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Wildstein Played Hardball Politics Before Bridge Affair

Wildstein Played Hardball Politics Before Bridge Affair

Wildstein Played Hardball Politics Before Bridge Affair

Three decades before David Wildstein
orchestrated the traffic jam now threatening New Jersey Governor
Chris Christie’s political future, his career as an elected
official reached its peak.

Wildstein won a four-year term on the Livingston Township
Council in 1984 and served a year as mayor. After that, he never
sought office again, instead spending much of the rest of his
career behind the scenes.

“David was a great, and probably still is a great, back-room guy,” said Republican Louis Bassano, now 71, who served in
the New Jersey Senate and Assembly and employed Wildstein as a
campaign manager. “He had the one taste of being an elected
official and it really didn’t seem to grab hold. He thrived in
the back room doing his strategy, putting the pieces of the
puzzle together and helping elect people.”

In public statements and interviews with 10 former
colleagues, a picture of Wildstein emerges as a political
operative who sought influence from a young age, working out of
sight to control even the smallest details of municipal
management in ways that struck some as intimidating.

Wildstein’s role in the September closing of lanes leading
to the George Washington Bridge thrust his work into the public
eye. The furor over the events has dominated state political
circles, eroding Christie’s approval ratings and potentially
derailing any national ambitions he holds.

Traffic Jam

Christie, 51, was a year behind Wildstein at Livingston
High School. Years later, in 2010, Wildstein became the second-highest executive for the state at the Port Authority of New
York and New Jersey. He was named director of interstate capital
projects during Christie’s first year in office.

E-mails that surfaced in early January indicated that a
Christie aide, writing to Wildstein, pushed for some sort of
traffic problem in Fort Lee because Mayor Mark Sokolich hadn’t
joined other state Democrats in endorsing the governor’s re-election.

In August, Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, e-mailed Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems
in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”

In a letter released Jan. 31, Wildstein’s lawyer said
Christie knew about the ensuing four-day traffic snarl at the
bridge to Manhattan as it occurred, contradicting the second-term Republican’s assertions Jan. 9 that he had no knowledge of
them.

The letter from the lawyer, Alan Zegas, said “evidence
exists” of Christie’s knowledge, without citing any.

‘Say Anything’

Christie responded yesterday by criticizing Wildstein in an
e-mail to friends and supporters.

“Bottom line — David Wildstein will do and say anything
to save David Wildstein,” Christie wrote. “In David
Wildstein’s past, people and newspaper accounts have described
him as ‘tumultuous’ and someone who ‘made moves that were not
productive.’”

Christie’s e-mail pointed to statements by Zegas that
Wildstein would talk about the closings if granted immunity from
prosecution. Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment right against
self-incrimination during an appearance before lawmakers in
January and refused to answer questions.

Yesterday, no one answered a knock at Wildstein’s home in
Montville, New Jersey, to be interviewed for this report.

Both Christie and Wildstein began their political careers
before they graduated from high school in suburban Livingston,
22 miles (35 kilometers) west of New York City. Christie has
said they met as youth volunteers on the Tom Kean for Governor
campaign in 1977.

Write-In Candidate

Wildstein was still in high school, bespectacled with a mop
of dark-brown hair, when he sought a position on the Essex
County Republican Committee, suing unsuccessfully to run after
he was denied for being under 21, said Renee Green, the town
clerk at the time. He also ran as a write-in for the board of
education, winning just a handful of votes.

Wildstein gave away little of himself in his 1979 senior-year high-school yearbook. Classmates wrote inscriptions by
their portraits listing honors and memberships, recalling trips
and parties, and quoting lyrics from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd
and Paul Simon. Wildstein wrote nothing.

Christie, a year behind him, posed with a grin as president
of the junior class.

“We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school,”
Christie said during his two-hour apology news briefing on Jan.
9. “You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t
know what David was doing during that period of time.”

Detailed Statistics

Wildstein stood out for his meticulous detail while logging
statistics for the baseball teams, said Tony Hope, who coached
and taught physical education. Christie also played baseball,
though the two were never on the same team, Hope said.

“They were two totally different individuals,” said Hope,
86. “Chris was always part of everything, a leader, a captain,
a class president, whereas Wildstein very much kept to himself,
very quiet, didn’t have that outgoing personality.”

After college, Wildstein returned to Livingston, where he
was elected at 23 to a four-year term on the Township Council,
including the year as mayor.

Wildstein’s role in the bridge imbroglio didn’t surprise
Robert Leopold, a Democrat who served on the Township Council
with him.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘David hasn’t changed in 30
years,’” said Leopold, who described Wildstein as a “bully.”

“The things he’s done are totally consistent with the way
he behaved in the past,” he said.

Power Pursuit

Green, who was town clerk from 1976-2001 and later served
on the council and as mayor, remembered Wildstein once asking
her to work after hours and he “got ballistic” when she
refused.

“He was obsessed with power,” said Green, now 82. “He
wanted power, power over everybody, and his way was through
politics.”

Charles Tahaney, town manager from 1985 to 2005, disputed
those characterizations. He said Wildstein was “friendly” and
“nothing out of the normal.”

From the late 1980s to 2007, Wildstein split his time
working in various roles in the state legislature and as an
executive at Apache Mills, a family-owned manufacturer of floor
mats sold globally and based in Calhoun, Georgia.

Wildstein’s work also included helping run campaigns.
Bassano said Wildstein was instrumental as campaign manager in
his first re-election to the Assembly, by fewer than 1,000
votes. Only 22, Wildstein knew how to address residents’
concerns, Bassano said from his home in Naples, Florida.

Political Player

Even as he worked in private industry, Wildstein remained a
player in politics.

In 2000, he started PoliticsNJ.com, now called
PolitickerNJ.com. He wrote a blog under the pseudonym Wally
Edge, after the former New Jersey Republican governor. For
years, readers didn’t know who “the Edge” was until he
revealed himself and gave up the column to join the Port
Authority
.

In 2007, Jared Kushner, a New York City real-estate
developer and chairman of the Observer Media Group, which
publishes The New York Observer, provided financial backing to
start a new site with Wildstein called Politicker.com.

Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt wrote in a Jan. 9 article
about his experience working with Wildstein there, calling him
“a big, forceful presence — someone who made the floorboards
rattle when he walked and gave the impression of a guy who you
didn’t dare mess with.” He wore fancy suits, expensive shoes
and a big, shiny watch, and was hard to read, Isenstadt wrote.

Governor’s Priorities

In December 2008, Wildstein fired the Politicker staff as
revenue flagged. After calling Isenstadt personally to tell him,
Wildstein held a conference call with the other reporters to
fire them, and directed the tech staff to disable the employees’
e-mail accounts during the call, Isenstadt wrote.

In May 2010, Wildstein arrived at the Port Authority, which
oversees crucial infrastructure for the biggest U.S.
metropolitan area with an operating budget of about $3.5
billion. His salary was $215,020, which was later reduced by
$65,000 without explanation, according to public records.

A 2012 article in the Record, a Bergen County newspaper,
quotes Bill Baroni, a former Republican state senator and friend
of Christie who was named the Port Authority’s deputy executive
director, saying he hired Wildstein to “aggressively pursue”
the governor’s priorities.

At Wildstein’s house in Montville yesterday, cars filled
with reporters idled outside. Dogs inside barked. A copy of the
New York Times, featuring a front-page article on him, sat
untouched in the driveway.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Esme E. Deprez in New York at
edeprez@bloomberg.net;
Mark Niquette in Columbus at
mniquette@bloomberg.net;
Michelle Kaske in New York at
mkaske@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stephen Merelman at
smerelman@bloomberg.net

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