Steve Kornacki, anchor of MSNBC's weekend show Up and a longtime observer of New Jersey politics, gave us an extensive analysis on the Political Wire podcast of the bridge scandal that has vexed Gov. Chris Christie (R) and has put a cloud over his political future.
Here are five takeaways:
1. The endorsement retribution theory in the Christie bridge scandal doesn't make sense: New Jersey Democrats repeatedly accused the Christie administration of closing the lanes as payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D) for his decision not to endorse the GOP governor's re-election. The media repeatedly echoed that theory as it speculated why a Christie staffer said it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." But the theory doesn't hold up. Said Kornacki: "This is a town of about 35,000 people in a state where there are 565 municipalities, so it’s not like you’re really needing this [endorsement]."
The timeline of events further casts doubt. Assuming that the available information on the timing is correct, three months passed between when Christie sought the endorsement and when the lanes were ordered to be shut. "There’s no direct causation there. Even if you had that, it’s so disproportionate... the risk involved in a scheme like this for what you’re getting."
2. For another theory behind Bridgegate, follow the redevelopment money: Political corruption in New Jersey often involves development projects. Land for development is scarce in New Jersey, especially up north, making it highly valuable and a big target for influence peddling. "There’s just so much money at stake for so many people," Kornacki said. It just so happens that right in the vicinity of the closed lanes is a $1 billion redevelopment project, whose business prospects and value would fall if lane closures made the site difficult to access. A business day after the lane closures ended in September, financing that had been delayed for the second phase of the project was finalized. It could be a coincidence or a red herring, Kornacki said. "But just given what I know about New Jersey politics ... it makes me want to look a lot closer."
3. Ultimately, legislature-issued subpoenas may yield a better sense of motive: For now, the true motivation behind the lane closures remains cloaked in mystery. The initial batch of released emails came from Port Authority officials, not the governor's office. As a result, the only emails from Christie staffers that the public has seen are those sent to the Port Authority officials. Now lawmakers in the Democratic-led legislature who have formed investigative committees appear to be issuing subpoenas for other Christie staffers' emails. One of the subpoenaed officials could be Bridget Anne Kelly, the recently fired Christie aide who asked the Port Authority to instigate Fort Lee's traffic problems. "There’s a good potential, then, that you’ll find out the rest of that conversation or more about that conversation... who knows what will turn up?"
4. But the Assembly and Senate each has its own investigation. That could get messy: The state Assembly has helped keep the bridge scandal alive so far, and it stands to reason that it will aggressively pursue its investigation. But some Democrats worry that the Senate won't do as thorough a job in its investigation, Kornacki said. New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney is a Democrat who is close to Christie, and the presence of two separate investigations could create duplicative paperwork that the Christie administration could cite in asking a court to quash the subpoenas.
5. Don't totally rule out Christie's presidential prospects just yet: Conventional wisdom long had Christie as an early frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016. Many political observers warn that Christie's pragmatic streak could rankle conservative primary voters, and the bridge scandal may put any frontrunner status he had on hold or even remove it. But Christie still has a rare gift that so many politicians seek: A hard-hitting, off-the-cuff personality that can win over skeptics. Christie has demonstrated this ability before when he's spoken to rooms of conservatives who might not fully agree with him on policy matters, Kornacki said: "They sit there, and they just sort of start nodding their head, they sort of start to say, 'I like this guy.'" If Christie were to pull that off in 2016, he'd get a much-needed boosts in conservative-heavy primary and caucus states like Iowa and South Carolina.
Listen to the full conversation here: