A friend of mine from California E-mailed in last week after many moons, and asked how things were going generally, and what was happening with this Chris Christie controversy specifically.
Where do I begin, I thought to myself. The Christie affair is beginning to feel like one of those summer pig roasts. The beast is on the spit, turning slowly, and the crowd is gathering, nibbling on the appetizers but clearly hungry for the main course. The trouble is that every time someone sticks a fork in to see if the big guy is done, they discover one more place that could use a little more cooking.
Later that week, on Thursday, February 6, I heard another new wrinkle on the Christie case — pretty amazing given that I have been housebound for nearly four weeks now trying to get a brand-new, store-bought knee to behave in such a way that the slightest movement will not trigger a fusillade of pain. Simply put I have been ingesting a lot of television, everything from the survival guy, to NBA basketball, to PGA golf, to the news — network, cable, and even Fox. It was hard to miss every slight turn in the Christie case.
But then MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell surprised me with a new probe into the corpus of the governor. The attack point: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. To me the port’s only link to the “bridge-gate” scandal were the three political cronies of the governor — David Samson, Bill Baroni, and David Wildstein — who approved the order from the governor’s office or helped cover it up afterward. The cronies’ behavior had already been the subject of much eager speculation.
What else could be new? Surely every New Jersey governor has packed the Port Authority with as many cronies as he could. Not a proud line item on the resume, but politics as usual, or so I figured. But not so, argued O’Donnell, and helping him make the point were not one but two people well known to Princeton and central New Jersey.
First up on O’Donnell’s show was Jim Doig, a retired Princeton professor of politics, now teaching at Dartmouth, and even more relevant the author of “Empire on the Hudson,” a definitive history of the Port Authority published in the year 2000. Playing politics with the Port Authority, Doig argued, is not a time-honored tradition. In fact, the idea of an independent body to enable government to execute projects with the same efficiency as business was an idea that grew out of the progressive movement of the early 20th century. Woodrow Wilson, whose rise from Princeton University president to New Jersey governor to president was even more meteoric than Christie’s could ever be, was a champion of this reform.
As Doig wrote in his book: “It was time, Wilson argued, for the reformers to extend their vision beyond the ‘mere elimination’ of patronage and spoils system, and to urge that the principles of ‘business administration’ be applied to government, rendering its efforts more effective.”
The other guy on the O’Donnell show was Martin Robins, a 1964 Princeton alumnus who also served on the Daily Princetonian as an undergraduate and a person I knew from various alumni activities over the years. After Princeton Robins earned a law degree at Harvard, and then became active in transportation planning, serving at the Port Authority for four years from 1983 to 1987, New Jersey Transit from 1988 to 1994, and later as director of Rutgers University’ Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center.
In that capacity Robins helped organize the regional environmental impact study for a Millstone Bypass that — if it had gained funding — would have eliminated the traffic lights on Route 1 at Harrison Street, Fisher Place, and Princeton-Hightstown Road.
In other words, Robins knows a little about effective government, and has a nose for political pork and spoils. As Robins later told Mark J. Magyar of njspotlight.com in reference to the lane closings: “This is a colossal misdeed, a clear case of malfeasance in office, and an unprecedented abuse of power by David Wildstein and Bill Baroni at least . . . People who worked at the Port Authority must be agog that anyone would do this. Clearly, it was a rogue act by a rogue employee, but he obviously knew he could get away with it.”
In fact, as Elizabeth Kolbert reported in the January 27 issue of the New Yorker (echoing a charge made a year ago by Doig in a New York Times op ed), when Christie took office in 2010, “he set about stuffing the weakened agency with his supporters. A lawsuit filed by a former employee revealed that within two years the new administration had sought berths at the Port Authority for nearly 50 loyalists.” By 2012 “the patronage count at the agency had reportedly reached 80.”
As has been the case with a lot of the recent revelations about Christie, the “stuffing” of the Port Authority got a little attention in the media, specifically the Bergen Record, but no sustained public scrutiny. But if you were a reporter which story would you rather cover (and if you were a reader which would you rather follow): Dysfunction at the Port Authority, or the possibility of Chris Christie moving from Drumthwacket to the White House in just six years?
So how did the Port Authority devolve into this safe harbor for people like Wildstein, Samson, Baroni? The New Yorker’s explanation referred to a recent audit of the Port Authority that “described the agency’s operations succinctly as ‘dysfunctional.’ The audit . . . suggested that at least some of the problems could be traced back to September 11, 2001, when the authority lost its executive director [Neil D. Levin] and 83 other employees. The terrorist attack, the report observed, took ‘a significant emotional toll on the psyche of the organization.’”
That’s a doubly sad state of affairs for this writer, who vividly recalls that morning when the spouse of a U.S. 1 staffer — a manager with the Port Authority — died when the Twin Towers fell.
Meanwhile the long-simmering Christie roast still is not done. More appetizers keep getting passed around. None of it promises to be very tasty.