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Chris Christie’s traffic scandal: Grudge match on the bridge

When an aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sent out an e-mail ordering up “some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” it wasn’t some in-the-doghouse politician who suffered the consequences. Rather, the dubious closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge in early September punished millions of motorists who endured days of grinding traffic jams.

The Christie aide’s ploy, amply documented in electronic message transcripts that became public Wednesday, was unconscionable. State houses across the country abound with tales of petty payback — of elected leaders punishing political antagonists by taking away their parking spots or banishing them to dank offices in the basement. But Christie’s staff went much further, gleefully sacrificing public welfare in an effort to needle Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich.

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Initially, Christie dismissed any suggestion the delays were intentional. But after the e-mail and text message transcripts emerged, Christie fired the aide. In a lengthy press conference Thursday, he categorically denied any role in the lane closings.

Yet the vindictive quality of the bridge closures isn’t entirely unconnected to the Christie administration’s overall approach. According to recent news accounts, the governor retaliated against a Rutgers political scientist who served on a redistricting commission; after the scholar voted against the governor’s favored plan, Christie vetoed $169,000 in state money for two programs at Rutgers. A Republican state senator who mildly criticized the state’s response to a 2010 blizzard was disinvited from a press event in his district and later had his seat redistricted away. In other words, Christie’s political aides just took the boss’s brand of hand-to-hand political combat to a worrisome new extreme.

Christie is a much-discussed GOP presidential prospect. Intelligent and blunt, he’s shown a cross-party appeal that looked to be a major asset in the 2016 campaign. Yet the George Washington Bridge episode undercuts the common-sense image that Christie has so carefully cultivated. If common sense means anything, it means not using political grudges as an excuse to keep innocent people stuck in traffic.

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