Steve Kornacki: "So that brings us now to seven characters. Seven characters at
least for now who are most crucial to what comes next in this story."
Steve Kornacki used to work as a reporter for a political website in New Jersey. His employer was David Wildstein, one of the key players in the current New Jersey saga that has become known as Bridgegate. As a guest host on The Rachel Maddow Show
on December 18, Kornacki provided a long, detailed explanation about this connection. You can read a transcript here
Kornacki's previous employment as a political journalist in New Jersey gives him a unique perspective and insights about the players in the current New Jersey saga that has become known as Bridgegate. He shared many of those insights this morning on his show Up with Steve Kornacki.
I found it interesting particularly because I had called my aunt who lives in New Jersey earlier this week after the Christie press conference to ask her about what she thought about the scandal. My aunt is a registered Democrat who did vote for Christie, but does not suffer fools. I was a bit stunned when she told me that she believed Christie when he said that the first time he knew about his political appointees and staff being involved in the lane closures was on Wednesday morning when those emails were first released.
From what I had watched on television and read up until this morning, I found it very difficult to believe it possible that Christie knew nothing until Wednesday morning. But then I watched Steve Kornacki's rundown of all the major players in the lane closures, and for the first time I saw how it could be possible. I have posted the video and transcribed the segment below the orange squiggly so you can watch or read it too.
Kornacki's description of four of the players paints the picture of an inner circle within Christie's inner circle. First, Kornacki talks about Bridget Kelly and speaks very highly of her. He said that she was one of his favorite people to talk to when he was covering politics in New Jersey ...
One of the reasons was because she defied the stereotype of a scheming, Jersey political operative, and it wasn’t just me who thought this. I heard from a New Jersey Democrat whom I’ve known for a while, yesterday who remembered Bridget Kelly as quote issue driven, eager and energetic. She struck me as a moderate Republican in it for all the right reasons. If you don’t know Bridge Kelly, and you don’t know the New Jersey political world it might be easy to swallow what Christie said this week; that Kelly had deceived and lied to him and kept him totally in the dark on all of this until this week. But if you know Bridget Kelly, well that’s not quite as easy to swallow. She’s relatively new to Christie’s orbit. She’s had a well earned reputation for integrity. It’s clear she’s involved in this but it’s also hard to believe she concocted this. And it’s harder still to believe that she had the authority to order it.
Next Kornacki talked about his former boss David Wildstein and how he believed that Christie and Wildstein probably did not know each other in high school, even though they attended the same school at the same time.
Wildstein is not a long-time Christie protector and he is apparently looking for immunity. That’s important to keep in mind. I can also tell you this. I worked for him for three years from 2002 to 2005. Of all the people involved in this, I think he’s the sharpest. I think he’s the savviest and I think that he is by far the most strategic thinker. He doesn’t do anything without thinking ahead; without considering the possible outcomes and planning for contingencies. I think that’s worth keeping in mind as this story plays out. And maybe you’re asking if Wildstein and Christie weren’t that close; if Wildstein sold his media operation to a family that despises Chris Christie, why would Christie ever send him to the Port Authority in the first place?
When Kornacki moves on to talking about Bill Baroni, we learn that it was Baroni who brought Wildstein into Christie's orbit.
In 2007 he went on to get elected to the State Senate and in 2009 he did something politically courageous. He cast the sole Republican vote in the New Jersey State Senate for gay marriage. It didn’t pass back then, but it exposed Baroni to a ton of heat from the right in his own party. So when Christie came to power in 2010 he offered Baroni the Port Authority gig which comes with a great pay check and some enviable perks by the way. And Baroni took it and he told Christie that he wanted to bring somebody with him. He wanted to bring his friend David Wildstein who had also been in politics before he started that website that I worked on for him.
When Kornacki gets to Bill Stepien, some pieces start to fall into place.
Until this week, Bill Stepien was one of Christie’s closest, most trusted and most talented political lieutenants.
Stepien pops up in those emails that came out Wednesday morning too. In one of them he ridicules the mayor of Fort Lee as an idiot. Now there was nothing in those emails that showed he had any advance knowledge or any role in planning the traffic jam, but Christie threw him overboard too, and here’s why.
Video of Chris Christie at Thursday 9 Jan 2014 Press Conference: Reading that; it made me lose my confidence in Bill’s judgment and you cannot have someone at the top of your political operation who you do not have confidence in.
Let's pause for a moment and ponder this. Christie fired Stepien for the tone of an email in which Stepien called the Mayor of Fort Lee an idiot
in writing? I didn't have to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Thursday night to remember the clip of Chris Christie calling a law student an idiot
, but it helped that Stewart put together this segment for us:
Watch at about 3:00 where Christie says "This is not the tone that I've set over the last four years in this building. It's not the environment I've worked so hard to achieve." And then continue watching as Stewart plays clips of Christie calling people names. It does stretch credibility to believe that this was the main reason Christie chose to sever ties Stepien.
Let's continue with what Kornacki had to say about Stepien.
Now, talk to anyone in New Jersey politics privately, though. They’ll tell you there’s still an awful lot of suspicion around Stepien because he is connected to these other players. His first big break in politics came in 2003. That’s when he ran Bill Baroni’s campaign for the state assembly. That’s a campaign I remember covering all those years ago. Baroni was the only non-incumbent Republican who ran a legislative race in New Jersey that year. It was a really good year for Democrats, but Baroni won. And so that election made him a rising star. It also made Stepien who managed his campaign a rising star in Republican politics. So from there, Stepien went on to work for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, for John McCain and for Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and then he got his real big break. He ran Christie’s successful campaign for governor in 2009. It’s the first time in 12 years that a Republican had won a governor’s race in New Jersey.
And Stepien is also a way to understand, or at least to start to understand, Bridget Kelly’s role in all of this because it was during that 2009 race that she, who was then a relatively unknown aide to a relatively unknown politician in Bergen County, provided key help to the Christie campaign and to Stepien in particular in Bergen County. So they grew close from that experience and when they won that election, Stepien brought her with him to Trenton to join the new administration. And Stepien’s job in the first few years of that new Christie administration was the same job that Kelly had until this week.
He was Christie’s local enforcer except unlike Kelly, Stepien earned a reputation in that role for aggression; for playing rough; for diving into seemingly ultra-local, seemingly ultra-petty local matters. And when he left that job to run Christie’s reelection campaign last year, Bridget Kelly took it over for him. Bill Stepien’s character has now been challenged by Chris Christie on national television. His career trajectory (he was going to play a leading role in the 2016 presidential campaign; he was maybe going to work in the White House); that career trajectory has now been derailed. Is he embittered by that? Will he be subpoenaed? Will his records? Is he sitting on anything that can make this scandal bigger? And does he want to get anything out?
Wow! Is Stepien the guy we should be looking to in order to find answers to all the nagging questions about Bridgegate. Is Stepien the one who gave Kelly the order to send the email saying "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee"? Stepien was close to Baroni who brought in Wildstein. Is it possible that Stepien was the ring leader and the others were following his instructions? He's the one with the reputation for diving into local matters. What beef could he have had with local politicians in Fort Lee? Is it possible that he was carrying out a personal vendetta that didn't involve Chris Christie and Christie was truly surprised on Wednesday morning to find out what had been going on behind his back orchestrated by Stepien?
Even so, I find it difficult to believe that Christie knew absolutely nothing until Wednesday morning when he was supposedly blindsided. What do you think? Did Stepien think of himself as a king maker, a behind the scenes puppet master who didn't need to consult Governor Christie to create a traffic jam in Fort Lee? Or did he do it with Christie's knowledge and consent and Christie only fired him because he got caught?