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Anatomy of a Scandal: Why 'Bridgegate' Matters

Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee, which originally received subpoena power to investigate the reasons behind the five-year Port Authority toll increase rammed through in 2011, also plans to focus on the increasing politicization of the Port Authority under the direction of Christie appointees Baroni, Wildstein and Samson, which will lead inevitably to increased media scrutiny of other Christie administration political tactics and policy decisions.

If Christie survives months of investigation into the Bridgegate scandal, it is the lasting voter perception of the tenor of Christie’s leadership, the political climate he created, the types of people he appointed and, most of all, whether his hardball politics of personal attack and intimidation are seen as Nixonian in their vindictiveness, that will determine whether he remains a viable presidential candidate.

Christie From the Beginning

Long before he emerged on the national stage, Christie developed a reputation for political ruthlessness and outsized ambition. In his first successful campaign for freeholder in staunchly Republican Morris County in 1994, the allegations he levied in his successful primary campaign for county freeholder led two of his GOP rivals to file defamation suits against him. The following year, he and Merkt ran against two Republican Assembly incumbents in a bitter campaign and lost in the GOP primary. Two years later, in 1997, Christie was ousted from his freeholder seat in a heated Republican primary, finishing fourth out of four candidates.

Christie rejuvenated his political career in 2000 by teaming up with his Wall Street financier brother Todd to raise millions for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, leading Bush to appoint “Big Boy” as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Christie’s corruption convictions of Democratic and Republican officeholders paved the way for his successful 2009 run for the governorship, but his tenure was not without controversy.

Democrats still complain about Christie’s politically timed leak of a groundless investigation into U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) just weeks before Menendez’s 2006 reelection, and about the multimillion dollar no-bid contracts he gave to his former boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and to a former U.S. Attorney from New York who investigated, but declined to indict, his brother for stock fraud.

Christie brought his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, into the governor’s office as a deputy chief of staff, where he could serve as Christie’s chief political operative -- a common practice in previous administrations. In an administration where politics trumped policy, Stepien was more powerful than his title suggested.

Attacks and Insults

As governor, Christie quickly emerged as a national Republican star for his “take no prisoners” attacks on the state’s public employee unions and for his YouTube video smackdowns of critics at press conferences and town hall meetings packed with cheering supporters. He called a decorated Navy SEAL an “idiot,” denounced Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran as “thin-skinned,” and urged reporters to “take a bat out” on Weinberg, the Democratic state senator who would later be the first to question the legitimacy of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

Christie often eschewed policy arguments in favor of launching vitriolic personal attacks on those with whom he disagreed. He attacked David Rosen, the respected, mild-mannered budget analyst for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, as “the Doctor Kevorkian of the numbers” and a partisan “tool” of the Democrats for daring to disagree with the Christie administration’s revenue projections. “Nothing the governor does is unplanned,” one top administration official said privately when asked about the Rosen attack.

The governor attacked New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vincent Giordano for his high salary, and accused New Jersey State League of Municipalities Executive Director Bill Dressel of “running a corrupt convention” when a League task force had the temerity to issue a policy tax reform proposal last June in the middle of his reelection campaign.

What voters didn’t always see was Christie’s unwillingness to brook any opposition, either inside or outside his own party. Sen. Sean Kean (R-Monmouth) got knocked down to an Assembly seat after redistricting for mildly criticizing Christie for being on vacation in Florida during a snowstorm, and a Christie aide declared that “he deserved what he got.”

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