Journalistic query: Who got hurt in Ft. Lee?

Who got hurt when Chris Christie decided to gridlock Ft. Lee as political payback?

When a politician calls a scandal involving himself “sensationalized,” you know he’s in deep yoghurt. When he says “mistakes were made,” the passive voice is a tell for near-panic. When he starts firing subordinates, that means he knows he’s near the edge of the cliff. And when he says he wants to “turn the page,” it’s a good bet the story is far from over.

The New York Times story on the Chris Christie/Ft. Lee gridlock story includes all four of those markers of a major affair in the making.

[For those of you joining us late, the background is that the Mayor of Ft. Lee, NJ, a Democrat refused to endorse Gov. Soprano for re-election, and suddenly, without warning, two of the three lanes on the on-ramp from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge were closed during the first four days of school in September, gridlocking the city for four days. Fortnately, the mayor doesn’t seem to own a horse. See the scorching email from the Executive Director of the Port Authority to his subordinates unearthed by the Wall Street Journal.]

The punchline is that the Governor wants to know whether Ft. Lee should permanently lose access to the bridge, which seems to be a not-too-subtle way of telling Ft. Lee officials that even worse things could happen to them if they get too friendly with investigators.

What the story lacks so far is the voices of the victims. You can’t tie up traffic for four days in a town of 35,000 people without someone getting really and truly hosed. It’s not very likely that anyone actually died in an ambulance, or waiting for one (the death rate in a town that size is somewhere short of one per day), but I strongly suspect that there was more dramatic harm than kids being late for school and parents late for work. If I were running a journalist enterprise – or the DNC – I’d want to put a bunch of effort into shoe-leather reporting.

If you’re wondering how much damage this sort of story, properly exploited, can do to a national candidate, ask President Dukakis about Willie Horton, or the water quality in Boston Harbor.

Footnote The backstory about the first Port Authority official to resign is that he’s an old friend of the Governor’s who ran an anonymous political blog back when Christie was U.S. Attorney. The blog was, the Times reports, “noted for scoops from the United States attorney’s office.” I wonder whether the Inspector General of the Justice Department, or the Office of Professional Responsibility, has scanned those “scoops” for violations of Rule 6(e), which forbids the release of grand jury information?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

22 thoughts on “Journalistic query: Who got hurt in Ft. Lee?”

  1. I am a bit confused by the narrative here. Gov. Soprano is giving the mayor of Ft. Lee some payback for not having endorsed him for re-election. But the whole point of payback is that the person who is on the receiving end know that he is getting it and knows why as well. In order to send a message not to mess with him, a thug must see to it that the people who did are given cause to regret it; that ensures that others will see the consequences of crossing the thug and will give him what he wants rather than defy him and be paid back for it. Unless the mayor of Ft. Lee is somehow given the clear message that the on-ramp shutdown happened to his city because he failed to cooperate with the thug, there is no point in paying him back. It will not send the desired message. How does this work?

    1. Perhaps Christie got pleasure from creating the traffic jam for the reason he did. Why assume rationality?

      1. Because Christie is a rational man in much the same way that Tony Soprano was a rational man. He undeniably has a mean streak but it seems much more likely that he or one of his stooges made sure that the mayor (and perhaps other luminaries in Ft. Lee) understood that this was just of taste of what the governor could do to them if they wouldn’t bend to the stick. If that’s what happened and can be proved, it’s a huge political scandal and also a violation of the Hobbs Act.

        1. I think your answer was alluded to in the Times article:

          Still, at the end of the news conference, in which he named a former prosecutor and close aide of his, Deborah Gramiccioni, to Mr. Baroni’s post, Mr. Christie suggested it might be worth examining why Fort Lee should have local access lanes.

    2. I think you (and, to a lesser extent, Mark) are missing the key point of vulnerability for Christie. The worry isn’t that reporters will pick up on human interest stories about the days when the bridge was closed, apparently as a petty and vindictive reprisal. I think what’s worrying Christie & Co is exactly what Mark alluded to, namely, that the bridge closure wasn’t payback—it was the shakedown artist’s brick through the store owner’s window. The reminder that you’d better pay up because next time it might a bomb or a Molotov cocktail.

      The real question is whether the closure of the bridge was followed (as seems to have been the case) with threats that the community of Ft. Lee might permanently lose its economic lifeline of access to the bridge if the mayor and others in Ft. Lee didn’t submit to Gov. Christie’s demands for political support. Aside from being a serious federal crime, I think it would be politically fatal to anybody’s national ambitions but particularly in this case because it would highlight every negative “Gov. Soprano” stereotype about NJ and Christie. So, did anybody make the threat and will enough pressure be brought to bear so that a witness would be ready to rat Christie out?

      1. Gov. Soprano made that very threat just this week. See the linked story.

        At the end of the news conference, in which he named a former prosecutor and close aide of his, Deborah Gramiccioni, to Mr. Baroni’s post, Mr. Christie suggested it might be worth examining why Fort Lee should have local access lanes.

        As to the broader point, no doubt people in Ft. Lee figured out quickly what was happening. Christie didn’t have to put up a billboard. And the extortion threat didn’t just work there; every other mayor in the state got the message. Any wonder so many Democrats endorsed Christie for re-election?

        1. I agree with the larger point you’re making. But I think the thing that would move it from a story that Christie is a bully and a thug to a major scandal would be a communication explicitly making the threat and referencing the traffic resulting from the shutdown as being a “taste” of what could happen in the future. It still seems to me to be a major scandal but it seems to be something the media thinks is just proof that Christie is a “manly man”.

          But also, I think the reason NJ Democrats explicitly endorsed Christie and the national party did so implicitly was that his opponent was a non-corportist, which is unacceptable in a party where the leadership (but not the bulk of the members) thinks that corporatism and submission to the Republicans are the best policies. Maybe the NJ Democrats submitted because they were genuinely worried that their communities couldn’t survive the economic damage that Christie was threatening them with but it seem reasonable to suspect that many of them genuinely worried that a governor from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party would cut down significantly on opportunities for featherbedding and personal enrichment.

          It also wouldn’t surprise me if the locals did go to the national party and the DOJ but were told that it would be unseemly to push back against Christie. The Democrats has been letting thugs like Christie take their lunch money for so long, I think they have no idea how to fight back against somebody like that. After a time, I think they just got used to doing what they are told.

      2. So Gov. Soprano’s dilemma was this: he had to be able to send a message to NJ mayors which would be unmistakably detectable by them but imperceptible to everyone else, including the feds. A dog whistle which only state elected officials could hear, but would be inaudible to the rest of the world.

        OK, if that is what he did, that could help to clear up what I was puzzled about. If he though that there was such a thing as a code which no one but his intended audience could decipher, then he is way too stupid to be entrusted with serious responsibility of any kind. He had to be obvious and unintelligible at the same time.

        Nixon was going to clobber McGovern in 1972 no matter whether his campaign had any inside information about what his opponents were up to. Could not leave well enough alone. Is that what happened here?

        1. I don’t want to speak for Mark but obviously his point is that Christie had one of his stooges shut down the traffic lanes on the bridge and then brazenly held a press conference to threaten the mayor of Ft. Lee with loss of access to the bridge (which would be economically devastating)if he didn’t get into line politically. There’s no dog whistling about it—it was an open threat that if people didn’t submit to his will, Christie would improperly use the powers of his office to punish them and the communities they represent. At the same time, he was sending another message that he was so powerful and untouchable that he could do his dirty deeds in public and dare anybody to do anything about it (which, since he’s dealing with the Democratic Party, it seems a good bet that they will take it and learn to like it)

          As to whether Christie would have won anyway, I have no idea but my guess is that he wasn’t unbeatable until the national Democratic Party decided he was unbeatable. That pretty much forces the locals to fold and shuts the Democratic candidate off from national support and money. And she certainly wasn’t going to get any money from the Democrat’s masters on Wall St.

    3. I don’t think any causality has to be apparent. Sure, there may be an element of intimidation and example-making here (hence the Tony Soprano nickname Kleiman is tossing about), but there’s also the simple joy of seeing your enemies suffer. Christie could chuckle to himself knowing that 30,000 Fort Lee residents were angry and were doubtless yelling at city hall, and that their ineffectual mayor would struggle to get re-elected if his citizens remembered what a lousy job he’d been doing keeping their commutes manageable. The mayor didn’t have to know why his life had gone into the toilet for Christie to enjoy the show – and Christie could always save the story as his little secret, to be whispered in the ear of some future local official who might not be playing ball.

      Still and all, though, I’m far from convinced this or anything will take him down. There are many well-documented stories of abuses of power and corruption by Christie as US Attorney (presumably some new ones since then), none of which seemed to have slowed him down, nor to have prevented the adoring response he gets from the national media.

      1. I agree with your last point. ‘He’s a Republican so what’s the big deal?’ If he didn’t get caught on camera taking cash, having sex with a teenager or calling some housewife the ‘N’ word (or even if he did) it will mostly disappear down the memory hole. Sure it will generate some campaign ads and some debate hammering but he’ll chuckle and wave it away. ‘Hey, he’s a Republican. It’s just what they do.’ Anybody that will vote for a GOPer knows it and most of them like it just fine, thanks.

        That’s not to say that the issue shouldn’t be plowed and planted. Hope springs eternal and in a close race it could make the difference. Throw another straw on the camel’s back.

        1. ‘He’s a Republican so what’s the big deal?’

          Shame on you Fred.
          I don’t think you could have uttered a cruller pun…

      2. “High-profile, politically ambitious prosecutor abuses power” seems to me to be a completely bipartisan dog-bites-man story–and it never seems to be seen as a problem by the media. Giuliani and Spitzer were both notoriously abusive prosecutors.

        1. They abused defendants to gain publicity and thus political power (and perhaps because they enjoyed being bullies) – but Christie abused the office for personal perks and obvious corruption in a way that the others weren’t accused of.

    4. “Unless the mayor of Ft. Lee is somehow given the clear message that the on-ramp shutdown happened to his city because he failed to cooperate with the thug, there is no point in paying him back. It will not send the desired message. How does this work?”

      That part of the message can always be whispered to the recipient later.

  2. As one of this website’s resident libertarian gadflies, all I have to say is “Bravo!” This Governor has been behaving in a high-handed, censorious, and even lawless way for too long and it’s about time that someone called him out on it.

  3. I bet there are a lot of mayors in NJ who are Dems. What the heck is this B.S. about them endorsing a Republican candidate for anything?

    Why didn’t those spineless doofuses get on a conference call and come up with a united front, issuing a statement to all the newspapers simultaneously, saying “Governor Christie is the man we all have to work with while he’s in office, and we appreciate many of the good things he’s done for our state over the years, but there’s no way in this world we would abandon our loyalty to our own party to endorse him for election. It’s up to every citizen of our great state to make up his own mind who to vote for.”

    This would be the “mass protest” strategy–If too many protesters show up, you just don’t have enough room in your jail to lock them all up.

  4. Even Tony Soprano likes plausible deniability. (For some very stretched definition of “plausible”). Only once the hooks are in is it “Pay up or else.” The early stages are “Nice business you got, shame if anything should happen to it.”

    Even the resignations of the lackeys fit into that narrative. Sure, they were overzealous, but you know how partisans can get. They will find new jobs elsewhere shortly (as long as they don’t squeal). And meanwhile, even the probability that the governor is planning revenge against Fort Lee does damage to the city’s prospects.

    I do wonder, though, whether Christie was misled by his previous softball coverage into thinking that this story wouldn’t blow up the way it has.

  5. This just the tip of it, He and his brother have many secrets. We will never know about because they are Brothers. So clling him the Saprano Gov. is not far from the mark,He shields his Brother and his Brother Does the same.

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