Traffic moves across the George Washington Bridge between New York City (right) and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Washington: It is an allegation that at first blush seems too preposterous to take seriously. Allies of Chris Christie, one of the most popular politicians in the United States, have been accused of closing ramps onto the busiest commuter bridge on Earth in order to punish a local mayor who failed to endorse him in the recent state election.
So far Mr Christie, who in November was re-elected as New Jersey governor in a landslide, is denying the charges, but the allegations are not fading and the resignations over what has inevitably been called “Bridgegate” have already begun.
The story starts on September 9, when ramps onto the George Washington Memorial Bridge, which links New Jersey to New York and carries 102 million vehicles a year, were blocked off out of the blue for five days, causing delays of up to six hours for the benighted commuters of the borough of Fort Lee.
Presidential hopeful: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie celebrates his landslide re-election in November. Photo: Reuters
Such was the chaos caused by the closures, which were carried out without any notice to local officials, police or even key executives of the Port Authority, the agency that manages the bridge, that the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, who had refused to endorse Mr Christie, wrote to the Port Authority’s deputy executive director Bill Baroni suggesting the move was punitive. “What other conclusions could we possibly reach?” he asked.
Mr Baroni promised an investigation and later claimed the closures were part of a traffic study. But he can neither name the study nor provide any emails about it, nor explain why the standard 12-month notice was not given to officials, police or ambulance crews.
He resigned last Friday.
It has been revealed that the closures were ordered by the Port Authority’s David Wildstein, a Christie ally and political appointee who has no expertise in traffic management. The Port Authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye, has testified before the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee that he knew of no traffic study.
Mr Wildstein has also resigned.
So far when he has been questioned about it, Mr Christie has dismissed the allegations in combative terms familiar to reporters who cover him.
“I worked the [traffic] cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones,” Mr Christie said at one news conference.
He now says mistakes were made, but that the allegations of political interference have been confected by the Democratic Party.
His state’s own largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, does not agree, writing in a recent editorial that “the administration, including the governor, has been so evasive and secretive that it’s obvious they have something to hide".
That may be true, but it is also clear that the Democrats are making hay, and the political stakes could not be higher.
Mr Christie is universally thought to be preparing for a White House run in 2016, and should he secure the Republican nomination he would prove particularly dangerous to Democrats. He is one of the few politicians in the US who has proved able to secure votes from moderates of both parties.
The Democratic National Committee on Friday put out an attack video on the issue. Democrat senator Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the US Senate's transportation committee, has now announced that it will look into the affair.
It is hard to imagine a more politically damaging allegation. If true, it would not only reveal Mr Christie as petty and vengeful, but it would reinforce the (perhaps unfair) reputation that New Jersey has in some other parts of the country.
"One of the concerns voters will have about Christie is New Jersey’s reputation for rough, take-no-prisoners politics. It isn’t known as the Soprano State for nothing," Larry Sabato, director of the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia, told The Star-Ledger.
"When you run for president, you will be questioned about absolutely everything, and you can’t bluff your way past something like this. It’s not personal life or his weight; it’s related directly to his conduct in office," Dr Sabato said.