For more than a week, local, state and national Democrats had scrambled to find a smoking gun that would expand the George Washington Bridge scandal that is plaguing Gov. Christopher Christie. Democrats along with local and national media turned over every rock in and around Hudson County seeking to broaden the scope of the investigation.
After some said that roads were closed in Fort Lee due to the mayor’s lack of endorsement of Christie, Mayor Steven Fulop complained about a lack of cooperation with Christie and the possible withholding of Hurricane Sandy relief funding. This became something of a mantra among Democrats until it became clear that other mayors who actually did endorse Christie also suffered canceled meetings and had not received the aid they had requested.
The media began to look at the Port Authority itself, and connected every dot possible to every possible political benefit Christie could have derived, often coming up with ludicrous conclusions. In one case, reports suggested Bayonne residents voted for Christie because the Port Authority bailed out the city with the purchase of a portion of the former military base there. These reports failed to note that Bayonne typically votes Republican during gubernatorial and presidential elections and that Christie had nothing good to say about Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith.
Democrats soon grabbed hold of the fact that an attorney who chairs the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and is a close associate of Christie’s also served as attorney or lobbyist for several development projects in the Garden State.
Democrats began to speculate that the closing of lanes last September on the GWB was less retribution for lack of an endorsement than alleged intimidation to push ahead with development there. If that was the case, the mayor of Fort Lee didn’t mention it.
Expanding the scope of the scandal
So the scandal, in order to evolve into an even larger scandal, needed a new smoking gun.
In stepped Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her daily journal, in which she had recorded an alleged account of a meeting in the ShopRite parking lot with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno last May. According to Zimmer, Guadagno suggested that Sandy money might be tied to the approval of the Rockefeller project in Hoboken, a project for which the Port Authority attorney was serving as a private lobbyist.
When asked why she had not reported the alleged criminal activity at the time, but had waited until the middle of a Christie feeding frenzy, Zimmer said she didn’t think anyone would believe her. But she had a number of other good reasons for holding back. She had used her state political connections to wrangle a municipal election in November (rather than May) that had Christie at the top of the ticket. Many of those who tended to vote for Zimmer also were seen as Christie voters. Also, Christie was considered a political ally to Zimmer (even though she ultimately did not endorse his reelection.) Zimmer needed to squeeze out every vote and clearly could not risk alienating Christie before the election. As it is, she won with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Some political people with knowledge of behind-the-scenes activities also claim that national Democrats associated with presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton encouraged Zimmer to come forward with allegations that Guadagno has vehemently denied.
Although Zimmer documented the incident in her journal and spoke to someone about it at the time, the lack of objective proof leaves the question largely unanswered. Some more or less impartial political observers believe Sandy aid and the Rockefeller project may have come up in the same conversation, and few of these believe Guadagno would have been foolish enough to tie one with the other. This is particularly true after Bid Rig III, in which so many of the bribery attempts were made in parking lots around Hudson County – a fact that Guadagno, as a well-respected prosecutor, would have been well aware of.
The more generous political observers believe Zimmer simply misunderstood. Less generous political observers believe she had become a pawn for national politics and has put her career on the line in order to cast a shadow over Christie and Guadagno.
The Fort Lee portion of the scandal has already benefited Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016 – and could possibly face off against Christie.
Damaging Guadagno, however, would benefit Zimmer’s closest political ally, Mayor Fulop, who is expected to run for governor, with Guadagno as a possible opponent.
Although Zimmer zealots have rallied behind her, she has few local political allies. Those who might have rallied to her cause were alienated by Zimmer’s post election decisions. Instead of reaching out to some of those who did not take a side in the municipal election, Zimmer has hunkered down and appears to be giving key appointments only to those most loyal to her.
This could prove ill if Christie and Guadagno survive the current scandal – which some savvy political observers believe likely, making Christie into one very powerful political enemy – one who might even survive to become president some day.
Some of those previously aligned with Zimmer, such as Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, are upset by the whole thing.
“If she’s right about the project, that’s one thing,” Gonnelli said. “But she’s wrong about the Sandy aid. We endorsed Christie and we didn’t get the aid we requested.”
Secaucus did, however, get a reduction of more than $4 million in its contribution to a controversial tax sharing system in the Meadowlands.
“We lobbied for years to get that changed,” Gonnelli said. “And it’s still not resolved. But this came about because [now Assembly Speaker] Vinnie Prieto became chair of the banking committee and negotiated on our behalf. That agreement was one of the reasons we endorsed the governor for reelection. He was also very active in helping us and Hoboken during Hurricane Sandy. We [Secaucus] also did a lot to help Hoboken during Sandy.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.