Christie and Gang Felt Sooooo Comfy They Could Do Almost Anything

Yesterday, I heard a young person say that they didn’t get what was such a big deal about closing traffic lanes. Yeah.

1. I suppose she doesn’t drive that often, or something, and 2. I suppose (guess) she just isn’t that engaged in politics.

With the sudden flurry of accusations flying fast and furious against the Christie admin. and connected cronies all over NJ, this was the first time I heard a low-information response that wasn’t defending Christie but more sort of noncomprehending of the scope of the accusations. This flies in the face of most of the thinking about Bridgegate because it seems to be a very easily graspable story of abuse of power. As I explained quickly to the individual, even if you expect politics to be rife with pols big footing each other and creating political advantage for themselves at the expense of their rivals, it should always be in the act of doing the people’s work and should never inconvenience, no less potentially endanger regular citizens. 

More commonly I hear non political junkies say (sigh), “they all do it.” Which is infuriating because it does in some way excuse it – no matter how much they say it doesn’t. To cynically dismiss all politics and politicians as self-serving is easy and may be predominantly accurate in describing every day retail policy making, but it normalizes an acceptance of such actions. Like in the GW Bridge case or the misuse of Sandy funds, a line is crossed where such actions are much more malignant. A public trust is betrayed when the citizens who suffered through Sandy are left to continue to wait for funds to rebuild their houses, while $6.2 million is funneled to someone else’s pet project, unrelated to Sandy recovery. Using Sandy recovery funds as a slush fund in order to curry favor is not benign, not normal operating procedure. It’s unacceptable in any way and the “everybody does it” response is likewise inappropriate.

What’s happening in NJ is two fold: 1. Bridgegate opened the media’s eyes to recent Christie admin. actions that may well be abuse of power and misuse of public funds, and 2. long simmering stories of similarly inappropriate, although maybe not illegal behavior are finally coming to light in a way the actors certainly never thought they would.

From the beginning of Christie’s tenure as governor (actually even before) stories emerged that were disturbing, but never reached crucial critical mass with the NY media. Stories like the firing of a local prosecutor and the quashing of a grand jury indictment against a loyal Christie sheriff were generally ignored outside of local NJ media. Such stories were ignored by national media as Christie’s star rose as a national figure. The narrative for his reelection was all about his popularity and 2016 prospects. The fact that so many NJ Democrats were on board with his reelection was seen as evidence of his political power.

The truth was that Christie’s actual record as governor did not follow the narrative. The economic and job numbers weren’t great, his so-called bi-partisan accomplishments came with a lot of Democratic arms twisted out of their sockets. It’s only now emerging how manipulatively political the Christie admin. was and the ethical prices paid to achieve so much Democratic accommodation.

Before Bridgegate there was the cancelling of the ARC tunnel. A massive project with 15 years of planning behind it, the digging of a new tunnel under the Hudson River connecting NJ and midtown Manhattan was seen as vital to expanding the capacity of mass transit in the most traveled region in the entire country. The project was to be paid for primarily with federal money, with the Port Authority of NY and NJ providing the rest and NY and NJ separately putting in smaller sums. Christie cancelled the project and had to return some of the federal funding. Christie completely fabricated a story about cost overruns that would cost NJ more than advertised in order to justify why it was cancelled. His cleverly manipulative line was that he wasn’t going to bankrupt NJ in order to build a train into the basement of Macy’s. He was able to look tough and fiscally responsible, convincing anybody who didn’t have to commute into NYC everyday it was a better deal for NJ. Anybody thinking about the future and the vitality of infrastructure knew it was a huge mistake and the squandering of a hard fought for opportunity. There had to be something more to the story for Christie to make up such an egregious lie about cost overruns.

We now know what that story was. The federal money went away, but the Port Authority then had a pool of newly available money that Christie’s appointed cronies on the Port Authority made available for projects that had nothing to do with its constitutional purpose of maintaining and improving the Hudson River crossings. Christie took money that could not be used to curry any favor with potential political allies and turned it into a slush fund to spread around to scratch the backs of local pols and buy their loyalty. 

This may not be strictly illegal and the projects that were funded may well end being necessary except that the Port Authority shouldn’t have been funding them. But there was no political advantage for Christie to be gained in just allowing the tunnel project to go ahead. So he didn’t. And once again, hardly anybody knew. 

What’s coming out now is that Christie and company felt so comfortable, especially after his popularity skyrocketed post-Sandy, going beyond the usual horsetrading to push the malfeasance envelope. If you could use the Port Authority as a bank for pet projects, why not use the federal Sandy funding as well? Take $6.2 for a senior citizen’s facility and $4.8 for an apartment complex, come up with some flimsy connection to Sandy and make a couple of influential pals happy. Use the carrot and stick of those funds to motivate local mayors to leverage them into backing development projects. 

So long as the media remains with their heads in the sand and Christie is riding high in popularity so that nobody would cross him, all is good. 

What they did in closing lanes on the GWB, for whatever reason they did it, wasn’t just the most egregious pushing of the ethical envelope. It was an act of supreme arrogance enabled by all of the previous mischief that went unpunished if not completely uncovered.