Before Chris Christie’s first scandal devolves into an obsessive quest to prove who knew what, when, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the wonderful, quintessential New Jerseyness of the incident itself. What happened, roughly, is this.
On August 13, Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s three deputy chiefs of staff, sent an email to David Wildstein, a Christie confidant serving as an executive for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls much of the transit infrastructure of northern Jersey. Kelly said that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Some speculate that the precipitating event may have been the unwillingness of Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich to endorse Christie. Two caveats are worth noting: (1) Sokolich is a Democrat, making his reluctance to back Christie understandable; (2) at the time Christie held a commanding 32-point lead over his Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono. So he didn’t exactly need Sokolich’s help.
What happened next only makes sense if you have a grasp of New Jersey geography. It’s commonly said that Fort Lee sits in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the town’s situation. The bridge traffic not only empties into Fort Lee and collects there, but you can see the bridge from just about any point within the town’s 2.9 square miles. Fort Lee is the George Washington Bridge and the George Washington Bridge is one of only three access points from New Jersey into Manhattan. And let’s be frank: Manhattan is really the only reason anyone pays attention to New Jersey in the first place.
What happened next is this: The Port Authority, without warning or explanation, closed two of the three toll booths going from Fort Lee to the bridge, and narrowed the access ramps from three lanes to one. If you live in Indiana, this might not sound so bad. But for commuters in New Jersey it meant that a leg of their commute—just one leg, mind you—which normally took roughly 30 minutes was suddenly taking more than two hours.
In New Jersey, traffic is a serious subject—there’s a local cable channel dedicated to 24-hour traffic coverage. So lots of people notice when toll booths are closed. Local papers were on top of the story the next day. The drumbeat of curiosity and outrage caused the Port Authority to release a statement explaining cryptically that they were “reviewing traffic safety patterns at the . . . bridge to ensure proper placement of toll lanes.” Which had roughly the effect of an Air Force spokesman in New Mexico saying that people in Roswell had only seen a weather balloon.
Every state gets the political scandals it deserves and this one has New Jersey written all over it: a charismatic, domineering don demanding fealty from button men of both families. And then making an example of the dissenters. Using the Port Authority as his hitman and traffic as his weapon. The only thing missing is the Sanitation Department helping to dispose of the paper trail.
The image of Chris Christie as Tony Soprano seems destined to persist—the loyal and aggressive underlings; the hard-nose for politics; the ambition to find a place for himself in the sun. In Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book on the 2012 election, Double Down, they reported that Christie took the unusual step of telling Mitt Romney that he wasn’t allowed to fundraise in New Jersey without the governor’s say-so:
Months earlier, Christie had banned Romney from raising money in New Jersey until Christie had given the O.K. to do so—a move Romney found galling, like something out of The Sopranos. Are you kidding me, Mitt thought. He’s going to do that? There were plenty of New Jersey donors who’d given money to Mitt in 2008; now Christie was trying to impose a gag order on talking to them?
The good news for Christie is that America loved Tony Soprano. Right up until the minute Members Only Jacket walked into the diner.