Harrison: Christie's chance to move past the GWB

By Bridget Harrison -- The Record

THE PROSPECT of a potential Chris Christie vice presidential nomination seemed just a little more likely this week, as it became mathematically impossible for Sen. Ted Cruz to win enough first-round delegates to secure the Republican nomination.

Governor Christie's increased clout comes despite his wife's now-infamous eye-roll seen all over the world this past week (New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie seemed to express some derision at Donald Trump's scathing characterization of Hillary Clinton). And while it's still a long way to go before we can imagine Vice President Christie, we do know some of the obstacles he will face in his attempt to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

One of those obstacles involves traffic cones.

That's because the George Washington Bridge trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly - the defendants in the case over the allegedly politically motivated traffic jam at the GWB - is now scheduled just as the presidential general election campaigns shift into first gear. The trial, which has been repeatedly delayed, is set to begin with a pretrial conference on Sept. 7, jury selection to begin Sept. 8, and a trial start date of Sept. 12.

Baroni was the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey appointed by Christie; Kelly was Christie's former deputy chief of staff. The two stand accused of plotting to cause massive traffic jams in September 2013 as a way to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for declining to endorse Christie, the incumbent Republican governor.

David Wildstein, another former Christie Port Authority appointee, pleaded guilty.

If Christie is offered the vice presidential spot, the GWB trial - already a strong source of media fascination - will become a national feeding frenzy.

So the governor needs to get out a little bit ahead on this one, or at least take charge of the narrative. And he can do that by listening to state legislators, including state Sens. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, and Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, who are fighting to reform the agency at the center of the GWB controversy.

These legislators joined with a state legislator from across the Hudson, New York Assemblyman Jim Brennan, who sponsored legislation that would reform the operation of the bi-state Port Authority in New York. That New York measure was signed into law by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year, and an identical version was sponsored in New Jersey by state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Union.

But in addition to the reforms Kean proposed and New York approved, Weinberg, Gordon, Huttle and other Democrats in New Jersey's Legislature want to increase legislative oversight of Port Authority operations, increase transparency in the independent agency's finances, and institute control measures on fare hikes and toll increases. New York's Brennan voiced support for the amendments proposed in New Jersey at a press conference last week.

Huttle explained that the reforms were prompted because the Port Authority has become a hotbed of patronage and corruption: "When the Port Authority was created almost 100 years ago, it was hailed as a landmark for better government. However, in the past few decades, the vision of the Port Authority has been marred by its egregious violation of the public trust," Huttle said.

She added that while the reform bill was in the works before the GWB scandal, its passage is even more imperative now with several large projects in the works: "The agency is long overdue for an overhaul. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transparency and Accountability Act will guarantee legislative oversight of the agency as it undertakes a number of high-profile construction projects such as the new Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Gateway Project, which are critical to the region's future," she noted.

Huttle urged Christie to sign the bill, saying that it would "transform an agency once mired in waste, abuse and scandal into one that operates with the best interests of tri-state commuters in mind."

The Port Authority Reform Act has been awaiting Christie's signature for three weeks. He has until May 23 to sign the bill into law, veto or conditionally veto it.

Christie traditionally has been reluctant to hand Democrats a policy win like this. But in this case, even if he is not concerned with New Jersey's commuters, Christie should think ahead to the throngs of reporters from throughout the country who, come September, will be learning for the first time how closely the Port Authority resembles Tammany Hall. At that point, he might be glad to be able to stand in front of them and say, "I reformed it."

Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.