‘It is about public officials on six-figure salaries using their powers to affect the life of one person and then affecting the lives of thousands of people,” says reporter Matt Katz, the Peabody Award-winning journalist, explaining why New Jerseyans should care about Bridgegate — the September, 2013, closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge by employees or appointees of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The alleged aim was to punish Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich after he declined to endorse the governor for re-election. The closing created days of traffic jams that jeopardized the wellbeing of thousands of New Jersey citizens trying to get their children to school and get to their jobs. It also impeded passage for thousands of American citizens attempting to cross the nation’s busiest bridge.
Katz’s response is as quick as it is informed. In addition to following Christie for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the 38-year-old writer is the eyes, ears, and voice of WNYC’s Christie Tracker.
He is also the author of “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption,” a 452-page book that chronicles Christie from his birth in Newark to his fast lane rise to political celebrity to his own current political lane closing.
With the federal government trials of the three known players — Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials David Wildstein (who pleaded guilty) and Bill Baroni (pleading innocent) and ex-Christie chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly (pleading not guilty) — set to start in September, Katz’s detailed and fast-paced book is the perfect pre-trial primer to put the action and players in context.
Think of it as a real life “Who Done It” that will be solved live in real time beginning in September.
“(Bridgegate) goes to the way the system has elements that allow corruption,” says Katz on a speakerphone as he drives to a New Jersey book appearance.
There is something right about Katz being interviewed over a soundtrack of tires humming over a state highway. His work has taken him all places New Jersey as he followed the governor and searched for information — with Trenton and Princeton being prominent backdrops.
There is also some poetic justice in Katz becoming the go-to guy on Bridgegate. He is the one who asked Christie during bridge-related press conference, “Governor, did you have anything to do with these lane closures in September outside the GW Bridge?”
The governor — so famous for his sarcasm the Star-Ledger newspaper dubbed him “Governor Rickles,” after the caustic comedian Don Rickles — responded with the now famous, “I worked the cones, Matt. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat.”
Katz says while the trial will answer basic questions of who knew what and when, it also promises to be a bridge into other questionable activities related to Christie’s office and the governor’s Port Authority appointees.
One such activity involves the governor’s staff getting local endorsements for Christie’s re-election “They were doing that on taxpayers’ time and presenting gifts to (other elected) officials,” Katz says, mentioning steel salvaged from the wreckage after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and American flags flown over what became to be called Ground Zero. It was, he says, “the politicalization of 9/11.”
Another was “the way the Port Authority — which has a bigger budget than most states — is the plaything of the wealthy and powerful. And now an allegation that the chairman of the Port Authority (which owns Newark Airport) was using his position to get United Airlines to create a route to South Carolina, ‘The Chairman’s Flight,’ would never have come to light without the investigation.”
While the closing of the George Washington Bridge is now the stuff of national news and New Jersey history, the caper had the potential of being missed — even by the press. “I didn’t see it as plausible or reach into the governor’s office,” admits Katz about his first thought about the bridge closings. “I thought it was local shenanigans. I didn’t know how difficult it was for the drivers (in Fort Lee). I didn’t know it was happening intentionally on the first day of school. I didn’t realize it went on for five mornings in a row.”
Looking back to the governor’s cone comments in December, 2013, Katz says, “We don’t know for sure if at the time (of the press conference) if he did know. We don’t have evidence.”
Yet, he adds, “It is such a ridiculous thing that (his response that he didn’t know) seems a plausible answer; it also seems a good way to throw people off the scent.”
That leads to a central problem with the current administration. “Transparency has been a major problem. He promised to be transparent. It was in the second sentence in his inaugural address. And you look at the court costs related to secret documents and attempts to open them up to the public.”
The sentence from the inaugural address to which Katz refers is, “Today a new era of accountability and transparency is here.”
Another problem with transparency, says Katz, is that formerly public documents are no longer treated as such. That includes records of the governor leaving the state, the amount the state government spent on Christie’s failed presidential bid, and other budgetary information. “We’re in court right now to see his G100 list — where the governor’s office listed its favorite towns.” That includes municipalities and “swing towns” that would receive special attention, like town hall meetings, to get endorsements.
“It has been very difficult to know what is going on in (Christie’s) government unless he chooses to tell us,” says Katz. And after the revelation of Bridgegate, the governor cut back on press conferences, making it more difficult to get information, he adds.
And there has been controlled information coming from the governor’s office, which doubled his communications staff and, as Katz notes in the book, reached “a payroll of about $1.4 million a year — so staffers could be dispatched to every public event armed with video cameras, boom mic, and laptops, cutting and clipping Christie’s appearances into mini-movies.”
With the help of a digital director who, Katz writes, choreographed the governor, the team created videos edited from town hall meetings where the governor bounded into the room, threw off his jacket, told stories about his mother and friends, and sparred with anyone who challenged him.
“The YouTube videos were creating his own news channel,” says Katz, adding the governor’s staff sent tapes to a press list of 3,000 sympathetic and conservative talk shows.
The videos attracted news show producers, who invited the governor to appear — with those appearances edited by the governor’s staff to create more “YouTube moments,” says Katz.
The result, says Katz, was Christie became more than “a governor. He was ‘the Governor,’” and “the aura from New Jersey was beginning to seep into America” — and into the biography’s title.
Those YouTube moments are just part of many New Jersey moments for Katz, who started covering the state in 2000, reporting for the Daily Record Morris County, followed by covering southern New Jersey and Camden for the Courier Post, and then a five-year stint with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Christie Chronicles.
It is work he set out for himself years ago. “As a kid I wanted to be a reporter. I read the paper as a kid,” he says. “In college (George Washington University) I thought about going into politics, but I changed my view on that.”
Katz — despite his current connection with the Garden State — was born in the Bronx. His father, Richard, worked for the Food and Drug Administration. His mother, Roberta, was an elementary school teacher with a specialty in reading. He grew up in Queens and Long Island.
Yet New Jersey is very close to his heart. He dedicates his book to his wife, Deborah, writing, “The best thing that ever happened to me was falling in love with a Jersey girl” — Randolph, New Jersey, to be exact. An online trail shows Katz courting his fellow George Washington University attendee through articles and blogs — with a New Jersey Monthly profile on Katz concluding with his proposal. They married in 2008, have two children, and live in Philadelphia, where she a vice president/creative director at Evoke Health.
Katz says his reporting and writing work can make home life difficult, but things are easier now that the book and related tour are finished.
Assessing Christie’s early years, Katz says “he was successful in the first term working with Democrats with pension and benefit reform. You can agree and disagree with it, but it was bipartisan success. The psychological effect he had on the state after (Super Storm) Sandy was important those first few days after Sandy hit, and I think he was good at it.
“There’s no question he did a lot less as governor in the second term than he did the first term. In regards to the pension he would have made more cuts, but the Democrats and unions wouldn’t go along. He couldn’t go any further. He didn’t make any deals or compromises.”
On Christie’s changes on issues such as gun laws and Planned Parenthood, Katz says,” I can’t look into his heart. He changed his position on many things. It’s hard to know what was real and what wasn’t.”
Katz took a break from New Jersey politics in 2010 and traveled to the Middle East to report for the Philadelphia Inquirer, receiving a Livingston Award for International Reporting for his series “Mired in Afghanistan.”
Asked if that assignment affects his thinking about covering problems with transparency and corruption at home, Katz says, “I was reporting on a broken (military) bureaucracy. What I was seeing back in New Jersey wasn’t too much different.”
Then, he adds, just as his car gets to its destination, “What gets me hot under the collar is when the law is broken, and we can’t get documents we need to get.”
He is also concerned about the public’s right to know what elected officials are doing and being held accountable and the current state of journalism.”The press core at the Statehouse has gotten smaller. It’s bad for democracy and bad for New Jersey for sure.”
So what should the public look for during the upcoming trials? Katz’s response is simple and cuts to the core of what political reporting is all about: “The public should be watching for clues about all of the otherwise unknown things — legal and illegal alike — that their public servants were doing on the public dime.”
Summing it all up he says, “We’ll get a unique look at how the administration works. Fascinating!”
American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption, by Matt Katz, Simon & Shuster, $28.