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The Globe and Mail

Christie backpedals on bridge firestorm, blames aide

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walks from a gathering with school children in Union City, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. A top aide to Christie is linked through emails and text messages to a seemingly deliberate plan to create traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J., at the base of the George Washington Bridge after its mayor refused to endorse Christie for re-election.

Mel Evans/AP

One of the Republican front-runners in the next race for president of the United States may find his way obstructed – by a traffic jam.

Chris Christie, the pugnacious governor of New Jersey, is embroiled in a controversy over a politically motivated snarl that occurred over several days last fall at the George Washington Bridge.

E-mails circulated Wednesday show that a senior aide to Mr. Christie orchestrated the closing of lanes leading to the bridge, the world's busiest span, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey.

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The move appeared to be a form of punishment aimed at the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., the town adjacent to the bridge. The mayor had declined to endorse Mr. Christie's bid for re-election.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a top aide in Mr. Christie's office back in August to David Wildstein, a close ally of Mr. Christie's at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

"Got it," replied Mr. Wildstein.

The resulting gridlock jammed access to the bridge and trapped school buses trying to deliver students to the first days of class.

In recent months, Mr. Christie dismissed the news reports concerning the tangle. The closings were part of a study of traffic patterns, he said, and neither he nor his staff had any involvement in the process.

On Wednesday, however, he said that a member of his staff had misled him. "This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," said Mr. Christie in a statement released late in the afternoon. "This type of behaviour is unacceptable … and people will be held responsible for their actions."

Mr. Christie, who cruised to a landslide re-election victory in November, is positioning himself for a run for president in 2016. The rotund, straight-talking politician built a broad winning coalition in New Jersey, emphasizing his bipartisan credentials and attracting significant numbers of independent and Democratic voters.

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But Mr. Christie's brash style has a darker side, which some describe as a temperament predisposed to bullying those who cross him. That critique didn't resonate with voters, however, noted Ben Dworkin, who directs The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

"What we're now seeing is a move to a new narrative: The governor is someone who abuses power," said Prof. Dworkin. "That's a much stronger critique and more likely to have a lasting impact."

The documents made public on Wednesday by several news organizations show Mr. Christie's associates delighting in the havoc they caused in Fort Lee, including a plea via text message from the town's mayor for help getting children to school.

"Is it wrong that I'm smiling?" an unnamed person wrote in a text message, then later added: "I feel badly about the kids."

"They are the children of Buono voters," responded Mr. Wildstein of the Port Authority, referring to Barbara Buono, who was then the Democratic challenger in the governor's race.

For months, Mr. Christie played down the lane closings as a laughing matter, once joking that he himself had placed the traffic cones on the road. But state legislators saw things differently. The transportation committee of the state assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, opened an investigation. It began holding hearings and issuing subpoenas for documents from those connected to the closings.

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In December, Mr. Wildstein resigned from his post, as did Bill Baroni, another Port Authority executive appointed by Mr. Christie. The Port Authority is run jointly by the governors of New York and New Jersey; a senior New York appointee testified that he was not informed of the lane closings, disregarding normal procedure.

Meanwhile, in bad news for Mr. Christie, the legislative probe is far from over. "This is not the end of the story," said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. It's possible that the controversy will go "beyond some extraordinarily foolish mischief that had consequences for many people."

Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he was convinced the closings were a form of payback. "I didn't sign up for this petty political insanity," he told the paper. "This is the behaviour of a bully in a schoolyard."

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