Chris Christie PR disaster set to be a classic


By Benjamin Haslem

For any student of both politics and public relations, the brouhaha enveloping New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is captivating.

For those readers here in Australia who may have missed the story, Gov Christie has been caught up in a crisis centering on the closure of several lanes on the double-decker George Washington Bridge, which connects the famous New Jersey Turnpike with uptown Manhattan in New York City.

The September 9 closure caused gridlock on the first day of the school year. Doesn't sound like much, until you discover the clandestine politics behind the closure and the way the entire issue has been handled by the Governor and his office. 

You may recall Gov Christie sprung to international prominence in the aftermath of the Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of his state. His performance made him a favourite for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination.

It has now emerged the closure of the bridge lanes was orchestrated by the Governor's deputy chief of staff, as political payback against Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Gov Christie in his re-election bid. The incumbent won the November poll in a landslide, bucking tradition in what is historically a safe Democratic Party State

Later that month, the State Assembly's Transportation Committee, chaired by Democrat John Wisniewski, heard evidence from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni who said the lane closures were part of a traffic study ordered by the Authority's Interstate Capital Projects Director David Wildstein, a high-school friend of the Governor's.

Gov Christie was first asked about the lane closures on 2 December, denying any involvement. He made this sarcastic remark: "I worked the [traffic] cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones". 

Four days later Wildstein resigned, saying the whole affair was a distraction and he was "moving on".

On 9 December, Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye told the Transportation Committee that he was unaware of any traffic safety study being conducted on the bridge.

The Inspector General of the Port Authority then launched an investigation.

On 13 December the Governor announced Baroni had resigned and that his staffer, Deborah Gramiccioni, would fill the vacancy. He again claimed he had nothing to do with the lane closures.

Six days later, Wisniewski announced he had received documents subpoenaed from five Port Authority officials. Gov Christie again dismisses questions about the closure.

On Wednesday this week the New Jersey newspaper, The Bergen Record, obtained a 13 August email from Gov Christie's deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly's personal email account to Wildstein.

Kelly: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee".

Wildstein: "Got it".  

The Governor held a 107-minute news conference on Thursday at which he accepted full responsibility for Kelly's actions. He also fired her.

"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover," he said.

"This was handled in a callous and indifferent way and it's not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years and not the way it will conduct itself over the next four."

It's too early to say how this will affect Gov Christie's presidential aspirations. His ability to connect with traditional blue-collar Democrat voters was seen as a perfect foil for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

He has done the right thing in the past 48 hours. He has accepted responsibility and apologised. He has made a commitment to ensure nothing like 'bridgegate' happens again on his watch. He has punished the staffer responsible.

He even visited Fort Lee and apologised to people affected directly and to the mayor.

But this has a way to run. His political opponents will leave no stone unturned in an attempt to connect Gov Christie to the original decision by Kelly to punish Mayor Sokolich. A federal inquiry has been launched.

The fact Kelly felt authorised to behave in such a way calls into question Gov Christie's management and leadership skills. It also raised questions about the culture in his office and his influence on it.