The man at the center of the scandal that threatens to destroy Chris Christie’s White House ambitions is a hardnosed Jewish ex-blogger who drank the Republican Kool-Aid as a teenager and broke into New Jersey journalism writing under the pseudonym “Wally Edge.”
Most of all, David Wildstein, who grew up in the same central Jersey town as Christie, famously never shied away from a good political cage fight.
That made it all the more remarkable to see Wildstein, 53, forced to eat crow as he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer lawmakers’ questions at a hearing into his decision to close lanes of the George Washington Bridge as political payback aimed at a Democratic mayor.
“Under the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent,” Wildstein told the Assembly’s transportation committee at the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex peppered Wildstein questions about e-mail exchanges with Bridget Anne Kelly, a top Christie aide who was fired earlier Thursday.
But Wildstein would not answer.
“Same answer, Mr. Chairman,” he said, time after time.
It was a humbling day for Wildstein, who has earned a hard-won reputation as a brash political fighter and pugnacious Christie loyalist.
A few minutes earlier, Christie took an oblique swipe at Wildstein by pointing out that they weren’t friends growing up, even though they attended the same high school just a year apart.
“We went 23 years without seeing each other. And in the years we did see each other, we passed in the hallways,” he said. “I want to clear that up.”
In just a few days, the so-called Bridgegate scandal has deeply tarnished the reputation of Christie, who had benefited from his perceived deft handling of the state’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The ever-confident Christie had been considered a possible leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. After Thursday, he was hoping his performance at a humbling press conference would be enough to allow him to survive the political storm.
The embattled governor said he only became friendly with Wildstein while working on a campaign for Republican Gov. Tom Kean. But Wildstein was already a polarizing partisan figure before he even graduated from high school.
As a 16-year-old, Wildstein unsuccessfully sued to secure a spot on the Republican party committee’s ballot, according to a profile in The Record. Though he was too young by law to serve on the local Livingston, New Jersey school board, Wildstein ran anyway – netting 37 votes and a minor scandal.
After graduating high school, Wildstein started to get involved in Jewish political causes. He served as executive director of the New Jersey Legislature’s Legislative Caucus on Israel, according to a 1983 JTA report.
Michael Silverman, Deputy Mayor of Livingston, confirmed that Wildstein is Jewish, but was uncertain if he had been involved in any meaningful way in Jewish communal life while living in Livingston.
At age 23, Wildstein was elected to the town council of Livingston, one of the most heavily Jewish municipalities in America. His four-year term included a stint as mayor in 1987, which was marked by acrimony. He criticized low-income housing and county government expenditures during his term.
“He frightened people,” Robert Leopold, a former Democratic mayor of Livingston, told The Record. “He was a very contentious person,” he said, adding that Wildstein kept a tight leash on town hall employees.
After failing to win a primary in his bid for reelection, Wildstein left politics for his family’s textile company, Apache Mills, a global manufacturer of floor mats. Wildstein served as an executive at the company from the late 1980s until 2007.
But Wildstein never retreated from politics. He advised Republican politicians like U.S. Representative Bob Franks and in 2000 founded PolitickerNJ, a New Jersey political news website, which bills itself as “a virtual watercooler for the state’s political elite.” Wildstein offered juicy scoops on state politics under the pen name “Wally Edge,” a nod to Republican Governor Walter Edge, who helped create the Port Authority in 1921. Wildstein sold the site in 2007, but the identity of Wally Edge remained a closely guarded – but much discussed – secret until his 2010 appointment to the Port Authority.
“I’ve never met anybody … with more thorough institutional knowledge of New Jersey politics,” Steve Kornacki told Politico.
Kornacki who got his start in journalism under Wildstein and now hosts a weekend show on MSNBC.
Further internet mischief was traced to Wildstein last month, when The Record revealed that he had purchased internet domain names of several public officials in recent years. The names he reserved included Barbara Buono, Christie’s gubernatorial challenger, and Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye.
Wildstein’s motives in purchasing the names are unclear. Most of the URL names he purchased redirect users to the homepage of the Yankees, his favorite baseball team.
All that was political prelude to Wildstein’s appointment as Christie’s No. 2 appointee at the Port Authority, the agency tasked with overseeing transportation infrastructure around New York City and northern New Jersey.
Christie tapped Wildstein in 2010 to help reform the Port Authority, and he maintained close ties to the governor’s office and closely hewed to the governor’s agenda. Wildstein was involved in Port Authority plans supported by Christie to improve the Bayonne Bridge and build a new Goethals Bridge linking New Jersey to Staten Island, according to The Record.
Wildstein’s role in the George Washington Bridge scandal has been known since he admitted ordered the lanes closed in a move designed to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, a town at the foot of the bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan.
Kelly, who in the most damning of a batch of emails about the affair, wrote to Wildstein August, saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
In traffic-conscious New Jersey, it’s hard to underestimate the political damage of such a decision, even before news reports identified several ambulances that were delayed by the gridlock that resulted from it.
Wildstein announced his resignation from the agency in early December, saying the growing scandal had become a “distraction.” A spokesman for Christie praised Wildstein at the time as a “tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority.”