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The New Jersey governor now in the middle of a political scandal over George Washington bridge lane closures has a reputation for hardball politics.
He’s stripped a former governor of his police escort, he’s pulled funding for a political scientist who declined to endorse Republican redistricting plans, and his office has pressured prosecutors who were investigating a Republican sheriff and fundraiser.
The New York Times reports he’s also bought up what appears to be bogus ethics complaints against one Columbia University professor who’s questioned Christie’s plan for a gas pipeline through New Jersey. The pipeline comes up for a vote tomorrow.
Kate Zernike, who covers politics for the New York Times, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the governor’s history.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, as we said today, tried to get ahead of the unfolding political scandal that's being called Bridgegate. In a news conference, for two hours, he apologized for massive traffic jams that caused gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey last September, when lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge - the busiest bridge in the country - were closed. Christie said he fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, after emails made public yesterday indicated that the closure were a political payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, who had not endorsed Christie for governor. Today, Christie also denied being a bully.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Because I am who I am, but I am not a bully. And what I will tell you is that the folks who have worked with me over a long period of time would, I believe, tell you that I'm tough. But I've shown, over the last four years, in the tone that we've set here, that I'm willing to compromise, that I'm willing to work with others.
YOUNG: Well, let's turn now to Kate Zernike, who has found that some people in New Jersey might disagree with that assessment. She's on her cellphone in New Jersey. She covers the state for The New York Times. And Kate, it's been a pretty busy day.
KATE ZERNIKE: Yes, it has. Thanks for having me.
YOUNG: We should say that after Chris Christie talked for two hours...
YOUNG: ...one of his confidants, David Wildstein, who once worked at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge, resigned after that bridge scandal a month ago. Was that an investigative hearing that was closely following the governor's press conference, and he pleaded the fifth. He would not say a word.
ZERNIKE: He would not even say where he was previously employed, which was at the Port Authority. No. He was completely refusing to answer questions.
YOUNG: So this is - some were looking at that as saying, all right, we're getting close to the things that you have gate at the end of their name, with somebody pleading the fifth. But take on this idea that Chris Christie says he's not a bully, that he's - he questioned why would people - meaning his aides - lie to him? What did I do to deserve this? Some would say that he created that climate.
ZERNIKE: No. I think a lot of people have said that. What the governor said was, look, we've done all this work. We've proven that we can compromise. I think if you talk to Democrats in the State House, what they will say is the governor meets just to cross the aisle when we cross the aisle to meet him on things like pension and benefits reform. He is less likely to cross the aisle and do what Democrats want him to. But both Democrats and Republicans will tell you - and they often tell you secretly, because they don't want more retribution - but they will tell you the governor has been very vindictive, not over, you know, even big things, but over small (unintelligible).
So, you know, a Republican senator says, well, you know, the governor might have declared a state of emergency a little early on a snowstorm. And that Republican senator finds himself disinvited from a press conference and told, you know, not to show up around the governor. You know, a former governor and state senator was stripped of his police detail at one point because he, you know, called out the governor on a lie. Another Republican senator voted against a bill that the governor really wanted passed, and suddenly, he found that a judicial nominee he'd been pushing was held up for several months.
So these are stories that have been around for a long time. And so, you know, the governor may be telling the truth when he says that he didn't have anything to do with the bridge closing. But certainly, people said, this is a culture that he's created. And I think that's why the story has stuck, and that's why the story has resonated since September.
It would be preposterous to think that some governor would waste his time moving cones on the bridge. But we've all had these stories where they resonate with a larger truth. And I think that's what's happening here, is people have heard whispers that there's retribution that goes on in the Christie administration, and this seems to be a piece of that.
YOUNG: Your reference to the cones on the bridge, that's what he said in response when people who said: Did you have anything with this? He said, yeah, I was out there moving the cones on the bridge. Of course...
ZERNIKE: Right. He actually mocked the whole idea. Yeah.
YOUNG: Of course, he would not have been. Well - and you remind us that Chris Christie burst on the national scene with a confrontation. This was in 2010. He was pushing to cut public employee benefits. And there were YouTube video clips circulating of him dressing down teachers, including one that's - let's listen to it. This is actually a 2012 town hall about his plan to merge community colleges.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL MEETING)
CHRISTIE: After you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end's going to be thrown in jail, idiot.
YOUNG: Well - and he just referred to as an idiot a former Navy SEAL and law student who'd pressed him with a question. That's quite something.
ZERNIKE: Right. And remember, that one of the interesting things about those YouTube videos is that it was the governor's staff themselves who were promoting those videos. They were the ones who were putting them out there, trying to promote the image of Christie as a tough-talker, you know, telling it like it is.
YOUNG: Well, you talked about some of the cases of - that you found, a former governor stripped of police security at public events - unheard of. All former governors always have that. You tell - you talk about people who get handwritten notes from him when they didn't like something they said.
ZERNIKE: Right. And that was the case of a state senator who was a Democrat - sorry - a state assemblyman who's a Democrat who said in an interview that he thought that it was - you know, that he had mentioned to the governor that he felt that the governor could be - that some of the public employees who had voted for the governor were now the people the governor was vilifying in public.
And which is not a, you know, it's a fairly mild comment. It's not a huge criticism, and he gets this handwritten note from the governor, you know, how dare you say that I'm watching what you say, which is really sort of surprising that a governor would - who - a governor who was, you know, has so - such a huge role on the national stage would take the time to do that.
YOUNG: Well, Kate, is it? Because people might - cynics might say, but this is how it works. This probably happens in every state that when a governor gets unhappy, suddenly, oh, if you're a Rutgers professor, you lose your funding for a favorite research project. Is this that unusual?
ZERNIKE: Well, I think it's - I mean, I think the issue with Christie is that it's often over - you're right about the - for instance, on the Rutgers funding, it was withheld because someone didn't approve his redistricting plan, which is a big issue. But I mean, the other things, they're often small issues. You know, it's sort of a minor criticism of the governor.
You know, it's the governor - sorry - it's someone going on a radio show and saying, well, you know, we're talking past the governor. We need to start talking to each other. And they got an angry phone call and a profane message from the governor. I mean, that's just - it's sort of - it's over-the-top reactions in some cases.
YOUNG: Well, there's an ongoing issue right now with the gas pipeline that Governor Christie wants to build across some protected open space in New Jersey, people in New Jersey very protective of open space. The plan comes up for a vote tomorrow. The Times - The New York Times today turned up allegations that Christie's administration drummed up conflict of interest charges against a Columbia University professor who'd questioned the pipeline and then falsely claimed ethics investigators found a conflict of interest. This is - this combativeness is an issue that's alive.
ZERNIKE: Absolutely. I mean, this is the kind of thing we see. You know, he's - Governor Christie has made no secret of the fact that he wants to remake a state Supreme Court. He's the first governor who's ever refused to reappoint a sitting Supreme Court justice because he didn't like the way they voted. I mean, this is sort of what he does. He - and I think he has, in some cases, been honest about this but he, you know, sort of uses to your own favor to get what he wants.
YOUNG: That's Kate Zernike, New Jersey correspondent for The New York Times, covering a very busy day in New Jersey. We saw a two - a pretty astonishing, rambunctious two-hour press conference with Governor Chris Christie responding to news yesterday that emails show that his - some of his top aides closed lanes on a very active bridge which tied a town up in knots for four days, emergency vehicles couldn't cross the bridge. It was political payback.
Today, he said he fired the aide behind that. Immediately following that, there was a hearing in New Jersey in which another former friend and head of the Port Authority pleaded the Fifth several times. So this story gets deeper and deeper. Kate Zernike, thanks so much for talking to us about it.
ZERNIKE: OK, thank you.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.