a waste of taxpayer funds.)
Wildstein named Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Christie Port Authority appointee Bill Baroni as fellow conspirators, and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced multiple charges against both. Like Wildstein, Kelly was hired to do political jobs for Christie, and Baroni seemed to perform plenty of political work as well. Prosecutors might give them appropriate incentives to disclose more information.
Kelly’s involvement, if not official guilt, was implied by the e-mail she wrote that set in motion the traffic fiasco: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who subsequently ordered the lanes closed, replied, “Got it.”
Wildstein has now admitted that the purpose of the traffic jam was to punish a Democratic mayor who had refused to endorse Christie’s reelection. This is what two high-ranking people – at a minimum – seemed to believe was consistent with their roles as political extensions of the governor.
If you have never been stuck in traffic on an approach to the world’s busiest bridge, you might not understand how sick this behavior is – and how far outside the bounds of typical political retribution. The targeted mayor was not caught in a traffic jam. Innocent people, wholly unrelated to the Christie machine’s political vengeance, were. People who were unable to attend important meetings with significance to their careers and earning potential. People who were unable to pick up loved ones at an appointed place and time. People who were unable to get from a New Jersey suburb to New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Prosecutors said the traffic congestion was planned “to start on the first day of the school year in Fort Lee,” to maximize the aggravation to New Jersey commuters.
Christie personally selected Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein to execute his political desires. They owed their jobs to him. And they gave him their loyalty.
“There is a lot more that will come out,” Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, told reporters Friday. “Christie knew of the lane closings while they were occurring, and evidence exists to establish that.” Christie denies any knowledge of the plot.
Still, the only way this scandal makes any sense at all is if the governor of New Jersey is really, truly not a nice man. So far, however, we have no confirmation that he is anything worse.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.