(CNN) — What started with days of traffic jams in an obscure New Jersey town has now become a major scandal for one of the most prominent U.S. politicians. For those of you west of the Poconos, or just with normal lives, here’s how the closure of two lanes on a bridge over the Hudson River suddenly became the epicenter of American political news.
Chris Christie is seen as a rising star in the Republican Party and a possible presidential contender in 2016. He won a second term as governor of Democratic-leaning New Jersey, the 11th-largest U.S. state, in November. He was the keynote speaker at the party’s 2012 convention, serves as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and led all other potential GOP contenders in a recent CNN/ORC International poll.
So what happened on the bridge?
Back in September, two months before Christie’s re-election, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed two of the three lanes that lead to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, across the Hudson from Manhattan. That caused days of massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, where the Democratic mayor had declined to endorse Christie.
The closures were ordered by David Wildstein, a Christie confidante and the governor’s appointee to the Port Authority, which operates the nation’s busiest bridge. They immediately sparked speculation by Democrats that the action amounted to political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. That led to hearings in New Jersey’s state legislature and the December resignations of Wildstein — who had said the closures were part of a traffic study — and Bill Baroni, New Jersey’s top Port Authority official.
Then came Wednesday’s revelation that a top Christie aide had e-mailed Wildstein before the closures, telling him, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” In a lengthy news conference Thursday, Christie announced he had fired the author of that e-mail, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the “abject stupidity” of the move.
Politics ain’t beanbag. What’s the big deal?
Fort Lee’s emergency medical services chief warned at the time that the resulting traffic jams could have life-or-death implications for residents by delaying firefighters and paramedics. He listed several examples, including car wrecks, chest pains and a 91-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack and later died.
And politically, several analysts say the scandal endangers any national ambitions Christie may have.
“If a woman died here, he’s in deep, deep trouble,” said David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst.
The former federal prosecutor’s combative personality has produced some compelling video clips over the past few years, particularly when confronted with hecklers. Critics call him a bully — an allegation Christie denied in his news conference Thursday, but one Gergen said the Fort Lee scandal reinforces.
“There’s something about this that’s so petty and so vindictive … he’s going to have to find some way to defuse this to prove he doesn’t run a shop like that,” Gergen said.
Investigations and some “soul searching” on the part of the governor, who said he was “blindsided” by the e-mails.
“I have worked for the last 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk, one that I think is well-deserved,” he said. “But, you know, when something like this happens, it is appropriate for you to question yourself. And certainly I am, and I am soul searching on this.”
But first, he headed to Fort Lee for a mea culpa — a personal, “face-to-face” apology to Sokolich and the people of his town Thursday afternoon, which Sokolich called “gracious” and “conciliatory.”
That may not be the end of it, however. State lawmakers are still holding hearings into the bridge scandal. Wildstein refused to testify before the state General Assembly’s Transportation Committee on Thursday afternoon, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
And the U.S. attorney’s office in Trenton — the governor’s old post — says it’s looking into whether any federal laws were broken. Both the Port Authority’s inspector-general and state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie’s opponent in November, have asked federal authorities to step in.