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Anatomy of a Scandal: Why 'Bridgegate' Matters

The case of Sean Kean (no relation to the former governor) was an example of the tight control Christie exercised over the Republican minority in both the Senate and the Assembly. Over Christie’s four years in office, Republican legislators voted in lockstep with the governor in all but a handful of cases. Unlike past governors, Christie did not allow legislators in vulnerable districts to get out of voting for controversial bills when there were enough votes for passage without them.

Christie reserved his greatest disdain for the public employee unions. When Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Fireman’s Benevolent Association, suggested in a radio interview a few months into Christie’s first term that the governor should meet with his union to try to reach a compromise on pending legislation, he said he got a phone call from a Christie political operative with a message for him from the governor: “Go f--- yourself.” He told Lavin that Christie told him to use those exact words.

Falling Star

The operative who made the call was Bill Baroni.

Baroni, a Christie confidante who had played Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in debate prep for the Christie campaign, was a rising star in the New Jersey GOP, a popular state senator from a swing district straddling the Mercer and Middlesex County suburbs and a potential future GOP candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.

He was also Christie’s choice to serve as deputy executive director of the Port Authority, a bistate agency with a budget larger than 26 states that runs six New York-New Jersey bridges, three airports, two ports, and the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) light rail line. As the No. 2 administrator, Baroni would be Christie’s top political operative at the Port Authority, directly negotiating New Jersey’s interests with executive directors appointed by the New York governor.

Christie also put David Wildstein, a former Republican mayor of Livingston who had served as the mysterious editor and columnist “Wally Edge” at PolitickerNJ.com, in a $150,000-a-year post as Director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority. Wildstein, who was famous at Politickernj.com for telling his reporters that policies and issues don’t matter, only politics does, would serve as Christie’s and Baroni’s political “eyes and ears.”

Christie said last week that Wildstein was Baroni’s choice, and denied that he and Wildstein were “friends” or even “acquaintances” at Livingston High School. But Christie’s high school baseball coach told the New Republic that Christie, the star catcher, would have known Wildstein because he was sitting on the bench as the team’s statistician.

Patronage and Politics

Wildstein was one of more than 50 patronage hires sent to the Port Authority by Christie in what Princeton University Professor Jameson W. Doig, whose Empire on the Hudson is the authoritative history of the agency, criticized as an unprecedented politicization of the 92-year-old authority. Baroni was at the Port Authority just six months when he found himself serving as point man for Christie’s decision to cancel the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel that was the largest public works project in the nation and return $3 billion in dedicated federal transportation grant money that U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) had fought for years to secure.

Christie said he was worried about potential cost overruns on the project that would be borne by New Jersey taxpayers. He gave U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a respected Republican congressman who had been appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, just 30 days to satisfy his objections before pulling the plug on the tunnel, which had been in the planning stages for 15 years under five previous Republican and Democratic governors. Christie’s decision made him the darling of conservative talk radio and inspired winning Republican gubernatorial candidates he campaigned for in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida to cancel major rail projects in their states after they won.

Christie’s reason for giving LaHood such a short deadline became clear less than two months later when he announced in December 2010 that he would be diverting $1.5 billion in Port Authority funds and $1.4 billion in New Jersey Turnpike Authority toll money set aside for the ARC tunnel to provide the state matching funds needed to renew the Transportation Trust Fund without raising the gas tax, which would have violated Christie’s “no tax increase” pledge.

The following summer, in August 2011, Baroni served as Christie’s point man on a five-year toll hike that would raise tolls on the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the Outerbridge Crossing, and the Bayonne and Goethals bridges from $8 at the time to $15 by 2015.

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