The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 9, 2014

Christie’s presidential hopes: A bridge too far?

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Why should those of us in Oklahoma care about a traffic snarl in New Jersey?

That is the question many are asking in the wake of revelations surfacing this week that an aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie deliberately orchestrated traffic jams on one of the busiest roads leading to New York City simply to punish a Christie political rival.

The outspoken Christie at first denied any member of his staff was involved in the incident, but on Thursday, changed his story and apologized.

Period, end of story, right? Hardly.

First, let’s put this act in perspective. In August, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, sent a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote. It seems the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, refused to endorse Christie in his run for re-election last fall. “Got it,” Wildstein replied.

In early September, two of three lanes that link Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge were closed, causing miles-long traffic jams. Not only was Sokolich not informed of the closure, but he couldn’t get any answers out of the Port Authority. The closure lasted a week, perhaps not coincidentally, the first week of school in that area.

In the wake of the closures, the Port Authority issued a statement that it was conducting a traffic study. Wildstein, who supposedly ordered the traffic study,  refused to testify Thursday before a state legislative committee investigating the incident.

It is estimated some 276,000 vehicles cross the George Washington Bridge every day. In comparison, the I-40 crosstown in Oklahoma City carries an estimated 173,000 vehicles daily. So imagine narrowing the I-40 and I-35 junction to one lane in all four directions. The Fort Lee traffic jams were worse, turning a 30-minute trip into an ordeal lasting up to four hours.

The lane closures not only delayed commuters, but school buses and emergency vehicles, as well. A report has surfaced that a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious as an ambulance tried to reach her during the traffic jam. It took the ambulance seven minutes to reach the woman, double its normal response time. The woman later died in the hospital.

But again, why should we care about all those people who are crazy enough to drive in New York and northern New Jersey?

Christie not only is a dynamic and popular governor, he is a rising star in the Republican party, with eyes on running for president in 2016.

He has billed himself as a different kind of Republican, one that is not only tough and plain-spoken, but also one willing to reach across the aisle to work with political opponents to help get needed legislation passed.

But this latest revelation casts doubt on the climate Christie fostered in his inner political circle.

“I am not a bully,” Christie said Thursday. But a member of his staff clearly attempted to bully an elected official.

We in Oklahoma have seen gubernatorial bullying first-hand. Remember last fall when our own Gov. Mary Fallin warned public school teachers that continuing to publicly criticize the state’s controversial A-F grading system for schools might affect whether education received any additional funding next year. Fallin’s spokesman later denied she was trying to threaten teachers.

Christie has fired Kelly, of course, and on Thursday, called her actions “abject stupidity.” He says he knows nothing of what went on concerning the lane closure.

We can only take him at his word, but that raises the question of what else his minions are doing behind his back?

This whole, sorry mess casts doubts about his leadership ability and style.

It also brings back memories of another Republican presidential candidate, and his attempt to bully and burgle his way into office for a second term — Richard Nixon. We know how well that worked out.

Many Republicans nationwide already are cool to the prospects of a Christie candidacy, but he is an alternative to potential Tea Party candidates who is centrist enough to potentially draw some Democratic voters.

Chris Christie has become known as a politician interested in building bridges. Now he may become better known for blocking them, which could toss his hopes for the White House in 2016 right off a bridge.



Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.