Politics

03.05.14

This Civil War Reenactor Controls Christie’s Fate

Thanks to Republican Michael Patrick Carroll's presence, the investigation into the governor hasn’t become a partisan witch-hunt.

“I assume you want to know about The Fat Man, so let’s talk,” New Jersey legislator Michael Patrick Carroll said to me as I approached him on the Assembly floor of the Statehouse.

The Fat Man is, of course, Governor Chris Christie, the politician with whom Carroll has ben uncomfortably intertwined for the better part of two decades. “His aides used to get on my case, and say, ‘when are you going to stop calling him The Fat Man?’ And I said ‘when we pass each other—him on the way down and me on the way up.’ [I don’t call him that] anymore. He’s thinner than I am now, I think, or he’s getting there, anyway.”

“I call him ‘The Chubby One,’ ‘The Fat Man,’ what did Bush call him? ‘Big Boy'!” Carroll recalls being in Christie’s office, when Christie offhandedly said, “‘I have a very thick skin,’—and then [Christie] turned to me,” Carroll turns his head sharply to illustrate this, “and he said ‘don’t say it!'” Carroll shouted.

The Assembly chamber is deserted on this February morning, except for a few gospel musicians who move in and out for a soundcheck ahead of a Black History Month performance later in the day. Carroll talks to me over the sound of an organ projecting from a Yamaha keyboard.

Carroll is one of just four Republicans on the now-eleven-person “Bridgegate committee.” The inclusion of Republicans in the investigation of the Christie administration is essential to ensure that the efforts to get to the bottom of what happened with the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge is not dismissed as some sort of partisan witch-hunt. Which means that, in some way, Carroll is going to have a measure of control over Christie’s political future.

“No one’s ever offered me a bribe. I’m very insulted about that.”

It’s an ironic position for Carroll.

Not only did he play a key role in Christie’s political past, having beat Christie in an election nearly two decades ago. But with his indelicate jokes, vintage military uniforms, and strong libertarian streak, Carroll’s a beyond-colorful character—even by New Jersey’s neon standards. And yet, it’s his relative sobriety that may actually generate the biggest impact on Christie going forward.

Thanks a great deal to Carroll’s presence—“Fat Man” quips and all—the Bridgegate investigation has not become a witch hunt. It has been a fairly serious investigative process. And that means it has to potential to redeem Christie—or make his already-hellish 2014 much, much worse.

***

Carroll, 56, has a professorial look about him, with a salt and pepper Ken Burns-style haircut, a beard and rimless glasses. Today, on his desk, sits a Dell laptop and a copy of Lincoln The Man by Edgar Lee Masters. Later, an Assembly aide would tell me, amused, “Once he sat there [on the chamber floor] reading Game of Thrones.”

“I have a sense of humor,” Carroll says to me. “That’s dangerous. When I first got elected, one of my aides—he was a little old guy from Austria, a war hero. He spoke with this thick Austrian accent. I made a joke, and he got a horrified look on his face and said,” Carroll adopts a very convincing Japanese accent, “a joke in the mouth of Michael Carroll is no laughing matter.” Another aide, he told me, advised him to “never be photographed wearing a funny hat.”

Well, Carroll is a Civil War reenactor, making that last piece of advice somewhat hard to follow. He’s so into the Civil War that he named two of his six children Benjamin Franklin and Robert E. Lee, “one for each revolution. We ran out of imagination and went back to history.” Carroll may have gotten the idea to “get historic,” as he puts it, from his father, who “almost named me Adlai Stevenson, Jr.” before settling on Michael Patrick.

On his Facebook page, Carroll has a photo album titled “Misc stuff for Adversaries to use in campaigns,” that features pictures of him in reenactment garb—funny hats and all—and, unexpectedly, a letter from former New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner, congratulating his mother and father—veteran reporters for the Daily Record of Morristown and the New York Times, respectively—on his birth; it reads, “I am told that New Jersey has a prospective new citizen and the Democratic party a prospective new voter…greetings to Michael.” Carroll laughed to me, “well, he was half-right.”

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Michael Carroll

Carroll became a libertarian Republican around age 13—a disappointment to his parents, he told me, but an absolute asset for any future candidate running in deep red Morris County, New Jersey.

***

After first getting involved in politics as a teenage volunteer—making calls for Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen, Jr. and handing out buttons for Nixon—Carroll announced his first run for office in 1993. He ran for the State Assembly against Rep. Frelinghuysen’s son, Rodney, and lost by a very close 300 votes.

It was about that time that Carroll became aware of a young lawyer and new resident of Morris County named Chris Christie.

Carroll recalled, “I get this call from a pollster, and the pollster is asking me all sorts of questions, ‘would you be more or less likely to vote for a State Senate candidate who was pro-life?’ and ‘would you be more or less likely to vote for a State Senate candidate who was anti-assault

weapon?’” Carroll says the call tipped him off that someone new—perhaps with some very new political beliefs—would be entering the fray in Morris County. “We all knew something was coming.”

That something was Christie, who announced his candidacy for the State Senate in 1993, against Majority Leader John Dorsey. About a week later, Christie’s candidacy was officially over, when he failed to get his name on the ballot after submitting invalid signatures.

The following year, Christie was back at it, running for a seat on the Board of Chosen Freeholders in Morris County (every county in New Jersey has a board like this. They operate as the county legislature). He got himself elected on the strength of a campaign commercial that incorrectly charged that his opponents were under investigation by the county prosecutor. “It was a problematic tactic that he employed,” Carroll said.

In 1995, having been a Freeholder for a mere two months, Christie announced his candidacy for yet another position—the State Assembly. Unluckily for him, so did Carroll.

“He’s been a Freeholder for what, 20 minutes?” Carroll was quoted as saying at the time.

Not only did Christie’s pro-choice, anti-assault weapon platform do nothing to endear him to right-wing voters in Morris County, but Christie didn’t seem worried at all about Carroll—something which would prove to be a big mistake. “I don’t think he saw me coming until the last week of the election,” Carroll smiled.

As Christie and his running mate focused their attacks mostly on Tony Bucco, who had been sworn into the Assembly a few months before to fill a vacancy, Carroll continued to build up support for himself by advertising his conservative credentials in the opinion pages of the Daily Record.

Carroll also distanced himself from the type of campaigning which Christie had become associated with, releasing a commercial ensuring voters that he was not like certain unnamed “mudslinging career politicians” whose names rhyme with Miss Misty.

Video screenshot

On election day, Carroll was the second-most popular candidate, beating Christie by nearly 3,000 votes. Christie returned to his post as Freeholder to finish out his term, and then lost his reelection campaign. Carroll has remained in the New Jersey Assembly for eighteen years.

***

“We’re not investigating [Christie]. Because if we were, it’d be an ‘impeachment committee,’” Carroll explains to me as we move downstairs, from the Assembly chamber to the Republican caucus room where “you’re really not allowed in, but who cares?”

Carroll recalled being in this very room a month previously as they decided who would join the Bridgegate committee. He told me he raised his hand to volunteer because, “it struck me as interesting. It doesn’t matter whose party it is—we should be keeping an eye on what they’re doing.

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Michael Carroll

Uncovering wrongdoing in an administration that happens to be Republican? I’m all for it, because that’s what the legislature ought to do.” He raised his eyebrows, “more is the pity that we didn’t do it back when [disgraced former Democratic Governor Jim] McGreevey was in office.”

Unlike Miss Misty, Carroll explained that he heard about the problems on the GWB right away. “I’m from North Jersey. I remember hearing about big traffic jams, and they weren’t surely why [they were occurring].” Carroll lives in Morristown, which, it should be noted, is just about five miles from Mendham, where Governor Christie lives. “Within a couple of days, it began coming out that there was a political motive to this—and I poo-poohed that. I said ‘no one would be that stupid.’ Let’s put it this way: if you’re in politics, there are a lot easier and more effective ways of getting retribution against someone you don’t like than tying up traffic in his hometown.”

Carroll shook his head dramatically.

“My original thought was, ‘this can’t be serious!’ And then, it turned out to be that they were, in fact, that stupid.”

Carroll is one of just eleven legislators with the privilege of reading the Bridgegate documents as they come in. (There used to be twelve, but one of the Democrats just resigned.) “I look mostly at the summaries, if I can get away with it,” he said. From those summaries, Carroll has come to some conclusions.

Everybody has a theory for why the lanes were closed in Fort Lee: It was an act of political retribution against the town’s Democratic Mayor for failing to endorse Christie for reelection; It was a plot to screw over Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (whose district includes Fort Lee) for the Democrats’ refusal to approve Christie’s Supreme Court nominees; It was all about a big money development deal with ties to Christie allies, blah blah blah.

But Carroll offered a theory of his own: It was all a sinister joke, dreamed up by David Wildstein—the man brought onto the Port Authority by Christie-appointee Bill Baroni in 2010, after his decade-long reign as New Jersey’s all-knowing anonymous blogger, Wally Edge, of PoliticsNJ.com.

Carroll let out a deep sigh. “My guess is, from the evidence, that [the traffic jam] was something that Wildstein thought was actually funny.” Carroll was a source of Wally Edge’s. “He used to email me or IM me every single friggin’ day,” he told me. “He has just a massive amount of political trivia…And I will bet you that he thought this was funny.”

Wildstein, Carroll is right, was a politically-obsessed prankster who was finally in a position to make moves of his own. “[It was] a stunt. He had the power, and he could do these things!”

Of Bridget Ann Kelly, Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff whose “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email turned the mysterious story about traffic on the George Washington Bridge into a “gate” Carroll said, “she couldn’t order shit…she didn’t have the right to do anything.”

But Carroll dismisses any notion that she was acting on behalf of her now-former boss, Governor Christie, like many believe. “I don’t think he’s that stupid…If you have a secret to hide, do you look at the person who’s got that secret and say, ‘you are a liar and you’re out on your tuckus’? He called Bridget a liar on national television and kicked her out! Does she have any incentive whatsoever to cover his broad tuckus?"

Fat jokes—and he does claim the jibes are “all affection”—aside, Carroll seems to have always been confident in Christie’s political skill, if not in the idea that he’s a real conservative (despite Christie having voted against gay marriage multiple times, for instance, Carroll still doesn’t buy that he’s against it.)

“I’m surprised that something as trivial as this tripped him up,” Carroll shakes his head. “It seems that he was ill-served by the people he hired—the people he trusted.” Carroll shrugged, “there’s not really much you can do about that.”

The very worst outcome for Governor Christie would be that the Bridgegate committee uncovers a document explicitly tying him to the plot to create “traffic problems”. But even the best outcome—that nothing damning turns up—doesn’t clear him of all wrongdoing.

As more documents come out revealing the extent to which the people Christie put in positions of power were reckless, callous jerks, the more Christie’s judgment comes into question, and the less serious he seems to his underlings in the legislature, and the further away he slips from any hope of being taken seriously as a presidential contender in 2016.

***

“No one’s ever offered me a bribe. I’m very insulted about that.” He looks around the caucus room at his colleagues. “Some of my colleagues? For a couple of thousand dollars—literally, not even a couple week’s pay! It’s just the allure of money.” He raises his finger at me, “never trust anybody who gets rich when they’re in politics.”

He offers that “In all the years [I’ve been in office] I’ve never had anybody write me a note saying ‘send me a picture of your nether-regions.’ All the years I’ve been down here [In Trenton] not once! I’ve never ran into some woman who is infatuated by my power. I guess you have to be a Congressman before that happens. I guess power is an aphrodisiac.”

He laughs, “I don’t get the money, I don’t get the women. What did I get in politics for, right?”

Even Carroll knows that he is an unlikely powerbroker.

In any other year, he might just be the oddball legislator sticking to his libertarian beliefs while many around him fight for influence in the halls of the Statehouse.

But this is not any other year, and Carroll has found himself in the position to take down the man whose early political failure put him in the office he still holds.

Still, Carroll isn’t making a big thing of it. He seems, at most, amused that anybody is interested in interviewing him at all. “A reporter asked me, ‘how long does this go on?’—there are a gazillion cameras!—I said, ‘as long as you’re here.’”