David Wildstein pleaded guilty Friday for his role in Bridgegate, the scandal involving massive traffic jams caused by the unexplained closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013.
If Wildstein, as a top-tier executive at the Port Authority (which controls the GWB), is guilty of halting traffic, as has been alleged by Governor Chris Christie’s legal counsel, then he is also guilty of derailing the political aspirations of Christie, who installed Wildstein at the Port Authority in the first place.
Before Bridgegate, Christie was a star whose ascent was on a linear track to the White House.
He was a national celebrity—needled, but celebrated on late night television. His reputation as an able executive was strong thanks to his star turn as comforter-in-chief as his state was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy; and his popularity was at an all-time high, allowing him to sail to reelection as if he hadn’t even had a Democratic challenger at all.
So who is Wildstein, the man who may have ripped the presidency from Christie’s pudgy hands?Their lives have been loosely intertwined, it turns out, for decades.
Wildstein grew up where Christie did: Livingston, a leafy, affluent Newark suburb. The two volunteered together on the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Kean, Christie’s mentor. They attended Livingston High School in the late 1970s, with Wildstein one year ahead. There, they played on the same baseball team, the Lancers.
Their former baseball coach, Tony Hope, told The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis in January 2014, “David Wildstein was our baseball statistician. He was a very quiet, unassuming, brilliant kid. He’d do the baseball stats like you wouldn’t believe. He gave you the stats from the previous week’s games, he had a brilliant mind for numbers and figures…He knew the game but he wasn’t at all a player.”
But Christie denies the two were ever chummy.
At his never-ending, post-Bridgegate press conference in 2014, he said, “Well, let me just clear something up, OK, about my childhood friend David Wildstein. It is true that I met David in 1977 in high school. He’s a year older than me. David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school. I mean, I had a high school in Livingston, a three-year high school that had 1,800 students in a three-year high school in the late ‘70s, early 1980. I knew who David Wildstein was. I met David on the Tom Kean for governor campaign in 1977. He was a youth volunteer, and so was I. Really, after that time, I completely lost touch with David. We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time…We went 23 years without seeing each other. And in the years we did see each other, we passed in the hallways.”
“I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.” Translation: I was popular, David was irrelevant.
So how did Wildstein go from being a mere blip on Christie’s radar in the late ‘70s to the man Christie chose to make the second most powerful actor at the Port Authority?
Like most great success stories, it may have started with a blog.
After serving in local government in Livingston (including a stint as mayor) in the mid-late 1980s, Wildstein started PoliticsNJ.com, a gossipy, insider-y political blog that was like the locally-focused Politico Playbook of its day.
Wildstein adopted the pseudonym Wally Edge (the real Wally Edge had served as governor of NJ from 1917 to 1919), and received tips from sources at email@example.com.
When the website started in 2000, I wrote last year, “Christie was an obscure, failed country legislator.” So it was somewhat curious that Wally Edge wrote about him fairly frequently, and as if he were a figure of importance.
Wally Edge documented Christie’s every move: from winning a minor legal victory to fundraising for George W. Bush.
When Christie became the United States Attorney in 2002, Wally Edge’s coverage transformed from merely overly-interested to approaching-sycophantic. In one 2007 post, Wally Edge asked—for no real, good reason—“What should Chris Christie run for?” A majority—53 percent—of PoliticsNJ.com readers voted “He shouldn’t run for anything.”
Later that year, Wally Edge ran an item which documented Christie’s Bruce Springsteen fandom. Christie told the website, “I love the new album. I love Bruce Springsteen as a performer. I can’t wait for the next show!”
Ultimately what Wally Edge did for Christie was give him what he needed most as he attempted to elevate his profile in New Jersey politics: publicity.
And what Christie gifted Wildstein with in return was power.
Wally Edge unofficially retired from PoliticsNJ.com in June 2010, five months after Christie was inaugurated governor. His identity was revealed by four separate sources to Josh Margolin, then a reporter for The Star-Ledger.
Wildstein had been hired as the second most powerful employee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. His official title was “director of interstate capital projects”—a job which did not exist before he took it. His salary was $215,000 a year.
He was hired by Bill Baroni, a state senator whom Christie had appointed that February as Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority. According to The Star-Ledger, “Gov. Chris Christie’s office did not object to the hire.”
Christie has claimed that the he and Wildstein’s relationship is so insignificant that he’s not even certain if they ever met in the governor’s office. But Matt Katz and Andrea Bernstein of WNYC uncovered documents which proved Wildstein met at least two times with Christie and others in the state house, and attended closed door meetings with Christie’s associates.
Now that Wildstein has pleaded guilty, it is worth remembering that what Christie has wanted all along is for Wildstein to take the fall.
In March 2014, Christie’s lawyers held an absurd press conference wherein they released the findings of their internal review of Bridgegate. They found, shockingly, that Christie had done nothing wrong—but that Wildstein had.
They went as far as to paint Wildstein as frantic and unhinged—someone with “50 crazy ideas a week.” The report claimed, “Wildstein first approached [a Christie aide] about his idea to realign the Fort Lee toll lanes.”
After Bridgegate broke, Wildstein publicly requested immunity. A few weeks later, Wildstein’s attorney released a letter that claimed “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference he gave…Mr. Wildstein contents the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some.”
Last April, the legal website Main Justice reported that Wildstein had been cooperating with prosecutors, and implied that they have struck a deal.
Christie has maintained that he did not know about the plot to close the lanes, or the closures themselves. He went as far as to mock reporter Matt Katz in December 2013 when he asked about it: “I worked the cones actually,” he joked.
An admission of guilt from Wildstein does not necessarily put Christie in the clear. What matters is whether or not he revealed anything about Christie in his dealings with the Feds, and if his version of events suggests Christie did know of the lane closures or did, in fact, work those cones himself