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Opinion: Gov. Christie fosters culture that embraces abuse of power

There is no evidence yet that Gov. Christie conceived or planned the lane closures from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge last fall. Nor is there evidence that he knew contemporaneously about the lane closings. The governor has indicated that he does not recall his high school classmate, David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official, mentioning the lane closing to him at the 9/11 anniversary event, as Wildstein has alleged. However, even if the Mastro report (the taxpayer-funded investigation the governor ordered to “get to the bottom of what happened”) is correct and the governor knew nothing, I still believe he is culpable.

He is responsible for fostering the culture in which two of the highest-ranking Port Authority executives appointed by him and his deputy chief of staff felt it was OK to use government resources to punish political opponents. No matter what the million-dollar whitewash says, Bridgegate took place because of the culture that Gov. Christie created and continues to cultivate.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Bridgegate is that there is no indication that Gov. Christie has learned anything from it. At a recent press conference, he was back to his old antagonistic ways, attacking, deriding and berating a reporter in a condescending, rude manner for a question he didn’t like.

His behavior was a replay of what we have come to expect from him: the abusive and disrespectful manner he employed in mistreating a wide assortment of New Jerseyans at town meetings over the years. The governor will continue to lash out with impunity against journalists, teachers, union officials, judges, political opponents and anyone else who dares to question his views. His approach is not to try to win over those who question him by laying out facts or ideas, but rather by bullying them. An element of the print and electronic media seems to lap up this boorish behavior and characterizes it as “straight talk.”

According to Caliper Inc., an area firm that has helped more than 25,000 companies match people to jobs based on their personality attributes, “Leadership implies that an individual has a special effect on others which commands respect, admiration or affection and causes them to follow him or her . ... It does not mean aggression or force, or coercion.”

While the governor’s aggressive, in-your-face style may have served him well as a federal prosecutor, it is not the way to effectively lead. Contrary to his pronouncements that he has fostered “unprecedented bipartisan cooperation,” he has, on far too many issues, been unwilling to compromise. Instead, his language engendered an organizational culture in which it is perceived that retribution is condoned. I believe it is because of this that his subordinates thought it was OK to punish the mayor of Fort Lee.

While Bridgegate has garnered the most attention, in the long run, it may not be the most significant example of how the governor has tainted our state’s political culture. The cozy relationship he has with South Jersey political kingpin George Norcross III undermined the candidacy of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Barbara Buono last year and continues to thwart intra-party competition in New Jersey. Former Gov. Dick Codey, a wise political observer, got it right when he recently quipped that Gov. Christie was “responsible for making George Norcross New Jersey’s third unelected governor [after him and Donald DiFrancesco].”

Another egregious example of how the governor is tainting our state’s political culture is his ongoing support for David Samson, his disgraced appointee as chairman of the Port Authority who was forced to resign recently. Samson, the founding partner of the powerful Wolff & Samson law firm, was under tremendous media scrutiny prior to his resignation for his involvement in Bridgegate, for running a huge patronage pit at the Port Authority, and for various accusations about conflict of interest between his role at the Port Authority and his law practice. The Star-Ledger, in an editorial calling for his resignation, wrote: “Samson’s jobs are supposed to separate, but the media’s spotlight has exposed several instances when his Port Authority role overlapped with the interest of his law firm’s clients — creating clear conflicts of interest.”

There is nothing innately wrong with using the talents of a “gray eminence” — a powerful unelected advisor — if he or she has no skin in the game and simply lends expertise. In fact, it can be a very good thing. However, the appointee (Samson) must not, as The Star-Ledger suggested, “treat his Port Authority appointment as an extension of his legal career.”

Gov. Christie’s “us against them” mentality and laxity with regard to ethical standards created and encouraged a culture characterized by widespread abuse of power, including retribution, deception and conflict of interest. A top Port Authority official in a recent article in The New Yorker, by Ryan Lizza, said it this way: “There was a culture that created some of this stuff in the whole Christie world. He was running for re-election, and he wanted the Christie-crats to get as many endorsements as he could. There was a list of names, and the culture was to get it done.”