Monday, January 20, 2014

Christie's Bully Pulpit and the "Lady Mayor"

One thing's certain in the latest allegation against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: either Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer is blatantly lying through her partisan teeth or The Sopranos are alive and well in Trenton.

According to Zimmer, and coming on the heels of the BridgeGate access-lane revenge-closings scandal, she was strong-armed and threatened by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno last year in a shakedown attempt for support of a real estate development deal that was a pet project of Christie's and the Rockefeller Group, a company with whom he has close ties.

Zimmer said the two met in a Hoboken parking lot in May, where the conversation went a little something like this:

Guadagno: wanna get some of that cool fed cash for your poor little Hurricane Sandy victims, do ya? Whattya gonna do for us?

Zimmer: What do you mean?

Guadagno:  We got a project ova here...a very important deal....means a lot to the Big Guy. Ya know what I mean?

Zimmer: No, I really don't.

Guadagno: Ok, lemme make it simple for ya, Cheech. You getchya money when you support the deal. Ya don't get shit if you make the Boss angry, kapish? And by the way, this conversation never happened.

Speaking at an event in Union Beach Monday where she addressed reporters but refused to take questions, a stoic, seemingly lawyered-up Guadagno unequivocally denied Zimmer's charges:

"Mayor Zimmer's version of our conversation in may of 2013 is not only false but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion, any suggestion, that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false."

Citing the devastation caused by the storm and saying she was a Sandy victim herself, an incredulous, animated Guadagno called Zimmer's allegations "particularly offensive to me" and denied them as "wholly and completely false."

Yet as each day passes and another new plot twist surfaces, it becomes more and more implausible that Christie, Guadagno and the administration are being truthful. As the saying goes, where there's smoke there's fire. Christie's reputation, like that of his corruption-plagued state, precedes him. He's publicly ridiculed those who've disagreed with him as idiots, jerks and stupid. This derisive behavior points to a culture of intimidation and abuse created and maintained by the governor himself. With that evidence as a backdrop, is it really hard then to imagine Guadagno's "You better pony up, or else"  threat?

Another big question is, why would Zimmer lie? What does she have to gain by totally fabricating a story and thus tossing herself squarely into the center of one of the most complicated, far-reaching and consequential political scandals in recent memory?

Zimmer met Sunday with the United States Attorney's office to provide details and documents to substantiate her story. She's also offered to take a lie-detector test and testify under oath. Guadagno herself admits she met in that parking lot last May with Zimmer and that they did discuss Sandy relief money. She just disagrees with Zimmer's "version" of that encounter.  As the popular SNL skit goes, "Really? Really?"

Zimmer's timing may be suspect to some on the right, but her situation is akin to that of countless crime victims who are bullied into submission and silence, fearful of retribution. But all it takes is someone else to come forward first and the floodgates open. For both Zimmer and Christie, BridgeGate is merely the House of Cards. It's naive to think that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, BridgeGate's intended victim, and Zimmer are the only local pols touched by the Christie Mob. There's likely other mayors, assemblymen, senators and/or bureaucrats preparing to come forward with their own allegations as well.

Furthermore, we haven't even witnessed the full bore of the state and Federal investigations yet and what the subpoenas of former top Christie aides Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien and the Port Authority's David Wildstein will reveal. If given immunity, these former loyalists could end up singing like canaries, costing the Big Guy the White House and perhaps even the Governor's mansion.

And not for nuthin', it doesn't help Christie's "I am not a bully" narrative to have surrogates like Rudy Giuliani, who's called BridgeGate a "political prank," and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who on CNN Monday referred to Zimmer as "a lady Mayor," defending him.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Stick a Fork in Christie

There's a reason why I love politics so much. I'm fascinated by the winds of change and how sweeping and merciless they can be. In no other landscape can one's fortune change so dramatically so quickly over something so stupid. Consider the Greek Tragedy that threatens to swallow New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's future.

Consider Christie's current fate. One day he's soaring high above the muck as the Republican Boy Wonder.  Anointed The Great GOP Hope to regain the White House from Democrats in 2016. Revered as the tough-talking, straight-shooting everyman who's connected not just with conservatives, but independents, women, minorities and just about everyone else. The Washington outsider who'd reach across the aisle to get D.C. operating efficiently again. The focus of Time Magazine's November 18th cover entitled "The Elephant in the Room." And then overnight the much-anticipated shoe drops and everything turns to shit, thrusting him squarely into the hottest political scandal and into his worst nightmare.

BridgeGate. This now-infamous scandal over the George Washington Bridge access-lane revenge-closings all but ensures that Christie's chances of becoming President of the United States are no longer any greater than mine. The New Jersey State Assembly, investigating the case, will be issuing subpoenas, possibly as early as today, to Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien, the two former top aides Christie threw under the bus last week. Their testimony under oath, especially if given immunity, could be devastating to the governor. There's even talk among state legislators of eventual impeachment. Adding fuel to the fire is a new federal investigation announced Monday into allegations that Christie misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce one or more re-election campaign ads. Hear that sound? That's the other shoe dropping.

It's truly astounding, albeit not terribly surprising to many, just how swiftly Christie's currency has devalued. His reputation as an arrogant, self-serving bully precedes him. So it was not a matter of if but when his skeletons would come flying out of the closet. The only real question at this point is just exactly what will be the cause of his political demise: incompetence, ethical lapses, criminality and/or a cover-up. 

Perhaps that's what the 24/7 news media will now focus on given that their heretofore Christie-as-2016-shoo-in predictions now appear terribly premature.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Jersey Sure: What We Know About BridgeGate

One thing about the BridgeGate scandal we can be sure of: New Jersey Gov. Christ Christie is in a huge heap of trouble. It really doesn't matter whether or not he ordered or had prior knowledge of the George Washington Bridge access lane revenge-closings last September to punish Fort Lee's Mayor Mark Sokolich for his failure to endorse Christie in his re-election bid. Either way, the Big Guy's screwed.

The facts are clear, and by his own admission: either he's a lying, potentially criminal bully, or he's an utterly incompetent chief executive unable to control a rogue senior staff. So whether he's broken the law, committed severe ethics violations or simply had his head up his ass matters little in his quest to be President of the United States come January 2017. This scandal all but kills that hope and, pending the outcome of myriad state and federal investigations now underway, might also cost him the governorship.

"I am not a bully," Christie pleaded from the podium during his nearly two-hour woe-is-me mea-culpa before reporters Thursday in an unprecedented demonstration of narcissism. That bold denial reminds us of Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" and Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman." History has demonstrated that when one utters the words "I am not," he typically is.    

What else is certain here is that the facts and timeline of Christie's story simply don't add up. It's unfathomable that a widely-known, self-admitted micro-manager, feared by many for his brute tactics towards those who cross him, had neither created a culture of retribution which guided his senior team, or one in which he wielded the heavy-hand himself. Whining for 108 minutes about how "blindsided...sad...embarrassed...and humiliated" he is that those in his intimate "circle of trust" have betrayed him doesn't change that suspicion.

Serious questions remain:

-Could Christie really have only found out about the BridgeGate mess for the first time this Wednesday morning after the news officially broke...and by seeing it online on his iPad after a workout at home with his trainer?

-Is it in any way plausible that he did not have have any idea that there were abuses of power both in his top ranks and at the Port Authority, even though his PA appointees David Wildstein and Bill Baroni resigned in December over this very same mess?

-Are we to believe that no one from his senior team bothered to tell him about the Bergen Record story that was about to be published this week? There's no way the newspaper didn't call senior administration officials to discuss the story, or at least tip them off to it, before it went public.

-Is it possible that Christie's #2 official, Bridget Anne Kelly, working for such a tight-fisted, control-freak of a boss, would venture on her own to execute such a bone-headed, Tony Soprano-like act of retribution without any discussion with him, or at least without the belief that she had his tacit approval?

The worst thing that can happen to a politician is that a scandal breaks which reinforces the existing narrative. In this case, it's really not a surprise that Christie's now battling accusations of bullying. To be sure, his reputation as an enforcer pre-dates BridgeGate. The events of this week serve to feed the concerns of nationwide Republicans about the back-room chicanery and corruption in Garden State politics, casting even greater doubt on his presidential electability in 2016. Perhaps you can take the boy out of New Jersey, but you can't take New Jersey out of the boy...

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Bridgegate Over Troubled Water

To some, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a ballsy, straight-shootin', independent man-of-the-people. To others, he's an arrogant, bullying, typically self-serving politician. And now he's embroiled in a scandal which seems to be proving the latter group right. Welcome to BridgeGate.

While running for re-election this past Fall Christie sought the endorsement of Fort Lee's Democratic Mayor Mark Sokoloch, a public thumbs up he eventually did not receive. In retaliation, it's alleged that top officials in the Republican governor's administration flexed its muscle last September in getting lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge to make Sokoloch's political life miserable.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, in an email to David Wildstein of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. Wildstein also happens to be an old high school chum of Christie's.

It didn't matter that people might be sick and/or dying in ambulances stuck in that gridlock. Or that school buses full of kids might be getting to school late. "They are the children of Buono voters," Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Christie's Democratic opponent Barbara Buono.

This is the kind of brutal payback crap that's straight out of The Sopranos. And to many, it's no surprise. Many astute analysts have just been waiting for the Christie shoe to drop. For the myth to be shattered. For the skeletons to come crashing out of the closet. Welcome to BridgeGate. 

Back in November, in his very blue state of New Jersey, Christie won a resounding victory, bringing into his big tent not just conservatives but many Democrats, independents, women, Hispanics, blacks and just about everyone else. He was immediately anointed The Great Republican Hope. The sane candidate in a sea of Tea Party crackpots. It was as if the 2016 primaries were already over and Christie was the GOP's man to challenge the likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.   

But the notion that he was a virtual shoe-in for the Republican presidential nomination was largely based on the belief that the GOP, hijacked by the Tea Party, has swung so dangerously to the right, resulting in humiliating defeat in election after election, that  the party and it's voters have finally learned their lesson. The problem with that contention is that ideology and wishful thinking always trumps logic, rational thinking and pragmatism.

What got lost in all the euphoria were three critical factors. First, New Jersey is not Kansas. Or Ohio. Or Iowa. Or the Bible Belt or Rust Belt or the Plains. Like Vegas, what happens in Jersey often stays in Jersey. The big question was how this brash, outspoken, obese, larger-than-life Northeastern politician would play in middle-America.

Next, Christie's no angel. There's been much speculation over the years of impropriety on many levels, from budget chicanery to abuses of power. There's no vetting process more intense and invasive than that of a presidential candidate. Could he survive this level of scrutiny?

Lastly, Christie's big win in November meant little in terms of proving his inevitability. Two years in politics is an eternity, and an awful lot of really bad stuff can surface in that period, especially when every aspect of one's personal and public life is put under a microscope. Welcome to BridgeGate.

Was Christie ever truly a viable GOP presidential candidate? Would he be able to overcome the weight issue? The last obese U.S. president was William Howard Taft over 100 years ago... before television and YouTube.

Would Christie be able to withstand a virtually non-stop deep-dive into his closet?  Would Christie's record and reputation eventually catch up with him and burst his mythical bubble?

Welcome to Bridgegate. I think we might have our answer....