2016: The Year of Bridgegate’s Second Act

The case will likely sink New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2017, too

The George Washington Bridge is at the center of the lane closure scandal.

The George Washington Bridge is at the center of the lane closure scandal. John Moore/Getty Images

For the better part of fall 2016, reporters crowded onto the benches of Judge Susan Wigenton’s courtroom at the Newark Superior Court. Furiously they typed notes or scribbled on notepads before hurriedly exiting the courtroom to phone in revelations made during the daily testimony in the Bridgegate trial. That trial—and the intensive coverage of it—became one of the defining political stories of New Jersey in 2016.

Governor Chris Christie holds a press conference regarding the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP team internal review of the George Washington Bridge toll lane realignment at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Governor Chris Christie at a 2014 press conference regarding the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP team internal review of the George Washington Bridge toll lane realignment. Photo: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

While the lane closures of the George Washington Bridge at the center of the trial happened in September 2013, 2016 marked a notable pique in public interest on the topic due to the case finally making its way to court. Former Deputy Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni and former Deputy Chief of Staff for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Bridget Kelly faced jurors and nine counts of fraud, conspiracy and related charges due to alleged misuse of Port Authority property in order to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie for re-election in 2013.

Despite the fact that the trial is over, it seems that it may continue as a dominating piece of N.J. political coverage in 2017. After the eventual guilty verdict from the jury was reached in November, Christie was, perhaps, among the most harmed in the cast of characters in the Bridgegate case (other than Baroni and Kelly). While he was never indicted or called to testify, the testimony of defendants Kelly and Baroni—not to mention the testimony from chief witness to the prosecution and Bridgegate mastermind David Wildstein—painted Christie as a villain, something that it seems will follow the Garden State governor into his final year in office.

The news stories that came out of the courtroom featured Christie as a leader who was, at best, unaware of the day to day activities of his direct inferiors and, at worst, verbally abusive with a vindictive streak. The stories that came out of the trial quickly sunk his approval ratings to 18 percent in his home state. They also eliminated Christie’s chances to nab a once likely seeming cabinet position in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Now, over a month and a half after the closure of the trial, it seems like Bridgegate will never end. Last month, activist Bill Brennan appeared in court to defend his request that a special prosecutor was needed in order to examine an official misconduct complaint he had previously made against Christie. While that request was shut down, Brennan used his Bridgegate involvement as a jumping-off point for his own gubernatorial run. Last week, attorneys for Baroni and Kelly filed for a retrial or acquittal, claiming that the trial was unfair.

Christie’s end of the year push last week for a bill that would eliminate the need for legal notices to be published in newspapers and allow online publishing only was criticized as an act of “revenge” by the governor against the state press corps for their coverage of Bridgegate. That move has stalled in the legislature but Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Christie have vowed to pursue it in 2017.

Wisniewski and Weinberg spoke to reporters following the first day of the Bridgegate trial.

Wisniewski and Weinberg spoke to reporters following the first day of the Bridgegate trial. Photo: Alyana Alfaro for Observer

One vocal opponent on the newspaper bill was declared gubernatorial candidate John Wisniewski. In addition to his work as an Assemblyman in New Jersey’s 19th legislative district, Wisniewski was also the co-chair of a legislative committee that investigated Bridgegate. He—along with his legislative co-chair state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg—were present for some of the trial and have spoken regularly about how they believe the culture of Christie’s administration is to blame for what happened. Another vocal opponent of the newspaper bill is favored Democratic candidate former Ambassador Phil Murphy. Along with Brennan, it appears that the Democratic field is squaring off in a contest of who is most unlike Republican Christie.

With still a year left to go on his gubernatorial term, Christie has little political clout and appears to be facing off against a Democratically controlled legislature who is more than willing to run out the clock until a new governor is elected in November 2017. That leaves Christie almost no opportunity to rebuild his legacy as the once-popular governor he was before the bridge revelations came to light.

So, with 2016 coming to a close, it appears ever more likely that 2017 political coverage might have a Bridgegate-centric bend in New Jersey. And if the crowded courtrooms proved anything during the Bridgegate trail, it is that the New Jersey press corps are still paying attention.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media. 

2016: The Year of Bridgegate’s Second Act