Why Christie’s “Fort Lee Scandal” Matters

Some of you may have been following the simmering controversy over the closure of lanes on the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge in September that caused epic traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee. As TPM’s Hunter Walker puts it:

Some Democrats have alleged the order to shut the lanes was retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, who had declined to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.

Now TPM and New Jersey news outlets have gotten hold of internal emails from Christieland not only documenting the deliberate nature of the lane closures, but hinting at a political motivation. Here’s Walker again:

Documents obtained Wednesday by TPM show that Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, Bridget Anne Kelly, talked about the closures with the agency that oversees the bridge weeks before they occured.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, one of Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

We’ll see what sort of response the parties involved make to this development and its highly damning implications. But it’s worth pondering why this local story of alleged political skullduggery matters.

It’s basically a confirmation of the rule of thumb that “scandals,” however “minor” in their immediate implications, hurt a politician when they reinforce a negative impression that already exists. In Chris Christie’s case, the downside of all the “courage” and “candor” his fans like to talk about is that he often looks like a bully who delights in using his power to browbeat and victimize people–say, public employees or mayors of small towns–who get in his way. That’s earned him critically important sympathy among the kind of conservative activists who will ultimately pass judgment on his presidential aspirations–maybe he’s squishy on guns and Sharia Law, but just watch him beat the crap out of those “union thugs!”–but in the broader public, power-abusing bullies aren’t much admired. So this story bears watching.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait goes a lot further than I would, and declares Christie’s 2016 proto-candidacy all but dead. To be sure, I never put a lot of stock in the Christie Boom to begin with, but since Chait and I were both initially wrong about Romney’s odds of being nominated in 2012, I won’t be so quick to write off Christie.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.