Friday, April 18, 2014

Salsa music great José 'Cheo' Feliciano, 78, dies in car crash

NEW YORK, NY 10007

No. 160


“Puerto Rico, New York City and the world today lost a beloved artist. I’m saddened to learn that Cheo Feliciano died in a car accident this morning. A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Feliciano moved to New York City in 1952 and settled down in El Barrio. A vocalist for the Joe Cuba Sextet, he was the rare baritone among salsa singers, and his deep voice and quick wit as an improviser made him an icon of Latin American music. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. He will be missed, but his spirit will forever live among us through his music.”
SAN JUAN Thu Apr 17, 2014 1:28pm EDT
Puerto Rican salsa singer Jose ''Cheo'' Feliciano (R) embraces Panamanian singer Ruben Blades during Blades' initial concert of his new tour ''Todos Vuelven'' at the Puerto Rico Coliseum in San Juan, in this August 21, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Ana Martinez/Files
Puerto Rican salsa singer Jose ''Cheo'' Feliciano (R) embraces Panamanian singer Ruben Blades during Blades' initial concert of his new tour ''Todos Vuelven'' at the Puerto Rico Coliseum in San Juan, in this August 21, 2009 file photo.
Credit: Reuters/Ana Martinez/Files

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(Reuters) - Puerto Rican singer José Luis "Cheo" Feliciano, who performed with some of salsa's top stars, was killed in a car crash in San Juan early Thursday morning, police said. He was 78.Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla declared three days of mourning for the widely admired salsero.
Feliciano died shortly after 4 a.m, according to Axel Valencia, a San Juan police spokesman. The El Nuevo Dia newspaper said his Jaguar hit an electricity pole.
"It appears as if he lost control while taking a curve," Police Inspector Jorge Hernandez Pena said, adding that he was not wearing a seat belt.
Not to be confused with the blind José Feliciano, the famed Puerto Rican guitarist and vocalist with hits including a rendition of The Doors' "Light My Fire," Cheo Feliciano was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on July 3, 1935.
Tributes poured in on Thursday from fellow musicians and fans.
In a Twitter message, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Feliciano "always carried with him pride of his beloved Puerto Rico. He was Caribbean and gave us rhythm and poetry to fill our life."
Feliciano dropped out of school at 17 and moved to New York in 1952 to train with top salsa orchestras, according to
He started his career as a drummer and got his first shot as a singer with the Joe Cuba Sextet. He would go on to establish a solo career in the 1970s and performed with the legendary Fania All-Stars.
In 2008, he was honored with the Latin Grammy Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
In 2012, he released a collaboration with Panamanian singer Rubén Blades, "Eba Say Ajá."
Feliciano's contribution to salsa "has no expiration date," said Blades on his website. "He will always be remembered with fondness and admiration that the greats deserve."
Blades told El Nuevo Dia he started his career imitating Feliciano's style because he admired its "quality and elegance."
"He was a guide to all of us," said Enrique "Papo" Lucca, a pianist who played with Feliciano in the Fania-All Stars and was interviewed while visiting the family home on Thursday.
"He had enormous energy and was a very kind to everyone, as well as having impeccable artistic talent," he added.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by W Simon)
City Room

In the Bronx, a Tribute to a Salsa Singer

A mural in progress in the Bronx honors Cheo Feliciano.
David Gonzalez/The New York Times
A mural in progress in the Bronx honors Cheo Feliciano.
Muralists are honoring the singer Cheo Feliciano, who died Thursday in a car accident in Puerto Rico.
City Room

In the Bronx, a Tribute to a Salsa Singer

A mural in progress in the Bronx honors Cheo Feliciano.
David Gonzalez/The New York Times
A mural in progress in the Bronx honors Cheo Feliciano.
Muralists are honoring the singer Cheo Feliciano, who died Thursday in a car accident in Puerto Rico.

The Failure of Desegregation

April 17, 2014
In 1952, an African-American woman named Sarah Bulah filed a lawsuit challenging the segregated education system in her home state of Delaware. Bulah lived near a spacious, modern, whites-only high school, but her daughter, Shirley, was forced to attend a decrepit, single-room school. The state provided transportation only for white students, so Bulah had to drive her daughter to and from school each day, even though the bus route ran right past her home. Hundreds of other black parents in the area faced the same situation, yet Bulah’s decision to mount a legal challenge was met with scorn. Her neighbors disagreed with her, while local black teachers voiced their own disapproval. Bulah’s pastor doubted the wisdom of her actions. “I was for segregation,” he later remarked.
Bulah won her case, and, for the first time, a court ordered a whites-only public school to accept black students. After the state appealed the decision, the lawsuit, Bulah v. Gebhart, became part of a cluster of cases heard by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Sarah Bulah, who had acted against the wishes of many in her community, was partly responsible for helping to dismantle the infrastructure of legal segregation in the United States.
But, as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown decision, next month, the landmark case seems, in hindsight, like a qualified victory. Racially homogenous schools remain a fact of American life. There may be no contemporary analogue to the violent resistance in the nineteen-seventies against school busing programs, but in recent years even voluntary-desegregation plans have been met with legal challenges. There may be no better example of the ongoing scandal of school segregation than the New York City public-school system, which a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found to be one of the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino students in New York have become more likely to attend schools with minimal white enrollment, and a majority of them go to schools defined by concentrated poverty. Three-quarters of the city’s charter schools, which were a key component of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts at education reform, have fewer than one per cent white enrollment. At Stuyvesant, the most exclusive of the city’s specialized public high schools, where admission is determined by a competitive exam, only seven black students and twenty-one Latino students were offered places in next year’s freshman class. New York is simultaneously the most diverse city in the United States and the most glaring indicator of integration’s failures.
When I graduated from Jamaica High School, in Queens, in 1987, the school was recognized for both its high academic performance and its diverse student body, which mirrored the polyglot neighborhood that surrounded it. (In 1985, it was honored by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the nation’s “outstanding” public secondary schools.) Among my four closest African-American friends from high school—only one of whom had college-educated parents—two went on to get Ph.D.s, and the other two have M.B.A.s. By 2009, however, the graduation rate had slumped below fifty per cent, and the school was slated for closure by the city, owing to its poor academic achievement and high levels of violence. It had already long ceased having the mélange of ethnicities that I remembered. But the reversion toward segregation was not the cause of the school’s academic decline: both were symptoms of the concentration of poverty that has come to define public schools across most of New York City.
The meaning of the ongoing resegregation of our public schools becomes clearer if we look back at the campaign to integrate them—which was concerned less with race than with resources. We like to think of the men and women whose struggle led to Brown v. Board of Education as democratic idealists, but their motivations were more complex: if the efforts to upend Jim Crow reflected idealism, it was a cynical idealism. The damning images of Southern resistance to integration, and Northern riots against busing, obscure the fact that the decision to fight segregation was as fraught for African-Americans as the prospect of desegregation was for the whites who most violently opposed it. In the decades prior to Brown, the civil-rights establishment had fought a fierce and futile battle for the equal distribution of resources between black and white schools. It was only after attempting to force school districts to uphold the latter part of “separate but equal” proved to be a failure that the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund changed its tactics, and attacked separation itself. (It was for this reason, incidentally, that the effort to dismantle educational apartheid in the South came to involve Linda Brown, of Topeka, Kansas—a city where there was a parity of resources between black and white schools.) The tactical shift was not universally welcomed by African-Americans: critics like Zora Neale Hurston howled at the implication that black learning could be insured only by proximity to white children. Elijah Muhammad warned, ominously, that “only a fool allows his enemies to educate his children.” But decades of fruitless lawsuits seeking equal resources for black and white students had taught the N.A.A.C.P.’s lawyers that the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.
The architects of Jim Crow were fixated by notions of white racial purity, but black people subjected to that dictatorship of pigment were concerned with a different question: In a hostile society, is it better to be isolated from those who view you with contempt or in close proximity to them? In retrospect, it is easy to see segregation as a moral evil unanimously despised by black people, but even its fiercest critics betrayed ambivalence about what its end would mean. In the thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois inspired rancorous debates within the N.A.A.C.P. by arguing, in his writing, that there were important economic benefits—the built-in market for black businesses, for instance—that came with segregation. James Nabrit, Jr., an attorney who handled a school-desgegration suit in Washington, D.C., that became one of the cases grouped with Brown, went on to become president of Howard University, a job that entailed the seemingly paradoxical task of preserving and furthering an all-black educational institution. Three of the other attorneys who worked on Brown, including Thurgood Marshall, had, in fact, met as students at Howard’s law school, and they began their desegregation work under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, the school’s dean. Black teachers in South Carolina, where another of the desegregation suits had been filed, worried, with some cause, that integration would end a state of affairs in which black children, though deprived of equal resources, at least benefitted from teachers who did not calibrate their expectations according to the color of their students’ skin.
The Supreme Court decision on Brown, in 1954, marked a moral high point in American history, but the practice that it dispatched to the graveyard had already begun to mutate into something less tangible and far more durable. What would, in the end, preserve the principle of “separate inequality” was not protests like the one staged by Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, who deployed the National Guard to Little Rock’s Central High School, in 1957, in order to keep black students out. Instead, it was policies like the Interstate Highway Act, whose passage one year earlier helped spawn American suburbia. In the wake of Brown, private schools, whose implicit mission was to educate white children, cropped up throughout the South. The persistent legacies of redlining, housing discrimination, and wage disparity conspired to produce segregation without Jim Crow—maintaining all the familiar elements of the past in an updated operating system.
To the extent that the word “desegregation” remains in our vocabulary, it describes an antique principle, not a current priority. Today, we are more likely to talk of diversity—but diversification and desegregation are not the same undertaking. To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.
And so, sixty years after Brown, it is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naïve. The intervening decades have shown, in large measure, the limits of what political efforts directed at desegregation alone could achieve, and the crumbling of both elements of “separate but equal” has left us at an ambivalent juncture. To the extent that desegregation becomes, once again, a pressing concern—and even that may be too grand a hope—it will have to involve the tax code, the minimum wage, and other efforts to redress income inequality. For the tragedy of this moment is not that black students still go to overwhelmingly black schools, long after segregation was banished by law, but that they do so for so many of the same reasons as in the days before Brown.
Photograph by Thomas J O’Halloran/Universal History Archive/Getty.

Gabriel García Márquez: An Appreciation

April 18, 2014
At the beginning of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Macondo’s patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, wants to move the idyllic yet isolated community he founded to another, more accessible location. And since no one else wants to go with him, he decides that he and his wife, Úrsula, and their son should leave by themselves.
“We will not leave,” his wife tells him, reminding him that Macondo was their son’s birthplace.
“We have still not had a death,” he tells her. “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” To which his wife replies, “If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, I will die.”
This was the first thing that came to mind when I heard that Gabriel García Márquez had died. I have always loved that scene. For anyone who’s been forced, or has chosen, to start a new life in a new place, these words seem to provide at least two possible markers by which one can begin to belong. By Úrsula’s definition it is through life. By her husband’s it is through death.
I remember thinking when my oldest daughter was born that, after nearly a quarter century of living in the United States, I finally had an unbreakable bond with the place. When my father, who had once imagined that he’d be buried in Haiti, was actually buried in Queens, New York, those ties became even stronger. After all, if pushed out, we can always take the living with us. However, unless we happen to be in a Gabriel García Márquez story, the dead can prove less mobile. Nothing seemed truer to me after my father’s death than the fact that he, and all of my other hardworking U.S.-buried immigrant relatives, had sacrificed everything so that the rest of my family could stay here.
In October, 2003, I was invited to participate in a PEN America tribute to Márquez. The title of the evening was “Gabriel García Márquez: Everyday Magic.” The great man himself wasn’t there. He was already ill, I think. Among the other speakers that evening were the writers Francisco Goldman, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, William Kennedy, and President Bill Clinton, on video.
That night I was reminded of not just the breadth of Márquez’s work, but also his personality. The fact that he counted both Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro among his friends astounded and outraged the woman sitting next to me.
The writers, however, focussed on his work.
Francisco Goldman mentioned a study that had found that, aside from the Bible, Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” was the book you were most likely to find in the possession of Latin American sex workers. Salman Rushdie pointed out the many similarities between Márquez’s world and the one he’d grown up in.
“It was a world,” he said, “in which there were colossal differences between the very poor and the very rich, and not much in between; also a world bedeviled by dictators and corruption.”
Rushdie, like many of the other speakers that night, rejected the idea that Márquez’s fiction was “fantastic.”
And I agreed.
I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.
Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does in Márquez’s 1948 short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.
I had always felt that Márquez’s short stories often took a back seat to his longer works, and that his deadpan dark humor was not discussed often enough, so that night I read an excerpt from one of my favorite of his short stories, a story called “One of These Days.”
In the story, the town mayor, a military torturer, shows up in absolute agony at the office of Aurelio Escovar, “a dentist without a degree.” The mayor is in so much pain from an abscess in his mouth that he’s unable to shave half his beard. Yet he still announces that he will shoot the dentist if he refuses to help him. The dentist, seeing an opportunity to avenge the recent death of twenty of his neighbors, tricks the mayor into letting him pull the diseased tooth out without anesthesia. But the dentist does not quite get the revenge he seeks. When he asks the mayor whether he should send the bill to him personally or to the town, the mayor exclaims that “it’s the same damn thing.”
This story, like so many others, shows how Márquez’s famously unbridled imagination was also used to depict somewhat common, yet unbearable realities.
Still, I can’t help but keep returning to José Arcadio Buendía and his desire to leave. José Arcadio had hoped to guide his people toward the “invisible north,” only to discover that Macondo was completely surrounded by water. But he would not despair forever. There was still more work to do. And he had not yet experienced death, and the light rain of tiny yellow flowers that would fall to mark his passing. He had not yet seen that silent storm, and the cushion of petals that had to be cleared with rakes and shovels as his funeral procession went by. And neither had Gabo. Until now.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction. Her most recent book is “Claire of the Sea Light,” a novel.
Photograph by Alan Riding/The New York Times/Redux.

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

Double Take

April 17, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez, the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Thursday, at the age of eighty-seven. The New Yorker was lucky enough to publish a number of his short stories, starting with “The Sea of Lost Time,” in 1974. In 1999, Jon Lee Anderson wrote a Profile of the novelist, called “The Power of García Márquez.” The article focussed on García Márquez’s unique role in Colombia, and in Latin America more generally:
“Gabo” is what García Márquez is called by nearly everyone in the Spanish-speaking world. That or el maestro, or, in Colombia, Nuestro Nobel, our Nobel Prize winner.
But, of course, García Márquez was special to the rest of us, too: few writers are so intimately associated with a literary style or an imaginative world. You can see everything that García Márquez published in The New Yorker here; his story “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (an excerpt from the novel of the same name) is available to everyone online. In “The Challenge,” from 2003, a Personal History about his early days as a writer, García Márquez recalls seeing his first story in print: “I read it in a single breath, hiding in my room, my heart pounding.” We’ve unlocked “The Challenge” as well.
Above: Gabriel García Márquez in Cartagena, Colombia; February 20, 1991. Photograph by Ulf Andersen/Getty.

Gabriel García Márquez, Conjurer of Literary Magic, Dies at 87
Mr. García Márquez, a Colombian who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, wrote fiction rooted in a mythical Latin American landscape of his own creation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Nation Stunned to Learn Congress Accomplished Something Fifty Years Ago

The Borowitz Report

April 13, 2014

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Millions of Americans were in a state of shock this past week after learning that Congress had accomplished something fifty years ago.
Although the incident was widely reported throughout the week, the revelation that Congress had achieved something positive and substantial for the country a half century ago left many incredulous and baffled.
Adding to their disbelief were reports that the accomplishment came as the result of collaboration between a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in Congress.
Making the scenario even more far-fetched, politicians of both parties came to an agreement without the interference of corporate paymasters operating them like puppets.
Tracy Klugian, thirty-four, was one of many Americans who found “the whole thing hard to swallow.”
“I searched for it on Google, and it’s true: Congress did actually get something done for the good of the country and all,” he said. “Still, when I first heard about it, it sounded like a hoax.”
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Above: President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, 1964. Photograph courtesy Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Working Life
Saying Farewell to a Business That Turned Into an Identity
J&R Music, the famous store in Lower Manhattan, closed last week after 43 years, forcing employees like Marty Singer, who had worked there since he was 19, to move on.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Frank Rich on the National Circus: Colbert Can Bring Life to Dying Late-Night

Future and past.
Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: how Letterman and his new replacement can still matter; Obama, Clinton, Bush, and Carter rush to embrace LBJ; and what Jeb Bush's comments say about the GOP and immigration.
CBS just announced that Stephen Colbert will take over Late Show when David Letterman retires at the end of 2015. Letterman is the longest-running host in the history of late-night, but he was only rarely a ratings king and the desk-and-guest talk-show is hardly the cultural epicenter it once was. Does Letterman's departure still matter? And will Colbert be a worthy successor?
Letterman’s departure, though inevitable, certainly matters to those of us who have long admired him and still do. Hell, I still miss Carson, whose weird mixture of midwestern eccentricity, wry disengagement, clownish daring, and brilliant comic timing found their only late-night heir in the equally brilliant and mercurial Letterman.
But no television time slot is the epicenter of American culture anymore — not late-night, not the evening news, not the morning shows, and not prime time. Appointment-viewing and the domination of broadcast networks have been on the road to extinction for a long time now, and will be completely gone once the boomers and their elders have faded. While there is still a ratings race of sorts in late-night (as in all these time slots), it will keep mattering less and less as audiences mix and match multiple shows on multiple networks, often not in real time and often not on television screens. Les Moonves, the CBS impresario, and Lorne Michaels, now presiding over Jimmy Fallon’s successful ascension of The Tonight Show at NBC, are likely the last combatants to invest so much emotional and corporate capital into a form whose end is discernible (if not imminent).
That said, it's hard to imagine a better choice than Colbert, whose talents are many and will be even more apparent once he's liberated from his Colbert Report character. Though I confess there was part of me that was still hoping that Joan Rivers would yet get her rightful shot.
President Obama and former Presidents Clinton, Bush (43), and Carter have flocked to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Johnson's presidency was once viewed through the lens of the disaster of the Vietnam War. Now it's more often linked to massive legislative accomplishments and progressive policies. Why has LBJ's legacy undergone such a transformation? And what does it say about our current political moment that we emphasize his domestic successes over his foreign-policy failures?
To quote LBJ’s reviled successor, Richard Nixon, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The festivities, hagiography, and historical revisionism accompanying this week’s festivities in Austin tell us almost nothing about Johnson’s actual historical status and everything about our current political moment. That’s what makes it fascinating, actually. Vietnam cannot be expunged from Johnson’s record: It was the most costly failed war in our history — costly not only in American and Asian lives and treasure, but costly in how it cracked America in half culturally and politically, setting the table for the polarized America we have today.
That LBJ’s positive achievements, and they are huge, are being emphasized this week is precisely because they are now under attack. A conservative Supreme Court and the present-day GOP are doing everything they possibly can to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its 1965 companion piece, the Voting Rights Act. Even as the Great Society’s achievements, including Medicare, are being celebrated in Texas, Paul Ryan is leading the charge in Washington to gut Medicare and further unravel the federal safety net.
We wouldn’t be emphasizing LBJ’s domestic achievements today in the same way if there were still a Republican Party supportive of some of them — a GOP with moderates (Nixon) and even liberals (e.g., New York’s Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller). And if President Obama had decided to pour more troops into Afghanistan and Iraq upon arriving in office and had intervened militarily in Iran, Syria, and/or Russia, we probably would be talking exclusively about Vietnam instead, just as we did when George W. Bush got bogged down in Vietnam-esque folly in Iraq. (Though even the Iraq fiasco didn’t match the catastrophic scale of the Vietnam debacle.)
One other factor distorting the historical reading of LBJ’s presidency this week: the epic, multi-volume Robert Caro biography, perhaps one of the most compelling books ever written on any modern American president. The last two volumes to be published, Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power, coincide with the periods of LBJ’s greatest triumphs in the Senate and the White House. Caro is still working on his final volume, dealing with LBJ’s Vietnam years, and such is the power of his work that the eagerly awaited last installment is likely to swing the pendulum back again to a more balanced view of one of country’s most ambitious and tragic leaders.
Jeb Bush declared on Sunday that undocumented immigrants are not felons and often come to this country as an "act of love" for their families. Not surprisingly, a host of conservative commentators and politicians cried bloody murder, with some arguing that Bush's comments torpedoed a potential presidential run. The Republican right knows that immigration reform is generally popular in this country but clearly sees no profit in supporting it. Will that change in the foreseeable future?
No, it’s not going to change in the foreseeable future. The Republican base is against anything that might be recognized as serious immigration reform, period, which is why it remains a dead issue in Congress. But the reaction of that base to Jeb Bush’s moderate view on the subject — not a new position for him or, for that matter, his brother — is yet another example of the huge divide between the Party’s old establishment, or what remains of it, and the grassroots.
I seriously doubt that Jeb Bush, who has been out of politics for more than a decade, is going to run for president, despite the desperate hope of his Wall Street fans that he’ll reemerge as some kind of political Rip Van Winkle; he’s only being talked about now because the Establishment’s chosen candidate, Chris Christie, is toxic. If Bush were to run, it would bring his Party’s civil war to a true boil for however much time he lasted in primary season. Bush is not just a moderate on immigration, but a supporter (as was his brother) of federalized education standards. As Ben Smith of BuzzFeed has pointed out, Jeb also sits on the board of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, which will taint him with Bloombergian positions on gun control, environmental issues, and raising taxes on junk food. The base would go nuts. (Actually, it already is: Speaking for his many followers, the radio host Mark Levin labeled Bush’s “act of love” soliloquy as “liberal crap speak.” Rush Limbaugh and Bill Kristol have been only slightly less fiery.)
Though it’s only a 2014 snapshot, the Suffolk University poll of GOP voters in Iowa released this week gives a picture of that base. The top 2016 candidates in the survey were Mike Huckabee (11 percent), Bush and Rand Paul (10 percent each), Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson (9 percent each), and Christie (7 percent). Or to put it another way, the Establishment candidates were favored by a total of 17 percent, while 39 percent wanted those to their right.
David Letterman and Stephen Colbert on “Late Show” in May 2011.
CBS/World Wide Pants, via Associated Press

CBS Crowns Colbert as Letterman Successor

Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman as host of “Late Show,” CBS’s flagship late-night franchise, when Mr. Letterman retires next year, the network said Thursday.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

49 Percent of New Yorkers Approve of de Blasio’s Performance, Poll Says

A survey by The New York Times, NY1 and Siena College shows a gap between the mayor’s expectations and his day-to-day ability to make social progress.

Interactive Graphic: Mixed Marks for the Mayor’s First 100 Days

The New York Times, NY1 and Siena College asked New York City residents to assess Mayor Bill de Blasio and how he has been dealing with issues that range from education to unemployment.

An Ex-Councilman Upstages the Mayor at His Own Event

Mayor Bill de Blasio was heckled at a news conference in Brooklyn on Monday by Charles Barron, a former City Council member whose political style is heavy on theatricality.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Al Sharpton

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Draft FBI Affidavit

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FBI Affidavit I

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McCalla NYPD

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Curington Complaint

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DEA Report

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Sylvia Rhone

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Sylvia Rhone Transcript

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Curington Deposition

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Buonanno Complaint

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Buonanno Cross

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Pagano FBI Memos

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Dangerfield Warrant

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Buonanno FBI Memos

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Pertinent Intercept

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Canterino FBI Memo

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FBI Affidavit II

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Morris Levy FBI

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Giovanelli Transcript

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Sharpton Letter

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APRIL 7--When friends and family members gathered recently at the White House for a private celebration of Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday, one of the invited partygoers was a former paid FBI Mafia informant.
That same man attended February’s state dinner in honor of French President Francois Hollande. He was seated with his girlfriend at a table adjacent to President Barack Obama, who is likely unaware that, according to federal agents, his guest once interacted with members of four of New York City’s five organized crime families. He even secretly taped some of those wiseguys using a briefcase that FBI technicians outfitted with a recording device.
The high-profile Obama supporter was also on the dais atop the U.S. Capitol steps last year when the president was sworn in for a second term. He was seated in front of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two rows behind Beyonce and Jay Z, and about 20 feet from Eric Holder, the country’s top law enforcement officer. As head of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Holder leads an agency that once reported that Obama’s inauguration guest also had La Cosa Nostra contacts beyond Gotham, and engaged in “conversations with LCN members from other parts of the United States.”
The former mob snitch has become a regular in the White House, where he has met with the 44th president in the East Room, the Roosevelt Room, and the Oval Office. He has also attended Obama Christmas parties, speeches, policy announcements, and even watched a Super Bowl with the First Family (an evening the man has called “one of the highlights of my life”). During these gatherings, he has mingled with cabinet members, top Obama aides, military leaders, business executives, and members of Congress. His former confederates were a decidedly dicier lot: ex-convicts, extortionists, heroin traffickers, and mob henchmen. The man’s surreptitious recordings, FBI records show, aided his government handlers in the successful targeting of powerful Mafia figures with nicknames like Benny Eggs, Chin, Fritzy, Corky, and Baldy Dom.
Later this week, Obama will travel to New York and appear in a Manhattan hotel ballroom at the side of the man whom FBI agents primarily referred to as “CI-7”--short for confidential informant #7--in secret court filings. In those documents, investigators vouched for him as a reliable, productive, and accurate source of information about underworld figures.
The ex-informant has been one of Obama’s most unwavering backers, a cheerleader who has nightly bludgeoned the president’s Republican opponents in televised broadsides. For his part, Obama has sought the man’s counsel, embraced him publicly, and saluted his “commitment to fight injustice and inequality.” The president has even commented favorably on his friend’s svelte figure, the physical manifestation of a rehabilitation effort that coincided with Obama’s ascension to the White House. This radical makeover has brought the man wealth, a daily TV show, bespoke suits, a luxury Upper West Side apartment, and a spot on best seller lists.
Most importantly, he has the ear of the President of the United States, an equally remarkable and perplexing achievement for the former FBI asset known as “CI-7,” the Rev. Al Sharpton.
A lengthy investigation by The Smoking Gun has uncovered remarkable details about Sharpton’s past work as an informant for a joint organized crime task force comprised of FBI agents and NYPD detectives, as well as his dealings with an assortment of wiseguys.
Beginning in the mid-1980s and spanning several years, Sharpton’s cooperation was fraught with danger since the FBI’s principal targets were leaders of the Genovese crime family, the country’s largest and most feared Mafia outfit. In addition to aiding the FBI/NYPD task force, which was known as the “Genovese squad,” Sharpton’s cooperation extended to several other investigative agencies.
TSG’s account of Sharpton’s secret life as “CI-7” is based on hundreds of pages of confidential FBI affidavits, documents released by the bureau in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, court records, and extensive interviews with six members of the Genovese squad, as well as other law enforcement officials to whom the activist provided assistance.
Like almost every other FBI informant, Sharpton was solely an information source. The parameters of his cooperation did not include Sharpton ever surfacing publicly or testifying on a witness stand.
Genovese squad investigators--representing both the FBI and NYPD--recalled how Sharpton, now 59, deftly extracted information from wiseguys. In fact, one Gambino crime family figure became so comfortable with the protest leader that he spoke openly--during ten wired face-to-face meetings--about a wide range of mob business, from shylocking and extortions to death threats and the sanity of Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the Genovese boss who long feigned mental illness in a bid to deflect law enforcement scrutiny. As the mafioso expounded on these topics, Sharpton’s briefcase--a specially customized Hartmann model--recorded his every word.
Task force members, who were interviewed separately, spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing Sharpton’s work as an informant and the Genovese squad’s activities. Some of these investigators provided internal FBI documents to a reporter.
Records obtained by TSG show that information gathered by Sharpton was used by federal investigators to help secure court authorization to bug two Genovese family social clubs, including Gigante’s Greenwich Village headquarters, three autos used by crime family leaders, and more than a dozen phone lines. These listening devices and wiretaps were approved during the course of a major racketeering investigation targeting the Genovese family’s hierarchy. 
A total of eight separate U.S. District Court judges--presiding in four federal jurisdictions--signed interception orders that were based on sworn FBI affidavits including information gathered by Sharpton. The phones bugged as a result of these court orders included two lines in Gigante’s Manhattan townhouse, the home phone of Genovese captain Dominick “Baldy Dom” Canterino, and the office lines of music industry power Morris Levy, a longtime Genovese family associate. The resulting surreptitious recordings were eventually used to help convict an assortment of Mafia members and associates.
Investigators also used Sharpton’s information in an application for a wiretap on the telephone in the Queens residence of Federico “Fritzy” Giovanelli, a Genovese soldier. Giovanelli was sentenced to 20 years in prison for racketeering following a trial during which those recordings were played for jurors. In a recent interview, the 82-year-old Giovanelli--now three years removed from his latest stint in federal custody--said that he was unaware that Sharpton contributed in any fashion to his phone’s bugging. He then jokingly chided a reporter for inquiring about the civil rights leader’s past. “Poor Sharpton, he cleaned up his life and you want to ruin him,” Giovanelli laughed.
While Sharpton’s acrimonious history with law enforcement--especially the NYPD--rankled some Genovese squad investigators, they nonetheless grudgingly acknowledged in interviews that the activist produced for those he would go on to frequently pillory.
Genovese squad members, however, did not share with Sharpton specific details about how they were using the information he was gathering for them. This is standard practice since FBI affidavits in support of wiretap applications are filed under seal by Department of Justice prosecutors. Still, Sharpton was briefed in advance of his undercover sorties, so he was well aware of the squad’s investigative interest in Gigante and his Mafia cronies. 
Sharpton vehemently denies having worked as an FBI informant. He has alleged that claims of government cooperation were attempts by dark forces to stunt his aggressive brand of civil rights advocacy or, perhaps, get him killed. In his most recent book, “The Rejected Stone,” which hit best seller lists following its October 2013 publication, Sharpton claimed to have once been “set up by the government,” whose agents later leaked “false information” that “could have gotten me killed.” He added, “So I have been seriously tested in what I believe over the years.”
In an interview Saturday, Sharpton again denied working as a confidential informant, claiming that his prior cooperation with FBI agents was limited to efforts to prompt investigations of drug dealing in minority communities, as well as the swindling of black artists in the recording industry. He also repeatedly denied being “flipped” by federal agents in the course of an undercover operation. When asked specifically about his recording of the Gambino crime family member, Sharpton was noncommittal: “I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no.”
If Sharpton’s account is to be believed, he was simply a concerned citizen who voluntarily (and briefly) joined arm-in-arm with federal agents, perhaps risking peril in the process. The other explanation for Sharpton’s cooperation--one that has uniformly been offered by knowledgeable law enforcement agents--presents the reverend in a less noble light. Worried that he could face criminal charges, Sharpton opted for the path of self-preservation and did what the FBI asked. Which is usually how someone is compelled to repeatedly record a gangster discussing murder, extortion, and loan sharking.
Sharpton spoke for an hour in an office at the House of Justice, his Harlem headquarters, where he had just finished addressing a crowd of about 200 people that included his two adult daughters and his second wife (from whom he has been separated for ten years). A few minutes into the interview, Sharpton asked, “Are you taping this?” A TSG reporter answered that he was not recording their interview, but had a digital recorder and wished to do so. Sharpton declined that request.
In the absence of any real examination/exhumation of Sharpton’s past involvement with the FBI and the Mafia, his denials have served the civil rights leader well. Scores of articles and broadcast reports about the Obama-era “rehabilitation” of Sharpton have mentioned his inflammatory past--Tawana Brawley, Crown Heights, Freddy’s Fashion Mart, and various anti-Semitic and homophobic statements. But his organized crime connections and related informant work have received no such scrutiny.
In a “60 Minutes” profile aired three months before the August 2011 launch of Sharpton’s MSNBC show, correspondent Lesley Stahl reported on the “tame” Sharpton’s metamorphosis from “loud mouth activist” to “trusted White House advisor who’s become the president’s go-to black leader.” As for prior underworld entanglements, those were quickly dispatched: “There were allegations of mob ties, never proved,” Stahl flatly declared.
As host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” Sharpton now reluctantly identifies himself as a member of the media, if not actually a journalist. He spends his time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza surrounded by reporters, editors, and researchers committed to accuracy and the exposure of those who violate the public trust. In fact, Sharpton himself delights in a daily feature that seeks to expose liars, hypocrites, and others engaged in deceit (his targets tend to be Republican opponents of the Obama administration). As he wraps this segment, Sharpton points his finger at the camera and addresses his quarry: “Nice try, but we gotcha!”
In addition to his MSNBC post, Sharpton heads the National Action Network, which describes itself as a “Christian activist organization.” Obama, who refers to Sharpton as “Rev” or “Reverend Al,” is scheduled to deliver a keynote address Friday at the group’s annual convention in New York City. Mayor Bill DeBlasio will preside Wednesday over the convention’s ribbon cutting ceremony, while Holder and three Obama cabinet secretaries will deliver speeches.
Sharpton has been a leading supporter of Holder, who spoke at the National Action Network’s 2012 convention and saluted the reverend for “your partnership, your friendship, and also for your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill.” Last Friday, Sharpton appeared on a panel at a Department of Justice forum led by Tony West, the agency’s third-ranking official. West thanked Sharpton for his “leadership, day in and day out, on issues of reconciliation and community restoration.”
According to its most recent IRS return, which Sharpton signed in mid-November 2013, the National Action Network pays him $241,402 annually for serving as president and CEO. In return for that hefty salary, Sharpton--who hosts a three-hour daily radio show in addition to his nightly cable TV program--reportedly works a 40-hour week for the not-for-profit (which lists unpaid tax liabilities totaling $813,576).
For longtime observers, the “new” Sharpton’s public prominence and West Wing access is bewildering considering that his history, mob ties included, could charitably be described as checkered. In fact, Obama has banished others guilty of lesser transgressions (see: Wright, Jeremiah).
Sharpton now calls himself a “refined agitator,” an activist no longer prone to incendiary language or careless provocations. Indeed, a Google check confirms that it has been years since he labeled a detractor a “faggot,” used the term “homos,” or derisively referred to Jewish diamond merchants.
* * *
As an “informant in development,” as one federal investigator referred to Sharpton, the protest leader was seen as an intriguing prospective source, since he had significant contacts in politics, boxing, and the music industry.
Before he was “flipped” in the course of an FBI sting operation in 1983, Sharpton had established relationships with promoter Don King, various elected officials, and several powerful New York hoodlums involved in concert promotion, record distribution, and talent management. At the time, the music business was “overrun by hustlers, con artists, black and white,” Sharpton recalled in his 1996 autobiography. A federal agent who was not part of the Genovese squad--but who also used Sharpton as an informant--recalled that “everyone was trying to mine” his music industry ties.
In fact, by any measure, Sharpton himself was a Mafia “associate,” the law enforcement designation given to mob affiliates who, while not initiated, work with and for crime family members. While occupying the lowest rung on the LCN org chart--which is topped by a boss-underboss-consigliere triumvirate--associates far outnumber “made” men, and play central roles in a crime family’s operation, from money-making pursuits to more violent endeavors.    
For more than four years, the fact that Sharpton was working as an informant was known only to members of the Genovese squad and a small number of other law enforcement agents. As with any Mafia informant, protecting Sharpton’s identity was crucial to maintaining the viability of ongoing investigations. Not to mention keeping him alive.
For example, an episode recounted by TSG sources highlighted the sensitive nature of Sharpton’s cooperation with the FBI/NYPD task force.
In advance of seeking court authorization to bug a pair of Genovese family social clubs and a Cadillac used by Gigante and Canterino, a draft version of a wiretap affidavit was circulated for review within the Genovese squad, which operated from the FBI’s lower Manhattan headquarters. The 53-page document, which detailed the “probable cause” to believe that listening devices would yield incriminating conversations, concerned some investigators due to the degree to which the activities of Sharpton were described in the document.
While the affidavit prepared by FBI Agent Gerald King and a federal prosecutor only referred to Sharpton as “CI-7,” the document included the name of a Gambino mobster whom Sharpton taped, as well as the dates and details of five of their recorded meetings. Such specificity was problematic since the possibility existed that the affidavit’s finalized version could someday be turned over to defense lawyers in the discovery phase of a criminal trial.
Investigators fretted that Sharpton could easily be unmasked by the Gambino member, who, if ever questioned about his meetings with “CI-7,” would surely realize that Sharpton was the wired informant referred to in the FBI affidavit. That discovery, of course, could have placed Sharpton’s life in grave danger. The Gambino wiseguy, too, likely would have faced trouble, since he was recorded speaking about a wide range of Mafia matters, including Gigante’s illegal operations. The Genovese power--rightly paranoid about bugged phones and listening devices--famously forbid fellow gangsters from even speaking his name. In fact, if a wiseguy had to refer to Gigante during an in-person meeting, a quick stroke of the chin was the acceptable means of identification.
In response to concerns about the King affidavit, the draft, which a source provided to TSG, was rewritten to carefully shroud Sharpton’s work with government agents. The affidavit’s final version--which was submitted to two federal judges--no longer included the disclosure that “CI-7” had “consensually recorded his conversations” with a gangster. The wiseguy’s name was also deleted from the document, as was any reference to the Gambino family or the informant’s sex.
Instead, the revamped affidavit simply noted that “CI-7 reported” to the FBI various details of Genovese family rackets. The actual source of that valuable intelligence about Gigante & Co. had been carefully obscured. As were the details of how that information was obtained via Sharpton’s battery-powered valise.
But despite efforts like this to protect Sharpton, some details of his informant work leaked out in January 1988, when New York Newsday reported that the civil rights activist had cooperated with federal investigations targeting organized crime figures and Don King. Though he reportedly made incriminating admissions to the newspaper, Sharpton quickly issued vehement denials that he had snitched on anyone.
While acknowledging contact with law enforcement officials, Sharpton--then involved in the early stages of the Tawana Brawley hoax--said he sought the help of investigators to combat the crack cocaine epidemic ravaging New York’s poorest communities. Sharpton also claimed to have contacted agents (and pledged his assistance) after a Mafia associate allegedly threatened him over a music industry dispute.
Sharpton asserted that a phone installed in his Brooklyn apartment by federal investigators in mid-1987 was there to serve as a “hotline” for the public to report drug dealing. He flatly denied recording phone conversations at the direction of law enforcement agents. In one radio interview, Sharpton even declared, “We have an ethical thing against wiretapping.”
In fact, Sharpton had been cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn as part of an investigation targeting Don King. According to a source involved with that probe, federal agents “ran him for a couple of months,” during which time Sharpton “did some recordings” via his new home telephone. But the nascent Department of Justice operation was abruptly shuttered in the wake of the New York Newsday story.
The Brooklyn investigators were introduced to Sharpton in late-1987 by Joseph Spinelli, one of the reverend’s former FBI handlers (and one of the agents who initially secured his cooperation with the bureau). While Spinelli had left the FBI for another government post, he still helped facilitate Sharpton’s interaction with other investigators. “Joe was shopping him around,” one source recalled.
For example, in July 1987, Spinelli called a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and offered Sharpton’s assistance with a matter the lawyer was handling. The case involved Salvatore Pisello, a mobbed-up music industry figure who had just been indicted for tax evasion (and whom Sharpton had previously accused of threatening his life).
Referring to Sharpton, ex-prosecutor Marvin Rudnick said in an interview, “I didn’t know who he was” when Spinelli called. In subsequent conversations with Rudnick, Sharpton provided information about Pisello and a related music industry matter that was being scrutinized by Justice Department investigators.
While Sharpton would not prove particularly helpful to Rudnick, the attorney clearly recalled his brief, unorthodox dealings with the New York activist. “I remember having to go to a pay phone to take the call because he didn’t want it to be traced,” Rudnick laughed.
* * *
So why did Sharpton agree to become an FBI informant? And why was he willing to risk the dangers inherent in such cooperation?
“He thought he didn’t have a choice,” one Genovese squad agent recalled.
In the course of an investigation being run by Spinelli and his partner John Pritchard, Sharpton was secretly recorded in meetings with an FBI undercover agent posing as a wealthy drug dealer seeking to promote boxing matches.
As previously reported, Colombo crime family captain Michael Franzese, who knew Sharpton, enlisted the activist’s help in connecting with Don King. Franzese and Sharpton were later surreptitiously filmed during one meeting with the undercover, while Sharpton and Daniel Pagano, a Genovese soldier, were recorded at another sit-down. Pagano’s father Joseph was a Genovese power deeply involved in the entertainment industry (and who also managed the crime family’s rackets in counties north of New York City).
During one meeting with Sharpton, the undercover agent offered to get him "pure coke" at $35,000 a kilo. As the phony drug kingpin spoke, Sharpton nodded his head and said, “I hear you.” When the undercover promised Sharpton a 10 percent finder’s fee if he could arrange the purchase of several kilos, the reverend referred to an unnamed buyer and said, “If he’s gonna do it, he’ll do it much more than that.” The FBI agent steered the conversation toward the possible procurement of cocaine, sources said, since investigators believed that Sharpton acquaintance Daniel Pagano--who was not present--was looking to consummate drug deals. Joseph Pagano, an East Harlem native who rose through a Genovese crew notorious for narcotics trafficking, spent nearly seven years in federal prison for heroin distribution.
While Sharpton did not explicitly offer to arrange a drug deal, some investigators thought his interaction with the undercover agent could be construed as a violation of federal conspiracy laws. Though an actual prosecution, an ex-FBI agent acknowledged, would have been “a reach,” agents decided to approach Sharpton and attempt to “flip” the activist, who was then shy of his 30th birthday. In light of Sharpton’s relationship with Don King, FBI agents wanted his help in connection with the bureau’s three-year-old boxing investigation, code named “Crown Royal” and headed by Spinelli and Pritchard.
The FBI agents confronted Sharpton with the undercover videos and warned that he could face criminal charges as a result of the secret recordings. Sharpton, of course, could have walked out and ran to King, Franzese, or Pagano and reported the FBI approach (and the fact that drug dealer “Victor Quintana” was actually a federal agent).
In subsequent denials that he had been “flipped,” Sharpton has contended that he stiffened in the face of the FBI agents, meeting their bluff with bluster and bravado. He claimed to have turned away Spinelli & Co., daring them to “Indict me” and “Prosecute.” Sharpton has complained that the seasoned investigators were “trying to sting me, entrap me…a young minister.”
In fact, Sharpton fell for the FBI ruse and agreed to cooperate, a far-reaching decision he made without input from a lawyer, according to sources. “I think there was some fear [of prosecution] on his part,” recalled a former federal agent. In a TSG interview, Sharpton claimed that he rebuffed the FBI agents, who, he added, threatened to serve him with a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury investigating King. After being confronted by the bureau, Sharpton said he consulted with an attorney (whom he declined to identify).
Following bureau guidelines, agents formally opened a “137” informant file on Sharpton, a move that was approved by FBI supervisors, according to several sources. Agents anticipated using Sharpton in the “Crown Royal” case focusing on King, but during initial debriefings of their new recruit, it became clear that his contacts in the music business were equally appealing.
Sharpton had met James Brown in the mid-70s, and became extremely close to the R&B superstar. He worked for and traveled with the mercurial performer, married one of Brown’s backup singers, and wore the same processed hairdo as the entertainer. Like Brown, Sharpton would sometimes even wear a cowboy hat atop his tribute conk.
It was first through executives at Spring Records, a small Manhattan-based label affiliated with Brown, that Sharpton--who worked from the firm’s office--was introduced to various wiseguys, including Franzese. His circle of mob contacts would grow to include, among others, the Paganos, Carmine DeNoia, an imposing Pagano associate known as “Wassel,” and Joseph “Joe Bana” Buonanno, a Gambino crime family figure involved in record distribution and production.
At one point before he was “flipped,” Sharpton participated in a mob scheme to create a business front that would seek a share of lucrative Con Edison set-asides intended for minority-owned businesses. That deal, which involved garbage collection contracts, cratered when the power company determined that Sharpton’s silent partner was Genovese captain Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello. Details of the Con Ed plot emerged at a federal criminal trial of Ianniello and his business partner Benjamin Cohen. It was Cohen, who worked across the hall from Spring Records, who recruited Sharpton for the mob garbage gambit.

Crossing Christie

The Political Scene

What the bridge scandal says about the Governor’s political style, and his future.

by April 14, 2014

Chris Christie’s mentor, former Governor Thomas Kean, says that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them.”
Chris Christie’s mentor, former Governor Thomas Kean, says that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them.” Illustration by Daniel Adel.
On April 1st, Chris Christie, the beleaguered Republican governor of New Jersey, attended a celebrity roast, in Newark, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Brendan Byrne, the state’s governor from 1974 to 1982. “He’s an inspiration,” Christie told the audience, referring to Byrne, who won reëlection against long odds, because he has “shown that political comebacks can actually happen.”
Christie sat on a long dais with five former governors and five local comedians, listening to the guitarist John Pizzarelli sing an ode to the state: “I may leave for a week or two, but I’m always coming back.” Christie was seated next to former Governor Thomas Kean, a longtime supporter, but he did not say hello or shake his hand, and he glared at the comedians as they delivered their lines. “You scare the shit out of me,” Stewie Stone said to Christie during his routine.
Just five months earlier, Christie had won a sweeping reëlection, securing nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties, sixty per cent of the vote, and endorsements from Democratic officeholders. He won fifty-one per cent of the Hispanic vote and twenty-one per cent of the African-American vote. His plan was to shed part of his Jersey persona, and perhaps a few more pounds, and begin in earnest the transition from state politician to Presidential candidate.
But the past was catching up with him. In September, an unusual incident had occurred in Fort Lee, the small town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Without warning, the number of access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza had been reduced from three to one. The lanes were closed for four days, and the resulting traffic jams caught the attention of several Democratic legislators. They opened an investigation and eventually accused the Christie administration of engineering a plot to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his failure to endorse Christie’s reëlection. The accusation seemed so ludicrous that Christie belittled a reporter for asking about it. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said during a press conference in early December. But on January 8th an e-mail surfaced showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, had instructed David Wildstein, who was the Governor’s second-highest appointee at the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridge, to engineer the gridlock. Months of scrutiny and withering criticism followed, and Christie’s approval rating fell twenty points.
Christie had spent the week before the Byrne event trying to repair the damage. He hired lawyers who, on March 27th, released a report declaring that he knew nothing about the plan and placing the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. The next weekend, Christie flew to Las Vegas and met with Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing billionaire who is looking for a Presidential candidate to fund. Christie managed to offend Adelson, who is a major supporter of the conservative Likud Party, in Israel, by publicly referring to the “occupied territories,” a term to which Adelson objects. (“Occupied territories” is common parlance among both Democrats and Republicans, but Christie, fearful of losing Adelson’s favor, apologized.)
The Newark roast wasn’t going well, either. The speakers aimed much of their fire at Christie. “You knew whose ass to kiss,” Stone said, referring to Christie’s trip to Vegas. “ ‘Whatever you say, Sheldon! Whatever you say!’ ” Vince August, a New Jersey judge turned comedian, noted, “It really is an honor to be standing next to what could be the next President of the—.” He shuffled some papers on the lectern. “I’m sorry, these are the wrong notes. I’m doing a roast next week with Jeb Bush.” Even Byrne got in a dig, about Christie’s waistline. “Somebody referred to that bronze statue of me that’s in the courthouse,” he said. “Actually, that was supposed to be Governor Christie, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for all that bronze.”

Crossing Christie

Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”
Before the bridge scandal, Christie was known as a governor who transcended New Jersey’s reputation for toxic politics and toxic dumps. He took on the exploding costs of the state’s pension system, reformed property taxes, and worked with his opponents in the legislature, and he provided decisive leadership after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But the scandal hinted at a darker story line: that Christie’s barrelling style, and the dealmaking that had secured his rise through New Jersey politics, might as easily undo him.
Recently, Governor Kean, during a long interview in his office, in Far Hills, New Jersey, forty-five minutes west of Manhattan, told me that he has reconsidered his support of Christie. Kean is now seventy-eight years old; he served from 1982 to 1990 and is a revered figure in state politics. He became well known nationally when, in 2002, George W. Bush appointed him chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the widely praised investigation into the 2001 terrorist attacks. Kean is also arguably the most important political figure in Christie’s career. Christie was born in Newark in 1962, but, after race riots there in the summer of 1967, his parents moved to suburban Livingston, which, like Newark, is in Essex County, the most Democratic county in New Jersey. When Christie was fourteen years old, he heard Kean, who was then a member of the state legislature, speak at his junior high school. He told his mother that he wanted to become a politician; she drove him to Kean’s house and told him to knock on the legislator’s door.
“Sir, I heard you speak,” he told Kean. “I think I want to get into politics. How do I do it?”
“I’m going up to speak in Bergen County tonight,” Kean told him. “Why don’t you come with me and see if you like it?”
Kean became Christie’s political mentor. Christie, who was class president throughout high school, practiced a kind of suburban political activism. When a local diner barred him and his friends, because, the owner said, they didn’t order any food, he organized a boycott. (The owner eventually negotiated a settlement with Christie.) When Christie’s position as the starting catcher on the high-school baseball team was threatened by a transfer student, Christie and his father briefly considered taking action to block the student’s enrollment. Christie was benched for most of the season.
Christie worked on Kean’s gubernatorial campaigns, and in 2001, when Christie was nominated by Bush to be the United States Attorney for New Jersey, Kean wrote a letter validating his qualifications. When Christie ran for governor, in 2009, Kean told me, he was the first major figure to endorse him. “I campaigned with him a lot, and raised money for him,” he said. On Election Night last November, Kean spent time with Christie and his family before his victory speech, which was nationally televised. But they hadn’t spoken since that evening. Christie has a way of distancing allies, and he and Kean have had a falling out.
“He doesn’t always try to persuade you with reason,” Kean said. “He makes you feel that your life’s going to be very unhappy if you don’t do what he says.” He added that one of Christie’s flaws “is that he makes enemies and keeps them. As long as you’re riding high, they’ll stay in the weeds, because they don’t want to get in your way. But you get in trouble, they’ll all come out of the weeds, and come at you.” Although I didn’t ask, Kean told me that if Christie ran for President he wouldn’t necessarily endorse him. “I haven’t decided whether I’m going to support him or not,” Kean said. “There are a lot of people I don’t know that well”—he mentioned John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush, among other potential 2016 Republican Presidential nominees—“and I’d like to get to know them better.”
Christie has sometimes found himself embarrassed by his state’s unique political culture. He had a distant relative who was a mobster, whom he once visited in jail. On a trip to Washington in 1980, as a high-school senior, he and a classmate were scheduled to meet their senators, Harrison Williams and Bill Bradley. The day before they arrived, news broke of a major sting operation involving several members of Congress, among them Williams, who was later indicted. An F.B.I. agent posing as a representative of a wealthy Arab sheikh had tried to bribe them. (The scandal, known as Abscam, was the subject of last year’s film “American Hustle.”) Senator Williams cancelled his meeting with the students, and Christie later said that he and his friend were “ashamed, and we got made fun of all week,” according to “Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power,” Bob Ingle and Michael Symons’s thorough biography.
Christie went to the University of Delaware, where he became the student-body president, and where he met his future wife, Mary Pat Foster, who was also involved in student government. In 2009, a former college friend told the Newark Star-Ledger that she was awestruck watching Christie lobby state officials for extra funding for the school. He went to law school at Seton Hall, and when he graduated, in 1987, he joined Dughi & Hewit, a small firm in Union County, which was another Democratic stronghold.
In 1992, Christie volunteered for the George H. W. Bush campaign, where he got to know Bill Palatucci, the executive director of both of Bush’s Presidential campaigns in New Jersey, which was then a more competitive state for Republicans. “We spent virtually every day together in the fall of 1992,” Palatucci told me. “He had a bird’s-eye view of a Presidential campaign in a targeted state with a lot of resources.” After Bush lost, Palatucci, who had a law degree but hadn’t practiced, joined Christie’s law firm, and they became a team. “He was teaching me how to practice law, and I was teaching him how to practice politics,” he said. “From the ’92 campaign he had made a lot of friends and contacts, and so he started to investigate, with my help, finding the right office to run for.” There was little prospect of winning a race in Essex or Union County, and Christie moved farther west, to Mendham Township, in Morris County, which is dominated by the Republican Party.
Christie’s first attempts to get to Trenton, the state capital, as a lawmaker came to an ignoble end. In 1993, Christie tried to unseat the Republican state senator John Dorsey, who happened to be the majority leader, and therefore one of the most important Republicans in the state. Richard Merkt, a longtime G.O.P. politician in the area, told me that local Republicans were shocked. Sitting in a booth at the Morristown Diner, Merkt talked about Christie’s early years. “Chris was a brash kid,” he said. “He moves into Morris County and pretty quickly decides that he wants to be not a member of the governing body of the town, not a mere freeholder”—a county commissioner—“not even a mere assemblyman, but he wants to be a state senator right out of the box, because he used to deliver literature for Tom Kean during his gubernatorial campaigns. That was his credential. His reach exceeded his grasp.”
New Jersey has five hundred and sixty-six municipalities, made up of towns, townships, boroughs, and villages. About a third of these entities are smaller than two square miles. Christie began collecting petitions to get his name on the ballot in Mendham Borough, which he may not have known was not in the same municipality as his new home town, Mendham Township, and was outside the district he wanted to represent. Dorsey, his opponent, challenged Christie’s petition and officials found dozens of invalid signatures. His name wasn’t allowed on the ballot. “That campaign collapsed rather rapidly,” Merkt said.
Christie lowered his expectations and, for his second campaign, ran for freeholder. This time, he was a reform candidate, promising to restore honest government, and he produced a TV ad charging that three of his opponents in the nine-person Republican primary were being “investigated by the Morris County prosecutor,” a serious accusation that happened to be false. Christie won the primary and then the general election, in part by assuring a more socially moderate electorate, “I am pro-choice.” But his victory was marred by the divisiveness of the campaign. The three victims of Christie’s false ad, including a freeholder named Cecilia Laureys, successfully sued him for defamation, and, after he lost an appeal, as part of the settlement he was forced to apologize to them in local newspapers. Laureys died last July, but her son, Christopher, who was her communications director, told me, “This was beyond the pale of what anyone had ever done in politics in Morris County. He was a lawyer who said they were being criminally investigated. He looked into the camera and lied.”
Within weeks of his swearing-in, Christie started planning a campaign for a state-assembly seat. In the open Republican primary in Morris County, the two candidates with the highest number of votes become the Party’s two nominees for the assembly, and candidates sometimes run together, as a pair. In 1995, Merkt teamed up with Christie. “It turned out to be the worst mistake I ever made in politics,” he told me. The incumbent assemblyman, Anthony Bucco, had supported Christie’s freeholder campaign, so he was surprised that Christie was trying to oust him from his job. Christie attacked him for supporting a repeal of New Jersey’s assault-weapons ban, calling the idea “dangerous” and “crazy.” After the campaign, Bucco described Christie’s style of politics as “character assassination.” In a Republican primary, which attracts the most conservative voters, Christie’s pro-choice record and anti-gun position were not embraced. He came in fourth.
Two years later, he lost his freeholder seat. “The folks he had torpedoed with the phony charge came back and used it against him,” Merkt said. Christie came in fifth out of five candidates. “ONCE-RISING STAR IN MORRIS FINDS IT HARD TO EMPTY DESK,” the headline in the Star-Ledger read, on December 21, 1997. Christie went back to his law firm and, in 1998, registered as a lobbyist, along with Palatucci. But that fall, when George W. Bush was reëlected governor of Texas, Christie saw an opportunity to reënter politics. Palatucci had first met Bush in 1988, when Bush came to New Jersey to campaign for his father and Palatucci picked him up at the airport. Ten years later, Palatucci bumped into Bush in a hotel in New Orleans just days after his reëlection as governor, and Bush introduced him to Karl Rove, his political strategist. Soon afterward, Palatucci took New Jersey’s top Republicans to Austin to endorse Bush’s nascent run for President. Christie tagged along. “He’s this former county official who got booted out of office!” Palatucci said. “Going there with the state senate president, the speaker, a couple of key state legislators, key county chairmen, and the best fund-raiser in New Jersey.” The group made three trips to Texas and locked up New Jersey, and Christie became Bush’s campaign lawyer for the state.
In mid-2000, a Bush victory looked plausible, and Christie became interested in the job of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. That fall, Palatucci mailed Christie’s résumé to Rove, and Kean added his letter of support. Bush announced Christie’s nomination on December 7th. Christie—a lobbyist, fund-raiser, and failed local politician—had no criminal or prosecutorial experience. “He wasn’t the most qualified,” Kean told me. “Just on legal expertise and law-enforcement expertise, there were people who wanted the nomination who were better qualified.”
Palatucci said that Christie was a good lawyer and a good communicator, and “he’d worked really hard for George Bush.” He added, “Others had bits and pieces of those three qualifications, but they didn’t have all three the way Chris did.” The politics of 9/11 secured Christie’s confirmation. Democrats had no interest in fighting Bush, whose approval rating reached ninety per cent. “In light of current events and the need for strong and immediate actions by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the war on terrorism,” New Jersey’s two senators, Jon Corzine and Robert Torricelli, both Democrats, said in a joint statement, “it is important to honor President Bush’s choice for this position.”
Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from January 17, 2002, until December 1, 2008. Less than a year afterward, he was elected governor. By all accounts, he was adept at using the powers of the U.S. Attorney’s office, which has strict rules about engaging in politics, to build a public profile and consolidate power in an increasingly Democratic state.
One Democrat who benefitted from Christie’s ascent was Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive, who is considered the most powerful Democrat in North Jersey. “Anybody who runs statewide has to come through us,” he told me. Last year, he endorsed Christie’s reëlection. DiVincenzo, whom everyone calls Joe D., is sixty-one, and grew up in Newark. His father was a supervisor at a pickle company in nearby Perth Amboy, and his mother worked for the Charms candy company. I met with DiVincenzo in late February in his office, in Newark, during a weekly meeting with staff members from the county’s department of public works. They sat around a conference table in a room decorated with stuffed animals and faded forest-themed tapestry, reviewing a list of twenty-five major construction projects: a seven-million-dollar job to improve Turtle Back Zoo, in West Orange; a two-million-dollar bridge project for the Orange Reservoir. DiVincenzo had talked to Christie on the phone earlier in the day, and after the meeting he travelled to Trenton to meet with him privately. “The Republicans get upset with the Governor because of my friendship with him,” DiVincenzo told me. “They get upset because they feel Joe D. gets everything.”
DiVincenzo’s relationship with Christie began after F.B.I. agents raided the office in which we were sitting, in 2002. At the time, the office was occupied by James Treffinger, DiVincenzo’s predecessor, who was a Republican and was being investigated for corruption. Treffinger was running for the U.S. Senate against Torricelli, and DiVincenzo, who was president of the county board of freeholders, one floor above, was running to replace Treffinger. A few months after searching Treffinger’s office, federal agents arrested him on various charges, including mail fraud, leading him away in handcuffs and leg irons as the media took photos. The Star-Ledger reported that some prosecutors in Christie’s office “were appalled, and saw it as a cheap attempt to score political points.” Treffinger pleaded guilty to two of the charges against him, and served thirteen months in jail.
I asked DiVincenzo about his early impression of Christie as the U.S. Attorney. “Scared shit of him!” he said. “The guy was on a mission.” DiVincenzo said that his opponent in the 2002 race tried to connect him to Treffinger by running an ad with footage of the F.B.I. agents removing boxes from the government building in Newark that they shared. In the middle of the campaign, Christie sent DiVincenzo’s lawyers a letter saying that their client was “not a subject or target of the grand jury investigation.” DiVincenzo won the race.
Christie, intent on running for office, made corruption his central issue. Public cynicism about politicians, especially in New Jersey, was high, and the local press loved tales of political scandals. Christie already had a connection to an influential new political Web site, then known as PoliticsNJ and later as PolitickerNJ, run by an anonymous blogger, who received regular scoops from Christie’s office. In addition, New Jersey’s thirteen hundred units of local government—municipalities, school districts, fire districts, and local authorities that deal with sewage and other services—made the state a good target for political stings, with thousands of people responsible for handing out government contracts. From his days as a freeholder, when he campaigned as a reformer, Christie was intimately familiar with the patronage and pay-for-play ethos at the local level. He initiated his own Abscam-style operations. DiVincenzo recalls Christie saying, “If you’re getting an envelope with cash, it’s coming either from your mother, because it’s your birthday, or from one of my agents. Don’t take it unless it’s your mother.”
Some politicians took the envelopes, and even some who didn’t became ensnared. In 2003, Governor Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, was caught on tape using a code word that signalled to a Christie informant that McGreevey was privy to an illegal scheme for gathering campaign contributions. Christie had chosen the code word “Machiavelli.” McGreevey insisted that his use of the word was coincidental, but the scandal escalated until, on August 12, 2004, the Governor announced his resignation, revealing that he was “a gay American.” Although McGreevey’s lover had been threatening to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit that would expose their relationship, Christie’s criminal investigation seemed to be a factor in McGreevey’s decision.
Even as Christie was investigating McGreevey, he was considering running to replace him, but when he realized that he would face a competitive primary he decided to skip the race. In 2005, Corzine, the former head of Goldman Sachs, won a relatively comfortable victory over the Republican Douglas Forrester, a former mayor of West Windsor. By early 2006, Christie had prosecuted eighty-six political figures. DiVincenzo had consolidated his power in Essex County; two people on his payroll were state senators, and still are. He told me that he regularly called Christie to vet people who wanted to work for Essex County. “If I was interested in hiring somebody,” DiVincenzo said, “I would kick it off him.” If the person had issues, Christie would tell DiVincenzo, “You should keep searching.”
As a student, Christie had expressed shame at the corruption of state politicians. As an investigator, he rooted it out with a heavy hand. In April, 2006, a con artist named Solomon Dwek was arrested for trying to cash a fraudulent twenty-five-million-dollar check at a drive-through bank window. In return for a lighter sentence, Dwek’s lawyer offered to make Dwek a confidential informant for Christie, according to “The Jersey Sting,” by Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin, a detailed insider account of the operation. Dwek promised that he could infiltrate his own Syrian Jewish community, but Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment: exposing political corruption. Christie unleashed Dwek on Hudson County and the surrounding area, and Dwek worked for him for the next three years.
Dwek’s Hudson County sting was unlike any investigation in the state since Abscam. Dwek posed as a developer seeking to fast-track construction projects by repeatedly offering politicians FedEx envelopes filled with thousands of dollars. The future mayor of Hoboken took one. The mayor of Secaucus took one. The deputy mayor of Jersey City took one. As Dwek infiltrated the county, Christie turned his attention to Robert Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman, who was running for the Senate against the former Governor’s son, Thomas Kean, Jr. In September, 2006, weeks before Election Day, Christie subpoenaed information from a nonprofit organization that rented office space from Menendez, who had helped the group receive federal funds. News of the subpoenas, and an investigation into a potential quid pro quo, leaked to the press. Kean ran ads describing Menendez as “under federal criminal investigation.” Menendez won the race, but he became an implacable enemy of Christie. It took him five years to secure a letter from the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia, where the case had been transferred, clearing him of any wrongdoing.
By the end of 2008, as Christie was preparing to run for governor, prosecutors began planning to simultaneously arrest all of their targets in the Dwek case. The lines between Christie’s political campaign and the work of the prosecutors often seemed blurry. With Barack Obama’s victory in November, Christie knew that he would soon be replaced by an Obama appointee. He resigned in December and, six weeks later, announced that he would challenge Corzine. During the campaign, Christie’s relationship with his colleagues in the U.S. Attorney’s office became a source of controversy. Michele Brown, one of the top lawyers in the office, was sending Christie five hundred dollars a month to repay a forty-six-thousand-dollar personal loan he had extended to her. Christie failed to report the payments on his state and federal ethics forms. In February, at a campaign event hosted by Bill Baroni, then a state senator, Christie noted that he had “a group of assistant U.S. Attorneys sitting down in Newark still doing their job. They are watching the newspapers. And, after we win this election, I’m going to take a whole group of them to Trenton with me and put them in every one of the departments.”
In the early morning of July 23rd, three months before Election Day, Christie’s former colleagues arrested forty-four people, an odd mixture of New Jersey criminals connected by Dwek’s two-track sting: rabbis involved in money laundering and organ trafficking and local politicians ensnared in Dwek’s ruses. Among those targeted was Joseph Doria, a member of Corzine’s cabinet. F.B.I. agents raided his home, and though they didn’t arrest him, Corzine asked him to resign. It took Doria years to clear his name. “The night before the F.B.I. came to my house,” Doria, who now teaches at Rutgers, told me, “the individual who took the money said he never had given me the money and had told the F.B.I. he had kept all the money.” He added, “It wasn’t a pleasant time.”
New Jersey corruption, Christie’s top issue, dominated the gubernatorial race. Christie insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the timing of the arrests, though he happened to be campaigning in Hudson County the day they occurred, and he made himself available to the press. Corzine considered getting out of the race. On Election Day, DiVincenzo told me, he called Christie. “Chris, you ran a great campaign,” he told him. “I just want to wish you the best. I’m going to be there with you. You’re always going to be my friend.” DiVincenzo added, “I think he was happy that I called him to show respect.”
Later that evening, Corzine, who had long been suspicious of DiVincenzo’s loyalties, called him, asking for the margin of victory in Essex County: “What’s your number?” In 2005, Corzine had won the county by eighty-eight thousand votes. DiVincenzo said it was going to be seventy-five thousand this time. “That’s not good enough,” the Governor shouted. DiVincenzo, who told me that the campaign’s goal was only sixty-two thousand, threw his phone across the room in frustration. Christie beat Corzine by three and a half points. Corzine, who tried to make a campaign issue out of Christie’s politicization of his office, later said that he lost the race because of high unemployment.
Other New Jersey Democrats are less charitable to Christie. Jerramiah Healy, the mayor of Jersey City, complained that the July arrests had affected the voter-turnout operation in Hudson County. “Jersey City had a good turnout for Corzine in his first win,” he told me. “That’s why this character Dwek was sicced on us.” (Christie’s spokesperson, Maria Comella, said this was “absolutely not true.”) In a new book, “Ruthless Ambition,” which also accuses Christie of politicizing his office, Louis Michael Manzo, a former assemblyman unsuccessfully targeted by Dwek, reveals that a copy of Dwek’s psychiatric evaluation, released during Dwek’s sentencing hearing, showed that he had “a history of serious mental disorder.” Michele Brown and several other former colleagues from the Newark office joined the new Christie administration. In 2010, the anonymous blogger from PolitickerNJ revealed that he was David Wildstein, a member of Christie’s high-school baseball team who later went to work for him at the Port Authority.
The day after the election, DiVincenzo attended a Christie event in Newark. With Hudson County’s political machine damaged, DiVincenzo was now even more powerful. Christie walked over and said hello. “Thanks for the call, Joe,” the Governor-elect said. He shook DiVincenzo’s hand and gave him a hug. “Let’s see what we can do together.”
Only about a quarter of the state’s population lives in South Jersey, an area that generally includes everything below Trenton. But what the south lacks in population it compensates for in political power, personified by George Norcross III, New Jersey’s most influential Democratic political boss. “By gaining control of the legislature, he’s brought a lot of stuff to South Jersey,” Kean told me. “He’s able to make sure it gets more than its fair share of everything.” He added, “His influence is huge around the state, greater than any nonelected leader in my lifetime. And he’s made a fortune in the process.”
The few Democrats who agreed to talk about Norcross attested to his power. “He’s No. 1 in the state without a doubt—I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Ray Lesniak, a longtime state senator from Elizabeth, in North Jersey, said. James Florio, a Democrat who served as the governor from 1990 to 1994, said, “He’s very smart, very smart.” Like Norcross, Florio is from Camden and has known him for decades as both an enemy and an ally. “I got along with him reasonably well. He can be a—” He paused. “Strong personality.” Early in Christie’s first term, Kean advised him that he had to have a good relationship with the top Democrats in the legislature, which meant cultivating their political bosses. “He got the most powerful governorship in the country,” Kean told me, “but he can’t get everything he wants without the support of Norcross.”
Camden, across the river from Philadelphia, is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. But at its center is a core of new development, anchored by Cooper University Hospital, which Norcross helped to build and where he is the chairman of the board. In early March, Christie broke ground on the latest Norcross project, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a charter school that will be built near the hospital. When Norcross introduced Christie at the ceremony, he teased the Governor openly. He reminded the audience that, despite Christie’s impressive reëlection, he failed to win any new Republican seats in the legislature. Then he touched on a sensitive issue. Norcross sponsors an annual ten-kilometre race across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, connecting Philadelphia and Camden. “There’s one thing the Governor, with all his power, has not been able to achieve,” he said. “I’m the one who’s able to shut down a bridge.”
Norcross had not warned Christie about the joke, and Christie looked surprised. As the audience laughed, Norcross went on to praise Christie for his “bold leadership.” He said, “In my lifetime there has never been a governor of either party who has worked harder and more diligently to help South Jersey, the city of Camden, and many of the things that we’re so proud of in this region.” Christie had no stinging retort. “Ol’ George is something, isn’t he?” he said. “Kicks me around, and then he says all those nice things to me right before I come up here. He’s the master.”
Afterward, I met Norcross for lunch in the cafeteria of the hospital, and then we took the elevator to the tenth floor, where he showed me the Camden skyline and outlined his plans for reviving the city. Norcross is fifty-eight, thin and compact, with a politician’s head of side-parted white hair and gleaming teeth. He told me that he couldn’t remember ever doing a taped interview with a reporter, and glared at my recording device.
In the late nineteen-seventies, the Democratic Party in Camden was divided between those loyal to Florio, then a young congressman, and those loyal to Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden and a state senator. (Errichetti is the basis for the character of Carmine Polito, Camden’s corrupt mayor in “American Hustle.”) Norcross’s father had a poor relationship with Florio. “They had a bit of a falling out,” he said. “And, of course, if my father didn’t like somebody I didn’t like him, either, even though I didn’t know him. So we had this big political war, Errichetti against Florio.”
By 1981, the war in South Jersey was over: Florio became the Party’s gubernatorial candidate—he lost in the general election, to Kean, by fewer than two thousand votes—and controlled Camden’s Democratic organization. Errichetti was arrested in the Abscam scandal and served almost three years in prison. As Florio approached his next gubernatorial race, in 1989, he wanted to reform his Camden operation.
“Camden County government back in the late eighties had been the subject of a lot of ugly newspaper stories about high-level patronage, pinstripe patronage—a lot of bond houses, lawyers,” Norcross said, and added, “There’s probably some corruption involved.” In a surprise move, Florio put Norcross and Rob Andrews, a local Democratic freeholder, in charge of his machine. “He needed somebody to come in governmentally and clean it up and somebody to come in politically and clean it up,” Norcross said. “Rob Andrews became the freeholder-director of the board, and I became the political leader.”
Norcross brought in professional pollsters and hired opposition researchers to investigate political opponents. (His first researcher was a young Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago.) At thirty-two, Norcross emerged as a leading Democratic power broker. He became famous in New Jersey political circles when, in 1991, he executed a political-revenge plot against a politician who had crossed his family. In 1985, Governor Kean had appointed Norcross’s father to the New Jersey Racing Commission. “My father was a two-dollar bettor, loved the ponies,” Norcross said. Lee Laskin, the Republican state senator who represented the district where his father lived, in Camden County, blocked the appointment. Laskin, a conservative, was known in the legislature as Dr. No, because he voted against almost everything.
Norcross went to see him. “Senator, I come here as a son asking for a favor for his father,” Norcross said. “I don’t want my dad to know I ever came here to see you. This would mean the world to him. It would mean the world to me, and I would be forever indebted to you personally if you did this for my dad.”
Laskin leaned over his desk. “Fuck you and your father,” he said, according to Norcross. “All you corrupt Democrats.”
“Senator, do you want to reconsider that? This is really important to me personally, and I really want you to do this for my dad.”
“No way!”
Six years later, Norcross persuaded John Adler, a Harvard-educated councilman from upscale Cherry Hill, to run against Laskin. Norcross took out a four-hundred-thousand-dollar personal loan, late in the campaign, so that Laskin wouldn’t see it on any campaign-finance reports, and created a TV ad accusing Laskin of mixing his law-office business with his official duties in the state senate. The barrage of negative ads on Philadelphia television destroyed him. Adler won, fifty-seven per cent to forty-three per cent. “We blew him away,” Norcross said. “It was the most exciting night I’ve ever had in politics in my life to this day.”
Through the nineties, Norcross extended his political operation beyond Camden and solidified control over three other southern counties and several municipalities by recruiting and financing his own candidates. By 1999, he had a bloc of seats in the state assembly that owed allegiance to him. By 2007, he had a bloc of six seats in the senate. The Norcross bloc generally votes together on issues important to South Jersey, which is smaller and more homogeneous than the north. Because North Jersey bosses are often more divided, Norcross shifts his allegiances among leaders in Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, and Union Counties, or even to the Republican Party. “We have a unified political organization that knows that, in order to serve South Jersey, you must function in that manner,” Norcross said. “There are many times when we have strong differences of opinion on things, but we settle inside of a room, and we always come out unified.”
DiVincenzo told me that he envied Norcross’s power. “His people control the assembly, and they control the senators,” DiVincenzo said. “He controls their campaigns, he funds their campaigns. They don’t always all get along, but, when it comes down to a vote, they’ll all be together. I have two senators. He has seven senators, and he has about twelve assembly people.” He explained that Norcross’s power in the legislature made his own relationship with Christie all the more important. “I don’t have what George has. George has seven and twelve! I have two senators and five assembly people.”
Right after Christie’s election in 2009, Norcross and DiVincenzo worked out an arrangement: the south got to run the senate, and the north got to run the assembly. Stephen Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross’s, whom Norcross helped elect, in an upset victory, in 2001, became the president of the senate. Sheila Oliver, from East Orange, in Essex County, became the speaker of the assembly. “I called George, and that’s how we put it all together,” DiVincenzo said. “We got two votes for him, for Senator Sweeney. And he delivered our votes with our assembly people we had, and we were able to get the majority and she became the speaker.”
Short of having a legislature controlled by Republicans, the Norcross-DiVincenzo deal was the best outcome for Christie. They were the two Democratic bosses in the state with whom he had the best relationships. Some observers were suspicious of the fact that, in 2005, as U.S. Attorney, Christie had declined to indict Norcross, who was under investigation after a South Jersey town councilman told the police that he was being coerced and possibly bribed by Democrats to fire a municipal employee. The councilman, wearing a wire, recorded hours of conversations with South Jersey political figures. Norcross is heard on the tapes conducting the sometimes unpleasant business of running a small political fiefdom. “Don’t fuck with me on this one,” he says at one point. “I catch you one more time doing it, you’re going to get your fucking balls cut off.” But his most telling statement was a boast: “In the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they’re all going to be with me. Not because they like me but because they have no choice.”
In January, 2006, in a six-page letter to the state attorney general that became public, Christie said that he wouldn’t indict Norcross because the investigation had been mishandled. For years, Democrats have accused Christie of dropping the case in order to turn Norcross into a political ally. Norcross, who has never discussed the case in depth, insisted that Christie would have indicted him if he had the evidence. “Christie, as I’ve come to know him now, is somebody who if he has a head shot he will take it,” Norcross told me. “If I had done something illegal, he would’ve indicted me. No doubt about it in my mind.” He said he wished that Christie had fully cleared his name. “I was very disappointed that he did not pronounce my innocence,” he said. “There are those who have speculated that that would’ve placed him in a position he didn’t want to be. People would’ve said, ‘Oh, you did a favor for the guy.’ ”
Norcross and his bloc of South Jersey legislators helped Governor Christie secure the major legislative achievements of his first term, including a bill to curb the costs of pension and health-care benefits for unionized teachers and government workers, whom Christie often attacked in his first term. “In the past, when we had difficult times, people would look for scapegoats—Jews, Catholics, Irish—and Christie provided public workers, teachers, and the civil-service system,” Florio told me. “From a policy perspective, he was very commendable in being clear. Now, I might be inclined to say it’s overly simple in the clarity, but, at times such as that, that’s what people are looking for.”
The fight against public employees made Christie a national celebrity among conservatives outside the state, and fuelled talk of him as a future Presidential candidate. That reputation was solidified when, in October, 2010, Christie cancelled a new multibillion-dollar train tunnel—the Access to the Region’s Core project—between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan, partly financed by the Port Authority. It seemed to be one of the most politically deft moves of Christie’s first term. Christie used the savings from the cancelled project to fund New Jersey’s transportation trust fund, which helped him keep a campaign commitment not to raise gasoline taxes. “He injected fifty to sixty political patronage jobs, as well as strategic political people, into Port Authority, with the view that he can use this entity to drive capital projects for New Jersey and satisfy campaign promises,” a top official at the Port Authority told me. Conservatives cheered the move, but Democrats saw it as a sign that Christie was using the Port Authority as a political tool. John Wisniewski, the head of the transportation committee in the assembly, passed a resolution granting his committee subpoena power, a rarity in the New Jersey legislature, and opened an investigation.
Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012, and leading New Jersey Democrats, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Stephen Sweeney, the senate president, began preparing gubernatorial campaigns. Christie’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in October, caused his approval rating to soar into the seventies, and both Booker and Sweeney decided not to challenge him. “God was not going to defeat him,” Norcross told me. With those two Democrats out of the race, DiVincenzo enthusiastically endorsed Christie’s reëlection, against State Senator Barbara Buono. Other Democrats were shocked. “You can’t be coerced into supporting the candidate on your ticket all the time,” Bill Pascrell, a congressman from Paterson*, said. “But there is an unwritten rule: then keep your mouth shut if you can’t.”
DiVincenzo said that Christie’s priority was to win over Democrats so he could launch a Presidential campaign based on his bipartisan record in New Jersey. “That’s why he wanted my support,” DiVincenzo said. “My relationship with the Hispanic community and the black community. It wasn’t about winning New Jersey with Joe D.—it was about a national story.” On January 24, 2013, Christie’s top political advisers compiled a private list of twenty-one Democratic mayors whose endorsement they coveted. Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, was the second name on the list. “We should get the targets to ‘sign on dotted line,’ ” a top aide wrote in an e-mail.
Jersey City’s new Democratic mayor, Steven Fulop, who is thirty-seven and a former marine, quickly learned what could happen to Democrats who didn’t coöperate. After Fulop was elected, in May, 2013, Christie showered him with attention. Top Christie officials were scheduled to meet individually with Fulop on July 18th. “They were going to roll out the red carpet,” Fulop told me. He considered endorsing Christie, but decided not to, partly because he realized that, if he ran for governor in 2017, the endorsement could be used against him in a Democratic primary. Bill Baroni, Wildstein’s boss, and Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, called and cancelled his meeting with Fulop. Baroni gave no explanation and made no offer to reschedule it. Michele Brown and three other Christie officials made similar calls within twenty-four hours. “Yes, it’s political retribution,” Fulop told me. “And it’s amateur and immature. But if I saw any indication that they were penalizing the city on something, that would’ve been a different animal.” He added, “It’s a dick move, but it is what it is.”
Christie rarely campaigned for Republican legislative candidates, especially in the south. “He left those areas alone,” Philip Alagia, DiVincenzo’s chief of staff, said. “He was with Sweeney more in photographs than he was with any Republican senate candidate in the state.” On September 12th, as the lane closings in Fort Lee entered their fourth day, Christie unveiled his first general-election television ad of the campaign, which emphasized his bipartisan record. “They said it couldn’t be done. New Jersey was too broken, too partisan,” the ad said. “They never met Chris Christie. Working with both parties, he made tough decisions.”
Norcross didn’t endorse Christie, but there seemed to be an informal non-compete agreement between his organization and the Governor: Christie mostly stayed away from Norcross’s candidates, and Norcross mostly stayed out of the gubernatorial race. Norcross, who appeared with Christie at a major event in Camden on October 7th, a month before Election Day, insisted that there was no formal agreement. Christie said later, “I had no deal with George Norcross on politics.” But DiVincenzo told me there was obviously a détente. “There’s no question there must have been deals that were done,” he said. Kean said, “The Governor wouldn’t campaign in certain districts, and I know he wouldn’t raise money in certain districts in South Jersey.”
Despite Christie’s sixty-per-cent victory, the legislature remained under Democratic control. The Democrats from the south retained the senate presidency under Sweeney, and the Democrats from the north retained the speakership of the assembly. But Norcross, along with others, pressed northern Democrats to remove Oliver as speaker and put Vincent Prieto, from Secaucus, in the position. Christie also wanted to make a change. Tom Kean, Jr., was the senate minority leader. Unlike Christie, Kean, who will likely run for governor in 2017, worked hard to try to win legislative seats for Republicans, especially in seven southern districts, where Norcross and Sweeney control eighteen out of twenty-one seats. Kean even ran a strong Republican candidate against Sweeney. “It was a nasty thing between Sweeney and Kean,” DiVincenzo said.
With Sweeney’s support, Christie attempted to engineer a coup against Kean for the minority leadership. Thomas Kean, Sr., told me, “The day after the election, a friend of mine called me and said, ‘You know there’s a guy calling around saying he’s got the Governor’s support running against your son.’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, because I was with the Governor last night, and he didn’t say anything.’ ” Kean, Jr., asked his Republican colleagues to sign a pledge of support. Kean, Sr., called “one of the Governor’s top people,” who told him that Christie had nothing to do with the plot.
On Wednesday, the night before the crucial vote to elect leaders for the new session, Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, who had been a prosecutor under Christie in the U.S. Attorney’s office, asked Kean, Jr., to come to the Governor’s office the following morning. There he told him that Christie wanted him to step aside. “I don’t think I’m willing to step aside,” Kean replied. O’Dowd disappeared to talk to Christie. When he returned, he told Kean that the Governor didn’t want to see him. Kean, Sr., didn’t expect his son to prevail. “I know how tough Chris is on people, and if you cross him he never forgets,” he said. “I didn’t think people were going to have the courage to take on the Governor after his reëlection.” Nevertheless, Kean retained his role as senate minority leader. Sitting in his leadership office in the basement of the Capitol, in Trenton, he smiled as we discussed his victory over Christie, at that time the most popular politician in America. “I won the vote,” he said.
In Trenton, Christie’s failed coup attempt played as a sign of his imperfections, which the bridge scandal, already percolating, revealed more fully. “It was a mistake,” DiVincenzo said. A Democrat familiar with the episode said, “Christie thought he could snap his fingers and tell the senate what to do. It was the single most devastating thing he did in his governorship.”
Tom Kean, Sr., felt betrayed by Christie’s move against his son. “I thought at some point the Governor would call me and say, ‘Hey, you gotta understand this, I had to do this for this reason or that reason.’ Whatever. But he never called me. The last time I talked to him was Election Night.”
The bridge scandal might never have been revealed if not for the sleuthing of Loretta Weinberg, a seventy-nine-year-old self-described nosy Jewish grandmother who is also a Democratic state senator from Teaneck, New Jersey, just northwest of Fort Lee. “I bungled into the Port Authority issue, just out of my curiosity,” she told me.
In September, Weinberg read an item in the Bergen Record about the traffic jam. A commuter told the paper, “Other than after the 9/11 attacks, I’ve never seen such a fiasco of delays at the inbound, upper-level part of the bridge.” A senior official at the Port Authority promised Weinberg that he would “get to the bottom of it,” but when she didn’t hear back she became suspicious. “My training comes from having raised children through their adolescent years,” she told me. “ ‘What do you mean you didn’t have a party? You weren’t even smart enough to put the beer cans in someone else’s back yard.’ That’s my investigatory background.”
Weinberg was elected to the state assembly in 1992 and to the state senate in 2005. In 2009, after the Dwek bust, when Corzine needed to prove his own anti-corruption bona fides, he chose Weinberg as his running mate. During Christie’s first term, she had several high-profile fights with him. The most famous incident came in 2011, after she criticized the Governor for defending DiVincenzo, who, through a quirk in state law, was drawing a pension for a job he still held. Weinberg, who was seventy-six years old and had lost her retirement savings to Bernie Madoff’s scam, was also drawing a public pension while still in office. Christie told reporters, “Can you guys please take the bat out on her for once?” On Weinberg’s desk, when I visited her recently, was a letter to the Governor that her seven-year-old granddaughter had written. “This is Loretaz grand datr,” it said. “I want you to ¡Stop ¡Bulieg Eevripati! Cris Cristi.” I asked if Christie ever apologized to her. “What, are you kidding me?” Weinberg said.
Throughout the fall, as Christie moved toward reëlection, Weinberg began attending the Port Authority’s public meetings. On October 2nd, the day after an article about the incident appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Baroni texted Wildstein that Maria Comella, Christie’s spokesperson, “didn’t think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention.” But other Christie aides were alarmed by Weinberg’s persistence and nervously monitored her actions. On October 16th, after a Port Authority meeting that Weinberg attended, Regina Egea, a top Christie aide, e-mailed three other senior staffers. “Sen Weinberg attended bd meeting but did not speak,” she wrote, adding, “Questions ensued on ft lee but holding to script of ‘all under review.’ She held post interview in hallway.”
Weinberg took Wisniewski, the transportation-committee chair, to one of the Port Authority meetings, and he soon joined the ranks of the bridge conspiracy theorists. Wisniewski, a tall, ambitious fifty-one-year-old lawyer, is from Sayreville, a suburb in Middlesex County. Like Weinberg, he had often opposed the Democratic leadership’s strategy of coöperating with Christie, and pursued numerous investigations of his administration, including the inquiry into why Christie cancelled the tunnel project in 2010. Although Wisniewski had the power to subpoena documents, the probes didn’t go anywhere.
During the fall, as Weinberg’s interest in the bridge scandal grew, she tried to persuade the senate, controlled by Sweeney, to give her subpoena authority, but he wasn’t interested. Some Democrats warned that the Party bosses were trying to protect Christie. Weinberg turned to Wisniewski, who had three months left before his subpoena power expired. Wisniewski asked Baroni to appear before his committee on November 25th to explain the lane closures. In the days before, Baroni worked with Christie’s senior aides to edit remarks he had prepared. Egea homed in on a picture with a bird’s-eye view of the bridge’s toll plaza that Baroni wanted to use. “Is there a picture from rush hour showing congestion?” she wrote in the margin. “Ideally w/little back up @ F.L. and more at other tolls?” Six days later, testifying before the committee, Baroni defended the closures as part of an important traffic study to determine whether Fort Lee had more than its fair share of access lanes. He came prepared with statistics on how many New Jerseyans from the committee members’ districts were potentially inconvenienced. “Every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee,” he said. He bombastically interrupted the committee members’ questions and changed the subject to the issue of political favoritism for Fort Lee. “Forty-two of your neighbors in Sayreville, they’re waiting in longer lines,” he lectured Wisniewski. “Maybe that’s O.K. When I was in the senate, I wouldn’t have gone back to my constituents and said that was fair.”
Wisniewski applauded the show. “Bravo to the theatre and to the turning of the tables,” he said to Baroni. “You’d always been good at that while you were a senator. You are a masterful dancer.” When the performance was over, Kevin O’Toole, a Republican state senator who is close to Christie, released a statement. “Why was a sweetheart deal done that gave Fort Lee three lanes and a dedicated exit?” he asked. The Governor’s office, where top aides listened to Baroni’s testimony live-streamed to their computers, also sent word of its approval. Charles McKenna, Christie’s chief counsel, and one of the former prosecutors Christie brought with him from the U.S. Attorney’s office, was apparently pleased. Wildstein texted Baroni, “Charlie said you did GREAT.”
But Weinberg and Wisniewski suspected that Baroni was lying. “I was willing to reserve judgment about what was happening until about ten minutes into Bill Baroni’s testimony,” Wisniewski told me. “It was so over the top and combative.” Wisniewski subpoenaed Wildstein, Baroni, and other Port Authority officials, and he brought Patrick Foye, the executive director of the agency, before his committee. Foye was an appointee of Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, and in September, when he learned what Wildstein and Baroni had done, he stopped their scheme and reopened the Fort Lee lanes. On December 9th, he was asked by Wisniewski’s committee about Baroni’s alleged traffic study. Christie listened to Foye while eating lunch. “I’m not aware of any traffic study,” Foye said.
The traffic study turned out to be an elaborate cover story. “This guy just made this up,” Weinberg said. “They tried to make this into something that everybody else would get mad at.” She added, “The coverup wasn’t even good.”
In December, as the Christie administration’s story unravelled, the Governor publicly dismissed Weinberg and Wisniewski as being “obsessed” with the issue. “It just shows you they really have nothing to do,” he said on December 2nd. But privately Christie feared that the scandal was getting too close to him. On December 5th, Michael Drewniak, his press secretary, told Christie that he had had dinner with Wildstein the previous evening. He said Wildstein had said that, on September 11th, the third day of the traffic jam, he had told Christie about the traffic issue when the two men were together at a 9/11 anniversary event. Christie told Drewniak that Wildstein and Baroni “had to go,” and the following day he forced them to resign. Christie personally edited a press statement about Wildstein’s resignation, adding language to “thank him for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.” It still seemed as if it might all go away. “You are a great friend and this too shall pass,” Drewniak texted Wildstein on December 8th.
Despite the gathering momentum of the scandal, Vincent Prieto, the new Democratic speaker of the assembly, showed little interest in renewing Wisniewski’s subpoena authority. “We have a new speaker who wants to earn his credentials,” a Democratic legislator told me. “There was a long time there when we weren’t sure they were going to renew subpoena power.” Wisniewski knew that unless he found something explosive his investigation would be over.
In the late afternoon of December 23rd, the servers at the Office of Legislative Services, in Trenton, became overloaded as a cache of e-mails with enormous PDFs arrived. Wisniewski learned that thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents from Wildstein and Baroni had arrived. On December 26th, after Wisniewski’s family had gone to bed, he retreated to his home office and trudged through the unwieldy PDFs. He had been fruitlessly investigating Christie’s politicization of the Port Authority for four years, and he assumed there would be little of value in the new documents. “My expectation was, I’m going to go through these and there’s going to be a lot of stuff in here that’s just totally pointless,” he said. It was getting late, and he was close to giving up for the night.
Then an e-mail—one that could possibly ruin Christie’s political career—appeared on his screen. At first, Wisniewski said, he thought, “I’m not seeing this right. It just doesn’t make sense.” He started Googling the names. The e-mail was from Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, to Wildstein. The time stamp said it was sent at 7:34 A.M., on August 13, 2013.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
Christie has responded to the scandal by distancing himself from the aides who knew about the lane closures and by arguing that the incident was an aberration. After Wisniewski uncovered the evidence that the bridge plot started in Christie’s office—with someone he has described as “one of my closest aides”—Christie fired Kelly and cut ties to Bill Stepien, his campaign manager and a senior political adviser, who also seemed to know about the plot. He hired lawyers to investigate and write a report about the incident, and they pinned the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. Some of Christie’s aides regard Wildstein with particular venom, choosing to believe that he ran a rogue operation and then foisted a fake cover story on the Governor. “I could claw his eyes out, pour gasoline in the sockets and light him up,” Drewniak wrote to an unidentified recipient on January 14th. “He became deluded in his belief that he had constructed a legit traffic study.”
One problem with this theory is that Wildstein’s antics were common knowledge before the bridge scandal. “Wildstein was known by us, and we communicated to New Jersey all the time that he was a cancer,” the top Port Authority official said. “So this wasn’t a surprise that he did something bad. It was just a surprise about how bad and how manipulative it was.” He added, “There was a culture that created some of this stuff in the whole Christie world. He was running for reëlection, and he wanted the Christie-crats, to get as many endorsements as he could. There was that list of names, and the culture was to get it done.”
The greatest danger to Christie’s political future comes from Paul Fishman, his successor as U.S. Attorney, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the Fort Lee lane closures. The circle of people who could potentially coöperate with Fishman and offer damaging information about Christie keeps expanding. First, Wildstein, Baroni, Kelly, and Stepien were pushed out of Christie’s orbit. Then, after Christie’s report was released, David Samson, Christie’s close ally and the chairman of the Port Authority, resigned.
If Christie escapes Fishman’s inquiry, as well as Weinberg and Wisniewski’s, he still must overcome the damage to his reputation. Thomas Kean, Sr., said he believed Christie when he said that he knew nothing about it. “Now, there’s another question, about whether he created an atmosphere in which some of those people thought they were doing his will because they were getting back at people,” he said. “That’s possible.” He added, “If you cross Christie, he’ll come back at you, even years later. So his people might have picked up that kind of thing.”
“What if he did know?” I asked.
“And he’s just telling a lie to everybody?” Kean said. “Well, then he’s finished. As governor, too.”