Bill Stepien, a top campaign aide for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who was ousted in the wake of Bridgegate, is running an organization that is laying the groundwork for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s possible run for her boss’s position.
Stepien has been named the executive director of Building a Better New Jersey Together, a 501(c)4 group — dubbed a “think tank” — that could raise money, hold events and collect email addresses in advance of Guadagno’s expected candidacy in 2017. Christie will leave office in January 2018 due to term limits.
The federally registered group is not allowed to promote a specific politician, but Guadagno is listed as its honorary chairwoman. Groups such as these have been set up by other prospective candidates to develop policy positions that their campaigns later adopt.
Stepien was the campaign manager for Christie’s improbable 2009 victory and landslide 2013 reelection. He also served Christie as his deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, in charge of a team that built relationships with legislators and mayors but also controversially sought endorsements from local officials on the public’s dime.
In December 2013, Christie tapped Stepien to lead the New Jersey Republican party and consult with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie was running at the time. Stepien was expected to then manage Christie’s presidential campaign.
But in January 2014, one of Stepien’s former underlings, Bridget Anne Kelly, was found to have sent an email to David Wildstein, a top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It read: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Federal prosecutors now say that’s what triggered the lane closures and ensuing traffic jam at the Fort Lee entrance to the George Washington Bridge, which were intended to punish the town’s mayor.
Kelly was fired and later indicted. Her trial is scheduled for September.
Stepien was never charged with a crime. Emails indicated he had a close working relationship with Wildstein, once describing the mayor of Fort Lee as an “idiot.” And Christie’s attorneys also said he had a romantic relationship with Kelly. Though an attorney for Stepien repeatedly maintained he was innocent, Christie kicked him out of his political organization, saying he questioned Stepien’s judgement.
Stepien has never spoken publicly about the Bridgegate matter but he did resurface last year, helping New Jersey Republicans with their unsuccessful campaign to pick up Assembly seats.
Guadagno has been a loyal member of the Christie team, twice running alongside the governor. The behind-the-scenes nature of her role has drawn attention, but she has also served as acting governor for hundreds of days over the last six years as Christie has traveled the country building his national brand.