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Opinion: Ultimately, governor responsible for bridge fiasco

When President Obama was first questioned after the Obamacare website crashed, he said, “I don’t write code,” and when Gov. Christie was asked whether he had anything to do with the sudden closure of access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge last September, he joked, “I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.”
Both of their flippant answers miss the point. President Obama and Gov. Christie are ultimately responsible for what happens in their administrations. The website crash and the traffic jams are symptoms of much larger problems.

In the case of President Obama, his response reflects an ongoing failure on his part to competently manage the enormous government infrastructure. While we do not want our presidents to become minutely enmeshed in the day-to-day operations of government, on big, important issues we do want them to accept responsibility for what occurs. On the big stuff, the buck stops with the president.

The same goes for the governor of New Jersey. Alan Rosenthal wrote in his book that explores how governors succeed as policy leaders: “The authors of the 1947 New Jersey Constitution did their utmost to create one of the most powerful executives in the nation …. According to Tom Kean (R-N.J.), the New Jersey governor is ‘without a doubt the most powerful chief executive in the fifty states,’ with ‘almost total control over the policymaking apparatus.’” Columnist George Will indicated that Gov. Christie “relishes being America’s Caesar – its most powerful governor.”

The recent Port Authority of New York and New Jersey lane closing fiasco of the George Washington Bridge seems to be just the latest example of politics as practiced by the Christie administration. The first time I heard about the lane closing, it struck me that if the governor knew in advance about the lane closing, it would be the latest in a long list of examples of Gov. Christie being an abusive bully when he doesn’t get something he wants, e.g. a ruling from the bench, a legislator’s vote, a question from the press he can’t hit out of the park, etc. Historically, when he has not gotten what he wants, he has been verbally vindictive.

Instead of becoming sensitized to verbal bullying, New Jersey citizens and politicians have become anesthetized to its use. We have come to accept verbal punishment as an occupational hazard of politics in New Jersey. Most pols would probably tell you that, nowadays, if you don’t have a really thick skin, politics is not a good job match for you in New Jersey.

It is important to point out that if that’s what happened in Fort Lee, it goes well beyond verbal vindictiveness. Closing two of the three local lanes to the GWB can do a lot of harm – think about the possibility of someone not getting to the hospital in time in an emergency because of a traffic jam.

If the power of government was used to punish an elected official in a way that could harm the public, it is way over the top and is a clear abuse of government power and would send a horrible message. Think about what your reaction would be if you and a couple of your neighbors put signs on your lawn for a candidate for mayor who was challenging the incumbent. Let’s say there was a major snowstorm and your block and another one with various signs supporting the incumbent’s challenger didn’t get plowed. That’s not how government is supposed to work in a democracy.

I have no idea what Gov. Christie knew or didn’t know in advance about the closing of the lanes to the George Washington Bridge. I do have a feeling that, down the road, local elected officials will be a little more reluctant or fearful to deny requests from the governor’s staff because of what happened. While there is no evidence, as has been speculated, that Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, was asked to endorse the governor and threatened with retaliation if he didn’t, there will, no doubt, be concerns in the future regarding possible punishment for those who do not do what Christie operatives ask.

What was done by a political operative appointed by Gov. Christie undermines good government. To date, there is no smoking gun that can directly or indirectly link Gov. Christie to the Fort Lee fiasco. At this point, the governor has plausible deniability. However, I believe the verbally vindictive tone he set throughout his administration is in large measure at the root of what has occurred.

Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director, got it right in his response to the question: “Do you agree that using lane closures for political purposes is the wrong thing to do?” His answer was, “The use of any of our facilities other than in the public interest is improper,” adding that the closures broke laws and “thankfully” did not result in the loss of life from an emergency vehicle caught in traffic.