A legal sword of Damocles hangs over New Jersey’s body politic as sources have told PolitickerNJ that indictments are expected soon regarding the 2013 access lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, a.k.a. Bridgegate, which could ensnare aides and allies in Governor Chris Christie’s administration.
Recent weeks have seen Bob Menendez, a powerful Democrat who is New Jersey’s senior U.S. Senator, get indicted on one set of federal corruption charges while former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero was convicted on another set. And there is a long litany of New Jersey politicos, Democrat and Republican, whose historical hijinks have leached enough ethical toxicity into the soil of the Garden State to transmute it into what many observers see as the Gangster State.
So PolitickerNJ, surveying this stricken scene, asked around to find out if any new indictments will change the way politics are practiced in New Jersey, or will the proverbial sword of Damocles prove to have an effect as dull as a butter knife.
“I don’t think that the indictments are going to lead to any sweeping changes because what I imagine the people will be indicted for is stupidity, quite frankly,” said Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, referring to the some of the emails shared between certain Christie confidants implying the bridge lane closures had to do with political payback. “I don’t think anybody is going to be accused of taking money, or of bribery or anything that you can sort of legislate. You can’t legislate against stupidity or revenge.”
“There might be some changes with the Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey]. A key aspect of all this was how much political power the governors exercise over it,” added Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “The Port Authority is already looking to make some changes, even without legislation being passed. That includes the board hiring an executive director rather than having it appointed by the governor of New York and having a deputy appointed by the governor of New Jersey. But does that change politics overall? I just don’t see it happening. I don’t see an avalanche effect.
“There are a lot of levers of power in New Jersey that you can exercise, and it’s really down to our ability to trust those who hold the levers to do so wisely and fairly,” Murray continued. “A different administration could change things but I don’t see anything happening that would take away those levers of power. There’s something in the culture that this is just the way that we do things. Even if you look at the Menendez indictment and accept his story that he was doing this for a friend, there are things that he did there that I think people in other states would just not have done, even for a friend. People are still going to do stupid things for very little payback. The fact that you can probably still bribe somebody for a couple of thousand bucks makes it seem that there’s just something in the water here.”
A Republican political insider agreed that New Jersey’s environment remains a uniquely fertile Petri dish for ongoing ethics problems.
“In Hudson County, it looks like they’re still handing out cash in cereal boxes,” the GOP insider, who requested anonymity, said. “And [former New Jersey Governor] Jon Corzine has a bunch of lawsuits filed against him, but he’s thinking about starting up another hedge fund. The reincarnations are apparently endless.”
Hale noted that some of the circumstances of political life create an almost endless cycle of events.
“When you are close to power, you live in a bubble and it’s very easy to believe that all of the people around you love you and that you can do what ever you want. You become convinced that the rules don’t apply to you. That’s what could’ve happened with Bridgegate,” Hale said. “They were in that bubble, and with Governor Christie being this incredible rock star, they were picking out offices in the West Wing. You can get that sense of inevitability and invulnerability.”
Whatever comes of any potential Bridgegate-based indictments, some aspects of New Jersey politics should stay infinite, according to Ben Dworkin, professor of political science and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“I’m not sure that we’re in the middle of the throes of lots of bad behavior that is any different than years gone by,” Dworkin said. “If people want to behave badly, they will. If they want to cheat, they will. I don’t even think seeing somebody else arrested suddenly makes a corrupt person not corrupt. The laws are there to not do bad things, but that’s human nature.”