New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has rocketed to the top of the 2016 GOP presidential field, fueled by his straight-talking persona, his tell-it-like-it-is approach to policy and his willingness to reach across the aisle. But that carefully-crafted position could be in trouble, thanks to burgeoning allegations that his office bullied an uncooperative Democratic mayor.
The emails suggest a top aide to Christie pressed for the creation of “traffic problems” in the city of Fort Lee, N.J., where the mayor had declined to back Christie’s re-election. The closure of access lanes from Fort Lee to the busy George Washington Bridge created massive gridlock and sparked a state investigation.
The controversy is unlikely – at this stage – to sink any of Christie’s presidential ambitions on its own. But the new revelations create a series of headaches for the governor, and risk amplifying criticisms that his Democratic and Republican opponents alike could employ against Christie come 2016.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Christie denied knowing about the controversy until new reports came to light, saying he was misled by an aide whose actions were "unacceptable."
"One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better," the governor said. "This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
Straight-shooter or bully?
Christie has won plaudits for his willingness to charge ahead on his priorities, even if it means ruffling feathers in the process.
The bridge controversy risks casting Christie and his administration in another light – as bullies.
Christie cruised to re-election last year over State Sen. Barbara Buono, and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s endorsement would likely have done little to change that. But Christie’s team had been trying to run up the margin of victory to help illustrate the governor’s bipartisan appeal. That his administration would resort to tactics like closing lanes on a busy thoroughfare to punish a political rival risks making Christie seem petty or even brutish.
It’s not the first time the governor has run up against that charge and he doesn’t shy away from a fight. He has sparred with teachers and mocked reporters.
He even got into it with an onlooker at a Jersey Shore boardwalk. "You’re a real big shot," Christie told the man. "You’re a real big shot shooting your mouth off. You’re a real big shot. You’re walking away. Really good."
"It's never enough for you people. No matter how much money I give, it's never enough for you people."
Teachers upset with his cuts to education have been a frequent target for Christie.
He told one that she didn’t have to teach if she didn’t like what she was paid, and famously chided one mother for asking why he cut funding for schools and yet puts his children in private schools.
"Hey, Gayle, you know what, first off, it’s none of your business," he shot back. "I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me about where I send mine."
Another accused him of telling her, "What do you want? I'm tired of you people." Christie contends he said instead, "It's never enough for you people. No matter how much money I give, it's never enough for you people."
Bipartisanship takes a hit
Christie’s claims to bipartisan appeal – likely to be a central element of his campaign in 2016 – are almost certainly undercut by the revelations as well. If the Christie administration sought to punish a Democrat for being uncooperative, it necessarily becomes harder for Christie to paint a rosy picture about his relationship with Democrats.
It’s not as though Christie’s efforts to broaden his appeal have been without risk, either; his public embrace of President Barack Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, just days before the 2012 presidential election, earned him the enmity of some conservatives. And Christie has doubled-down on his partnership with the president, appearing with Obama at a rally last year to celebrate a recovered stretch of boardwalk destroyed by the storm.
Weakened relationships with Democratic officials could undermine Christie’s appeal with Democratic voters.
Credibility at risk
Lastly, the Fort Lee revelations strike at the heart of Christie’s credibility, a key characteristic for any elected official.
As Democrats have tried to advance the story over the past few months, Christie has denied political motivation in uncertain terms: “The answer is absolutely unequivocally not." Beyond that, Christie had said that he’d told his senior staffers last year to be forthcoming about the controversy, and that they had “assured” him that they had nothing to do with the lane closures. Wednesday’s published emails by Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to the governor, clash directly with Christie’s prior claims.
Christie had also laughed off suggestions of his own involvement in the traffic flareup: "I was actually the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious."
There are many miles still left to travel on the 2016 campaign trail. But as Christie mulls his next move – the governor canceled his lone scheduled event on Wednesday – what first seemed to be a pothole on the governor’s path to the White House risks developing into something more serious than that.
NBC’s Domenico Montanaro contributed to this report.