New Jersey may not be a sprawling land mass, but it probably has more municipalities than your favorite Midwestern state. Now it seems the officials of every single one have a gripe against Chris Christie. Who are these officials? Why are they so angry? Where does Olympic champion Carl Lewis come in? We are here to help.
Mark Sokolich (D – Fort Lee)
Described variously in the confidential emails released by the New Jersey legislature as “Serbia,” “little Serbian,” and almost as bad as Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, it is Sokolich’s plight that begins the story of how one of the most popular governors in America is now a walking punchline of corruption and heavy-handed strongman rule. Sokolich (who, despite the insults, is of Croatian heritage) is the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey – a small, suburban town known as a sleepy place except for its hosting the George Washington Bridge, the most trafficked bridge in America.
On September 9, 2013, senior Port Authority official David Wildstein personally appeared at the bridge to ensure that all traffic lanes going into and out of Fort Lee were closed for a “traffic study.” The resulting chaos made commuters four hours late to their destinations on the first day of school that year and caused several emergency response vehicles to not show up to their respective emergencies on time. The traffic was so chaotic it was compared to moving around the area on September 11, 2001. Sokolich himself immediately wondered, “Am I being sent some sort of message?”
The most accepted theory for why the traffic problems were orchestrated goes that Sokolich earned it by not endorsing Governor Christie. Christie himself said he could not “pick [Sokolich] out of a lineup,” which is what made it so difficult to believe someone would punish the mayor in such a way. Yet the smoking gun of all of Bridgegate is an email from Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff to Wildstein asking for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Before he became a household name through this scandal, Sokolich began his career as a lawyer in Fort Lee, ascending to the mayorship in 2008. A lifelong resident of the town, Sokolich continues to practice law there – as the mayoral position is not full-time – and has advocated for the position to become one for which the mayor would not need a second income, citing distance from his family. His tenure, save the incident with Christie and a run-in with Dr. Oz, has been an unremarkable one in which Fort Lee has remained a stable community, though increasingly ethnically diverse and urbanized. It is too soon to tell whether his legacy will be marred by his involvement in such a scandal, as revelations surface through the work of the New Jersey Legislature’s investigative committee.
Dawn Zimmer (D – Hoboken)
Among the more enigmatic characters to surface against Christie, the Hoboken mayor was once perceived as among Christie’s strongest allies in deep blue Hudson County and is now at the center of perhaps the most egregious accusation against the governor.
Zimmer alleges that Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno took her into the parking lot of a Hoboken supermarket and threatened that if Zimmer did not approve a real estate redevelopment project tied to a Christie ally, her city would receive no funding to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Zimmer made this shocking accusation to MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki and has revealed as evidence her personal diary and letters she sent asking for more Hurricane Sandy funding. She also claims several people in City Hall can bear witness to her claims, though none were at the 9th Street Shoprite when Guadagno allegedly cornered her. Zimmer has since stopped speaking to the press at the request of a U.S. Attorney.
Zimmer was not elected mayor of Hoboken initially. Thanks to the almost complete absence of a Republican Party in Hudson County, most mayoral contests take place between Democrats, divided more on intra-party affiliation (Hudson County Democratic Organization vs. assorted renegades like Union City’s Brian Stack and Jersey City’s Steven Fulop) than policy initiatives. Zimmer lost to Peter Cammarano, who broke state records by getting himself arrested for taking bribes within his second week in office. Cammarano was out in handcuffs at the end of the month – thanks in large part to the intrepid work of then-U.S. Attorney for the State of New Jersey Chris Christie – and the candidate whom Hoboken residents liked less than the guy who lasted two weeks in office before getting arrested took the reins, with nary a Republican in sight. She has since been reelected after having the chance to govern.
As far as Hudson County mayors go, Zimmer seemed to be the closest to an establishment Republican there is. Zimmer heaped effusive praise on the Christie administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, almost as if she was acutely aware of how far from the mayorship she would have been had Christie not had a hand in arresting the man actually elected mayor.
However, now she is levying the sharpest attacks on the governor and receiving criticism from her neighboring mayors – including Union City Mayor Brian Stack, a Democrat who supports Christie, who called the accusations “far-fetched.” Her diary has also recently come under fire, as one lawyer who deposed Zimmer for a discrimination case alleges that she claimed not to have one under oath.
Steven Fulop (D – Jersey City)
Since succeeding the questionably corrupt Jerramiah Healy at City Hall, Fulop was almost immediately catapulted into local celebrity: a young mayor fluent in Twitter that had dedicated years to the climb to the mayorship and had the potential to be the next Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in a city that, under Healy, increasingly looked like it was heading down the same road as Newark. Fulop won his election by defying the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization, despite being a progressive, and almost immediately became a thorn in Christie’s side.
Fulop alleges that after he refused to endorse the Governor, Christie abruptly canceled a series of important meetings regarding state money to improve projects in Jersey City. Fulop’s claim that he was cast to the side seemed confirmed when a series of emails released by the New Jersey legislature related to the closing of the George Washington Bridge mentioned him derisively – asked whether they should answer Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich’s complaints about the bridge closures, David Wildstein, who orchestrated the closings, responded, “Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”
Christie denied having anything against Fulop, noting that he spoke at the Mayor’s graduation but that Fulop seemed to have a feisty personality and “have a lot of disagreements with a lot of people.”
In an unrelated issue, Fulop is suing the Port Authority to the tune of $400 million for years of taxes he alleges the agency has not paid on Holland Tunnel property located in Jersey City.
Christian Bollwage (D – Elizabeth)
The Mayor of Elizabeth, one of the state’s biggest, poorest, and most urban cities, has an entirely different set of gripes from the above mayors regarding Chris Christie. Bollwage, a lifelong Democrat and the mayor of Elizabeth for 23 years, claims that Christie shut down a local Motor Vehicle Commission office to spite Bollwage for not endorsing him. The MVC office in Elizabeth, he argues, was close to public transportation and the most easily accessible of the offices in the state for lower-income drivers who now have to voyage to Newark to use its services. Christie’s office countered this attack by noting that closing that office saved “nearly $300,000” in taxpayers’ funds that were desperately needed to keep the state’s budget afloat.
Bollwage has deep roots in New Jersey’s Democratic Party and a lengthy history of relationships with shady fundraisers like George Norcross (who has endorsed Christie) and State Senator Ray Lesniak (who has adamantly not). He is, like Zimmer, a product of the anemic and apathetic State Republican infrastructure in urban New Jersey communities – without a vibrant Republican candidate to oppose him in 23 years, Bollwage has cruised to repeated victory. Nonetheless, during Christie’s first gubernatorial campaign, Bollwage found himself with a school board almost unanimously endorsing Christie against incumbent Jon Corzine, and his attempts to lobby for Corzine failed.
During his tenure, he has been accused of attempting to shut down an opposition newspaper and appointing city figures so corrupt they resign on their own. During his tenure it was also found that the children of school board administrators were receiving free lunches at school at the expense of taxpayers (school board officials denied knowing their children were receiving free lunch).
Bennett Barlyn (former Hunterdon County Prosecutor)
Bennett Barlyn was once a prominent Hunterdon County prosecutor, serving the county for 18 years. One day, Barlyn heard rumblings of corruption surrounding the county’s Republican sheriff, Deborah Trout. Barlyn set off to investigate, and his office launched a full offensive against a number of members of the Republican government there for various alleged crimes, including “hiring staff without vetting them, supplying a Christie donor with a false law enforcement ID and forcing underlings to sign loyalty oaths.” Barlyn indicted all the parties he believed to be involved in the corruption.
One day shortly thereafter, he was abruptly fired. The indictments were thrown out for insufficient evidence.
The story first surfaced last October, when Bridgegate was but a local Fort Lee rumor. Then, Barlyn appeared in The New York Times with his claims, to which Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak replied, “This truly is some of the most wild-eyed conspiracy theories I’ve heard in a long time.” The Star-Ledger began sniffing around and found that members of the grand jury that indicted Trout and others felt that the case was on strong footing.
Barlyn’s allegations did not initially receive the same level of media attention as they did a few months later when Christie became embroiled in the George Washington Bridge scandal. Barlyn, now a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania trying to make ends meet with half his original salary, immediately pounced on the Bridgegate scandal to tell the press about the parallels between his case and Sokolich’s. Christie, he alleges, punishes dissidents with “mafia-esque” authority. He told the Daily Mail that his experience was similar to the silence Fulop reported or the retribution against Sokolich: “‘I was given no due process, I was fired without explanation and other people were intimidated in the office to remain silent… it was the same modus operandi.”
Barlyn sued for wrongful termination and is awaiting the development of the case. Given the timing of the New Jersey legislature’s investigation regarding Bridgegate, this scandal could explode simultaneously with any developments in that case, particularly if David Wildstein, the mastermind behind the bridge plan, is given immunity in exchange for testimony that implicates anyone other than him.
Carl Lewis (D – The Olympics)
Carl Lewis, once considered the “world’s fastest man,” is a nine-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the most revered track and field stars of the past century. Though he has gotten into some controversy for accusing Jamaican athletes of abusing performance-enhancing drugs (Usain Bolt said he had “no respect for him” after those comments), he is widely regarded as an exemplar in the world of Olympic track and field. He has, since retiring from the sport, undertaken humanitarian work in underprivileged areas such as Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake there several years ago.
He, too, once crossed paths with Chris Christie.
Lewis, a native of New Jersey but for much of his life a resident of California, sought in 2011 to run as a Democrat in the heavily Republican 8th District which includes much of Bergen County. He was disqualified by a court at the hands of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno – the same official who allegedly accosted Dawn Zimmer in the Hoboken Shoprite parking lot – because the election has a four-year residency requirement, whereas Lewis had been voting in California as recently as 2009 and did not register to vote in the state until he began his campaign in April 2011.
Lewis immediately blamed the matter on politics. He claimed in 2011 that he had been approached by the state government to work on a lucrative youth fitness program in 2010 and was told directly that if he challenged preferred Republican opponent Sen. Dawn Addiego for the seat, “we probably don’t have time to do this program.” The program would have made Lewis a “physical fitness ambassador for New Jersey,” a position not previously in existence. Lewis did not heed the warnings he allegedly received and was removed from the ballot.
Amid the torrent of scandals currently surrounding the governor, Lewis piped up again, his allegations unchanged through the years. This time, Christie’s office issued an official statement accusing the Olympian of the grave sin of “sour grapes.” No legal repercussions, but much confusion, has come out of this latest Christie feud.