A very Jersey scandal — over a traffic jam — is becoming a major political liability for possible presidential prospect Gov. Chris Christie.
The New Jersey governor on Wednesday angrily denounced his own aides for newly released e-mails indicating they schemed to punish a local mayor by closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge that serve his town. The lane change swamped the town in traffic for four days.
Christie said he knew nothing about the plot, but it could sour his national image as a tough-talking, problem-solving pragmatist into that of a partisan bully.
State Democrats are calling for a grand jury to investigate the bridge scheme, which could ensnare Christie in controversy just as he plunges into his new role as head of the Republican Governors Association and possibly lays the groundwork for a 2016 presidential run.
The "pettiness and vindictiveness'' of his close aides reflect poorly on Christie's own judgment, says Ana Navarro, Republican consultant. "This speaks to character and to leadership. It is a serious matter and Chris has to treat it that way. He has some explaining and house cleaning to do.''
Christie previously said he and his staff knew nothing about the lane closings that occurred after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., had declined to endorse Christie's re-election. Christie won a landslide re-election in the Democratic leaning state in November, which immediately made him a top GOP presidential prospect.
On Wednesday, Christie said he was "misled'' by his aides. "This completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,'' he said in a statement.
The bridge controversy "has all the makings of the kind of scandal that interferes with someone's ability to pursue higher office – it's political payback, it interfered with the public, it's basically dragging voters into a feud,'' says GOP consultant Dan Hill.
It also echoes similar tales that have circulated in New Jersey of Christie exacting revenge that date back to a 1997 local race, when he sued his opponent for defamation.
Christie, who'll be inaugurated for his second term next week, won't face voters again for a long time, if ever. By 2016, the bridge scandal will be "small ball,'' says Stuart Roy, a GOP consultant.
Political scientist Ben Dworkin of Rider University agrees, saying voters in early primary states won't care much about about Christie's history.
"Presidential elections are prospective: What are you going to do for the country?" he said. "Where are you going to lead America?"