An extensive report in The New York Times Wednesday detailed the sophisticated way Chris Christie’s campaign manager Bill Stepien – expelled from New Jersey’s GOP leadership this month for his role in the Fort Lee bridge scandal – kept dossiers on the “Top 100” mayors Christie needed to win and made sure Trenton did them special favors.
Authors Kate Zernike and David Chen explain that Stepien, once Christie’s deputy chief of staff before switching over to run his political campaign, made a list of the mayors of “swing towns” that the campaign saw as “mini-Ohios or mini-Floridas,” where Christie stood a chance of making a dent in the vote even when the towns usually voted deep blue.
Christie, the report notes, would read books full of “tabbed and color-coded dossiers on the mayors of each town” as he traveled on the campaign trail. The dossiers contained as much information about the mayors as possible: their political ideologies, the campaign promises that made them win, and what they hoped to accomplish or build in their towns, as well as personal facts like whether they had made any enemies on their way to the top of local government.
The dossiers were split into North, South, and Central Jersey by the time campaign season rolled around, and different campaign leaders were assigned different regions. The report hints but does not confirm that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, against whom retribution is alleged to have been sought by closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge into his town, was on the list.
Unfortunately, The New York Times does not provide the names of any of the 100 mayors on the list. However, one can assume that powerful, deep-blue mayors like Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, who accused the administration of extorting her with Hurricane Sandy funds, was on the list.
The program, “intergovernmental affairs,” was described in the piece by one insider as “political Moneyball,” and continued within the Governor’s office after Stepien moved over to the political campaign. There, it was handed down to the new deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, now famous for sending the email that set Bridgegate in motion: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Under both Stepien and Kelly, and long before campaign season officially began, the report notes that the “Top 100” mayors “received special attention – state aid, help from the Port Authority, a town-hall-style session with Mr. Christie.”
The idea was to flip the towns to prove that Christie had the type of bipartisan appeal the national Republican party would want in a presidential candidate. At the very least, the Christie team hoped to diffuse the desire of Democrats to ardently campaign for whoever the opponent in 2013 ended up being. It ended up being Barbara Buono, who spent much of her campaign railing against Democrats who endorsed Christie over her.
While not explicitly about the bridge scandal, the Times does try to debunk the idea that it is feasible for Christie to not have known about the plan to shut down parts of the bridge. “There wasn’t anything of significance that Stepien did without the governor being aware of it,” says one Christie enemy, New Jersey Environmental Federation campaign director David Pringle. The article also argues that Christie “himself tended to the smallest details” and would personally call or text legislators to talk about bills rather than send his aides to do it. Political meetings would happen at Christie’s breakfast table with family in tow. He also, the report claims, was less comfortable with email correspondence because of the ease with which it can be saved and disseminated.
Then there are the personalities of Stepien and Kelly themselves. Stepien is repeatedly described as an “enforcer,” an image that echoes the descriptions those close to him gave of former senior official David Wildstein at the Port Authority. Wildstein, who was said to have been appointed to be Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the Port Authority, is the recipient of Kelly’s infamous “traffic problems” email and is alleged to have personally executed to traffic jam. He has promised to testify only if given prosecutorial immunity.
It is Kelly’s image that is most incongruous with the nefarious schemes alleged in the article. Kelly is described as a “breath of fresh air,” regularly in contact with officials on the ground in many towns, but as more of a helping hand than an enforcer.
The article raises more questions than it answers. The identities of the “Top 100” mayors are not revealed, nor is there a strong argument for why studying the needs and desires of the officials closest to New Jerseyans’ problems is a bad thing. The article does not address the relationship Christie had to these mayors so much as makes the claim that it is barely possible that he didn’t have one, and the mayors speaking about it don’t seem too happy with it.
Nonetheless, it is a major break in the story: there are at least 100 people that can attest to how close Christie was to the situations on the ground and what kind of responses he had to mayors who did not endorse him. Should the New Jersey legislature subpoena any one of the 100, their experiences could prove explosive for the governor.