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New Jersey governor's ambitions hit roadblocks

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a guy you want to like, sometimes despite himself. He's just made that a lot harder to do.

Take him at his word that he knew nothing about the arrogant abuse of government power to bully a political opponent, creating a public-safety risk and inconveniencing thousands of people. Take him at his word on that, and you still have this: He created an environment in which some of his most trusted people thought that was a slick trick. They revelled in it. Until they got caught.

Give Christie this: His apology on Thursday was full-throated. When he said he was "embarrassed and humiliated," you could feel it. He fired his deputy chief of staff. He didn't dodge. He asked exactly the right question: "What did I do wrong to have these folks think it was OK to lie to me?"

The pilots and owners of 16 airplanes are still waiting for an apology from former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, who abused his power and stranded their planes when he ordered bulldozers to carve up the runway at Meigs Field in the middle of the night a decade ago.

Political arrogance tends to be more corrosive than your everyday arrogance because the power of government is so vast.

That's what struck us here: That people would wield that power with such force and feel so gleeful about it.

You know the story by now. Aides to Christie created a roadblock in September that caused long traffic backups on Fort Lee, N.J., roads leading to the George Washington Bridge into New York City, to punish a mayor who had refused to endorse Christie's re-election. Commuters were inconvenienced, but the backups also delayed school buses and emergency responders.

Christie initially said the backups were caused by a legitimate traffic study. But subpoenas issued by state lawmakers turned up a series of electronic messages that confirmed Christie's government and political operatives had orchestrated the mess, and for a specific purpose.

The governor's deputy chief of staff tells a political operative: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," replies the operative, David Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs bridges, tunnels, airports and transit.

A couple of weeks later, two of the three local access lanes on the New Jersey side of the bridge were shut down. Delays ran into hours. Fire, police and ambulance services were impeded. School buses full of kids stood idle.

Then the gloating started. One unidentified texter referenced the school-bus delays: "Is it wrong that I'm smiling?"

"No," Wildstein wrote back. "They are the children of Buono voters." Barbara Buono was the Democratic challenger to Christie.

Christie handily won the election -- he surely didn't need any political dirty tricks to keep his career on track. But he's going to be dogged by this for a long time. Rev up the investigations. Maybe they'll conclude before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, maybe they won't.

If Christie comes up with an answer to that question -- What did I do wrong? -- it would serve him well to let us all know what it is. Introspection wouldn't be a sign of weakness, especially for the famously brash governor of New Jersey.

A good lesson for others who wield government power: Check your arrogance. Think of it as a pre-emptive strike on looming embarrassment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A17

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