SPITEGATE: Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich publicly told Gov. Chris Christie to save the gas, stay in Trenton and cancel his plans to come to Bergen County today to personally apologize for the politically spiteful lanes closures that jammed traffic at the George Washington Bridge over four days in September.
“An apology today, and comin’ on up today, might be premature,” Sokolich told reporters at Borough Hall, “cause I have a distinct feeling there’s gonna be another press conference or two or three or 12 after this.”
Christie at first told reporters during a news conference in Trenton that he intended to go to Fort Lee to meet with Sokolich and “apologize to him personally, face to face, and also to apologize to the people of Fort Lee in their town” for lane closures that apparently were ordered by staffers as political payback against the mayor for not supporting the governor’s successful re-election bid.
“I think they need to see me do that personally, and I intend to do that later on today,” Christie said. “People of those communities for four days were impacted in a completely callous and indifferent way, and I am going to apologize for that.”
Media during the news conference contacted Sokolich and then relayed to the Republican governor the Democratic mayor’s response.
“If he doesn’t want to meet with me, I’m still going to go to Fort Lee today,” Christie responded, adding that he intended to call Sokolich directly after he concluded his news conference — which clocked in at just under an hour and 50 minutes.
“We are only asking, in as polite and as respectful a way, please, please: We’ve been through a lot, we’re not saying no, we welcome the apology,” Sokolich said. “It’s just to do it now, in light of what’s transpired over the past 24 hours — it’s just gonna cause more chaos in Fort Lee.
“We don’t need it at this point,” Sokolich added. “And I gotta tell you: I think he oughta wait for this investigation to conclude — otherwise [he’s] gonna be spending a lot of gas coming up the Turnpike.
“I am not shunning the governor. I just think that there’s so much more that’s goin’ on here.”
Asked whether he thought he’d been targeted, the mayor said no one had heard of any “Republican bridges” virtually shut down.
Christie, who was being flown by State Police helicopter this afternoon, said this morning that he had no knowledge of Sokolich’s endorsement being sought during the campaign and that “it certainly wasn’t by me.”
In fact, he said, he doesn’t even know the mayor.
“I’m sure I met him at some event in Bergen County,” Christie said. “But until I saw his picture last night on television, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup.
“The reason that the retribution never came into my head is that I never knew that we were pursuing his endorsement, and nobody ever came to me to pursue his endorsement.
“Why would you execute a vendetta against somebody you didn’t say ‘no’ to?” Christie asked.
The governor also announced that he’d fired staffer Bridget Kelly over an email exchange with former campaign manager Bill Stepian that proved the be the smoking gun in the ongoing scandal. He also said that Stepian, a close friend, ” will not be considered for state party chairman.”
“I am embarrassed and humiliated,” Christie told reporters. “I’m heart-broken and disappointed. I haven’t gotten to the angry stage, but I’m sure that I’ll get there.
“I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover,” Christie said, adding that it has made him question his own judgment. “I’m sick over this. I have worked over the past 12 years in public life developing a reputation for honesty and directness and blunt talk.
“I am soul-searching on this.”
At the same time, he said, “I don’t want to over-react” — meaning: The actions of a few don’t tarnish the many.
“I found this out at 8:50 yesterday morning. By 9 o’clock this morning Bridget Kelly was fired. By 7 o’clock yesterday Bill Stepian was asked to leave my organization.
“That’s pretty swift action for a day’s work.”
Christie said he was originally told that the closures resulted from a traffic study.
“But with all that being said, it is my responsibility because I’m the governor,” he said. “Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch — the good and the bad — and when mistakes are made I have to own up to them and take the steps to remediate them.
“This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and it is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years, and it is not the way it will conduct itself over the next four.””
Christie said he was “blindsided yesterday morning” after a workout to discover the emails reported “in the Bergen Record.”
He said he was “disturbed by the tone, the behavior, the callous indifference” in the emails by Stepian. “It made me lose my confidence in Bill’s judgment.
“You cannot have someone at the top of your political organization that you cannot have confidence in.
“There’s no doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisers over the past five years,” Christie added. However, he said: “I can never allow personal feelings or longstanding relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it’s appropriate to do it.”
The governor added that he’d have never cracked wise about the lane closures during a news conference weeks ago (in which he said he was the one who put up the cones) “if I had an inkling that anyone on my staff would be that involved and so deceitful.”
Staffers were “asked repeatedly” whether they knew anything about the closures and didn’t fess up, Christie said.
He said he’s haing “personal one on one discussions” with remaining members of senior staff “to determine if there’s any other information that I do not know or need to know.”
If he has to take further action, he said, he will.
“I have come out here to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee … I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.”
He’s opened well. It was the first thing he needed to say, and did.
“All the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology … for my failure as the governor of this state to understand the true nature of this problem sooner than I did.
“You can’t prevent everything. But the test of leadership is: When you find out, what do you do? I’m saddened to have to do this. It’s difficult personally to do. But it’s my job.”