People on Jersey side of Christie traffic jam bemoan political scandal

by Reuters
Friday, 10 January 2014 00:19 GMT

By Marina Lopes

FORT LEE, N.J., Jan 9 (Reuters) - The contrite governor came to apologize. The people were skeptical and less than forgiving.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ventured on Thursday into the town at the heart of a political scandal, offering a personal apology to the bustling, upscale community at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

Christie made the 70-mile (112 km) trip to Fort Lee from the capital of Trenton, where earlier in the day he held a news conference announcing the dismissal of a top aide, who critics say helped orchestrate massive traffic jams at the busy commuter bridge to exact political revenge against the town's mayor.

"It was a terrible thing, and we are going to work to fix it," Christie told a crowd of reporters and citizens as he left the town hall, where he met with Mayor Mark Sokolich for more than a half hour.

When asked if he apologized to the people of Fort Lee, the governor said: "Of course. I did this afternoon, and I came here to apologize."

Sokolich told reporters he accepted Christie's apology over the closure of traffic lanes leading to the bridge for four days in September, adding: "I'm glad he came."

Some residents of Fort Lee were less forgiving of Christie, a Republican who is considering a run for president in 2016.

"It was the stupidest thing the New Jersey government has ever done," said John DeSimone, the manager of Fort Lee Hardware and Supply Co.

DeSimone was among a number of Fort Lee residents surprised to hear Christie respond to what some Democrats have called political payback for Sokolich, after the mayor refused to support Christie's re-election campaign.

"Christie said he didn't know anything about it, but that is B.S. Whatever is going on in his office, he should know about it," said David Weng, who owns a Malaysian restaurant on Main Street. "This is politics. People are always stabbing each other in the back."

Some in this community of 35,000 residents said it was too sinister to believe the governor could be tied to an intentional traffic jam, which delayed emergency responders, including those treating an unconscious 91-year-old woman, Florence Genova, who later died of cardiac arrest.

"I can't believe a guy of that stature would ever consider doing that," said Gus Jentile, 81, a neighbor whose children grew up playing together with Genova's on their street of nearly identical two-story brick houses.

"I looked up to the guy. I thought he did great for the state. I just hope it's not so," Jentile said.

The bridge at the center of the controversy looms large over Fort Lee, bisecting it with about one-third of the community north of the bridge and the remainder south of the bridge. Three major roadways converge in Fort Lee on the approach to the span, which connects New Jersey to New York City.

Founded in 1904 and once a community of predominantly Greek and Italian immigrants, Fort Lee today is largely a Korean enclave whose downtown area is filled with boutiques, barbershops and Korean restaurants, with Christmas lights and wreaths still hanging from antique lamps.

Some analysts said Christie's political aspirations may suffer as a result of the debacle in Fort Lee, where Continental Army Commander in Chief George Washington began his retreat in 1776, prompting Thomas Paine's famous quote: "These are the times that try men's souls."

To Tom Piper, the manager of Fort Lee Pet Shop Inc, the political overtones of the fiasco were no surprise.

"It is politics as usual," Piper said. (Additional reporting by Daniel Grebler and James Lunt; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Dan Trotta and Gunna Dickson)

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