Opinion: A culture of political retribution?
Carl Golden, a press aide to former Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
AS GOVERNOR Christie struggles to pull himself out from under the dark cloud of Bridgegate, attention has turned to one of the several tangential elements of the scandal: Did the administration create and nurture a culture in which political retribution was not only encouraged but celebrated?
The governor established his administration’s kick-’em-when-they’re-down-and-hit’em-when-they-try-to-get-up tone early on by laying into the leadership of the New Jersey Education Association, characterizing them as a greedy cadre of people whose only interest was in winning higher salaries and more favorable fringe benefits for their members at taxpayer expense.
He returned to the theme time and again and expanded it to include public employee unions, citing them as primarily responsible for high state and local taxes. He took on everybody and seemingly relished his public brawls with legislators, school administrators, bureaucrats, independent authorities, local officials and reporters.
He made frequent use of jokes and sarcasm to put down opponents and to dismiss pertinent and legitimate questions on policy matters.
His liberal use of the term “idiot” to describe critics or those with whom he had lost patience quickly became his signature. He bluntly challenged those he felt asked impertinent questions, and who can forget the great ice-cream-cone confrontation on the Seaside Heights boardwalk, a situation which could have turned ugly, indeed, if not for the intercession of his staff and security detail.
He was brash and straightforward, and his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality won national recognition for him. He referred repeatedly to his “Jersey attitude,” a mindset that warned opponents that if they pushed with one hand, he’d push back with both hands.
The attention he attracted and the acclaim he drew as a refreshing politician unafraid of butting heads or throwing rhetorical haymakers was not lost on those who surrounded him.
The swagger, the supreme self-confidence, the willingness to defy accepted political protocol created a lasting impression. Some who accompanied him to Trenton following his 2009 election and others who joined later took their cue from the man they served.
A largely inexperienced, politically immature individual thrust into such a politically charged environment and given a position of considerable responsibility can easily assume a self- importance dangerously out of proportion to reality. It is a seductive and bedazzling atmosphere. It is being admitted to an inner circle shared by few others, creating the belief that the rules governing the behavior of others don’t apply here; it is behavior that is an expected part of an elevated status and immune from repercussion.
Bridget Anne Kelly, who stands accused of setting in motion the chain of events now known as Bridgegate, seems to fit that profile.
If the internal review carried out by the administration-retained attorneys is to be believed, she and she alone abused the power of her position as the governor’s deputy chief of staff to order the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, creating a massive traffic jam and eventually exploding into a major scandal that has inflicted severe damage on Christie’s reputation and standing, nationally as well as in New Jersey.
Given her steadfast refusal to talk publicly about her role and her assertion of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, her motives and any doubts she may have had about her involvement in the lane closures remain unknown.
Did she, for instance, simply carry out orders from her superiors despite her misgivings or, as the investigative report contends, concoct the scheme on her own and conspire to carry it out with David Wildstein, a Christie-approved high-level staffer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A willing participant
The email communications between Kelly and Wildstein certainly suggest she was a willing participant, but was her eagerness reflective of an intrinsic culture in which meting out punishment to perceived political enemies was routine and accepted?
Or was she a rogue underling embarking on an ego-driven power trip in an effort to prove her political sagacity and impress those around her? Her “time for some traffic troubles in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein, for instance, and her snarky observations about the plight of people stuck for hours in the bridge traffic smacks of the worst sort of self-absorbed arrogance.
There is no doubt any more that seeking political advantage was a constant concern in the Christie administration, particularly as he ramped up his reelection effort in 2013.
A historic victory was the goal, one which proved beyond question that Christie was a Republican who could appeal across party, ethnic and gender lines and achieve a resounding victory in a normally heavily Democratic state. It was designed as well to elevate him to the top tier of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2016.
Toward that end, the campaign undertook a major offensive to gather as many endorsements from Democratic leaders — local mayors, legislators, county officials — as possible. Establishing a good working relationship with the governor’s office could pay handsome dividends in the future for them and an endorsement statement was a relatively easy call, particularly since the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate was written off from the outset.
Conversely, a refusal to support the governor could result in some level of punishment and, with the many weapons at the governor’s disposal, retribution could take the form of withholding state aid, delaying action on urgent requests, or seeing to it that the paperwork approving an appointment to a job disappeared in the bureaucracy.
Sending a message to the mayor of Fort Lee that his refusal to join his party colleagues in endorsing the governor fits easily into a payback mindset.
While the credibility of the investigators’ report has been, and will continue to be, called into question, its finding that Kelly was singularly responsible for the traffic tie-up and that there was no evidence uncovered that Christie or others on his staff possessed pre-knowledge of the closure scheme, has been put to effective use by the governor as an objective exoneration of him and his administration.
The cost of the scandal
The scandal has cost Christie dearly, however. He has suffered steep declines in polls in virtually every category of job performance, trustworthiness, honesty and leadership. He’s no longer atop the list of potential Republican presidential candidates, having fallen into third or fourth place in preference polls.
Kelly has paid an even greater price, publicly vilified by Christie as a lying and stupid betrayer of his confidence, not to mention the humiliation she’s suffered by the exposure of her private life in embarrassing, unflattering terms in the investigative report.
It is a fearsome cost, indeed, if her actions were those of someone caught up in a culture not of her own making but one which captured her with its illusions of power and political immortality.
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