by David Porter | The Associated Press
RAMSEY, NJ – Bridget Kelly wants to talk about “Bridgegate.”
Not by choice, but because she understands that the traffic scandal that rocked New Jersey politics is like a bad tattoo.
Former Republican ally Former Gov. Chris Christie is talking about scandal a lot these days as he seeks an ambitious political revival.
A year later the US Supreme Court struck down his conviction for conspiring to create gridlock on the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who would not support his boss, Kelly Bergen, for election to the office of county clerk. is running.
If she succeeds, it will mark a surprising shift in a saga that has seen her go from a relatively anonymous government functionary to a criminal defendant and the national butt of the joke.
“I have nothing to hide from ‘Bridgegate.’ I’m happy to discuss it in detail,” Kelly said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I also think people are tired of it. Huh. And I think people, if I talk to them, they start to like me and they know I’m as truthful as you’re going to be. “
People in Bergen County initially became aware of Kelly as part of a small group of Republican political operatives who deliberately blocked the access lane to the George Washington Bridge for four days of a monster traffic jam in the suburb of Fort Lee in 2013. was blocked.
The backup trapped buses carrying schoolchildren, blocked ambulances and enraged a crowd of commuters trying to board the bridge in Manhattan. The cover story was that the lane closure was part of a traffic study. But the real motive, documents and testimony later revealed, was revenge against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for refusing to support Christie’s re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an email that looked like the guilty’s smoking gun when it later went public.
Kelly’s campaign to become county clerk, an officer responsible for handling the mundane but important transactions of daily life — liens, mortgages, passports, photo cards for veterans, naturalization records — may test the adage that bad publicity-like There is nothing.
Micah Rasmussen, director of the nonpartisan Rabovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Ryder University, said, “He must have almost universal name recognition, which is an asset that cannot be overemphasized in such a low-profile race. ” “The important question is whether countywide voters, which heavily omitted Democratic, are willing to do what it’s asking them to do: look at everything they know about him.”
The Bergen County, where Kelly spent most of her life, is also home to Fort Lee, which was not lost on the current John Hogan.
Hogan announced the start of his campaign in March a stone’s throw from the bridge, where he called the scandal “outrageous” and “shameful”. Kelly responded by issuing a statement describing Hogan’s program as a “teenage drama.”
For Kelly, a return to New Jersey politics seemed a pipe dream in 2019, when she was weeks from reporting in federal prison before the Supreme Court heard her appeal of a 2016 fraud and conspiracy conviction.
When the court said last year that prosecutors had misused the law and ruled unanimously to overturn the convictions of Kelly and former Bridge Authority executive Bill Baroney, the four-year-old single mother resumed her career. worked for more than five years. .
The reception from former colleagues was frosty, Kelly said.
“I went to friends on either side of the aisle, and I use the word friend loosely, and they told me to bury me somewhere, let me just go back somewhere,” she said. “‘Remember what I used to do, remember my reputation? I definitely learned the hard way what not to do. But let me back.’ And they all said no.”
Kelly believes that reluctance can be traced back to the still influential Christie. The two have not spoken since Christie fired her in January 2014 following revelations about Bridge Lane; They had sparred with each other during the Supreme Court arguments last year but did not speak.
Christie was not charged, but the scandal dented her 2016 presidential hopes. He has said he was not aware of the plan, but Kelly and others denied it in their trial testimony. Kelly argues that he was made a scapegoat and the former governor is now seeking revenge.
“People are afraid of what they’ll do if they support someone they don’t like, no matter what,” Kelly said.
Christie, who heads a public policy institute with her own name, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kelly’s rebranding as a career public servant who gets caught up in something she didn’t fully understand is at odds with the narrative presented by prosecutors: a willing conspirator who was in the plan from the start and ends up being gridlocked. reacted with glee.
Not surprisingly, his supporters choose the first version.
“She fell under the bus,” Mahwah resident Carrie Grobstein said at a June fundraiser for Kelly. “She lifted herself off the mat, got up and started swinging, what did she do after that. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
That doesn’t go down well with Sokolich, who still serves as the mayor of Fort Lee.
“I have forgiven her and hope she moves on with her life,” Sokolich said. “But you don’t shut down the world’s busiest bridge, endanger the safety of thousands and, as a result, use that name recognition to get some recognition and run for constitutional, county-wide status.” Huh.”
Meanwhile, Hogan has served at multiple levels of local government and comes from a family whose involvement in politics goes back more than 80 years. They argue that Kelly’s past conduct must be disqualifying.
“If I were a voter, I wouldn’t even count for a spot after what happened to Bridges,” Hogan said.
For Kelly, it’s a simple matter of moving on.
“If I was trying to hide something and I really wanted to run away from ‘Bridgegate,’ I don’t know if I would put myself in public again,” she said. “It will never leave me. Never. It always will be. But it’s time for me to get my life back.”