“Politics Ain’t Beanbag,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced on Jan. 9 after it became clear that a member of his senior staff had helped arrange a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, apparently to punish a political foe. Then he made another claim: “I am not a bully.”
For Christie, there is a vast difference between the two approaches. Causing a traffic jam to inflict political pain falls into the latter category, he says, the one he condemns. He has fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and cut ties to his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, for emails linking them to the stunt. “Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again,” he said on Jan. 14 during his State of the State address.
But what of the more routine retribution, the sort that happens all the time in statehouses around the country and for which Christie has long been known in New Jersey? And where does Christie draw the line? Those questions threaten to haunt the 2016 hopeful as the press swarms, documents continue to drip out and wronged foes come forward with claims that swift payback from Team Christie was the rule, not the exception.
The mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, has complained that meetings with Christie’s office on other matters were suddenly canceled without explanation after he failed to offer an endorsement of the governor’s re-election. (Indeed, Fulop was name-dropped as a target for retribution in the subpoenaed bridge-closing emails.) Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Christie political foe, says he believes the governor’s decision to shutter the local DMV office was punishment. And Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has speculated that the state’s decision not to award requested Hurricane Sandy recovery grants to her city could have been tied to her failure to endorse the governor. “Most people won’t talk about it because they think he is going to get through this and retribution could be coming,” says Bollwage about the governor.
A former state prosecutor, Ben Barlyn, is also moving forward with a lawsuit that accuses Christie appointees of illegally throwing out a grand jury indictment of local sheriffs who supported the Christie campaign. Barlyn says he was fired after raising objections and is seeking the release of grand jury testimony in the hope of proving that the original case was properly handled. Oral arguments are scheduled for Jan. 28.
Christie’s office has been busy churning out sweeping denials to these claims, but they may not have the last word. In addition to the ongoing court case, there is a new federal criminal investigation and two freshly empaneled legislative committees, armed with subpoena power, looking into the backup at the George Washington Bridge. If a pattern emerges, Christie’s no-beanbag style, long championed by his supporters as a breath of fresh air, could become his liability.
This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.