Both Chris Christie and Eliot Spitzer signaled political opponents were enemies to be punished
While the nation follows the unfolding Chris Christie scandal, one group —the executive staff that served former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer — is watching with heightened attention and insight. Sad, nostalgic emails are cascading through cyberspace debating the stark parallels and contrasts with “Troopergate,” the scandal that burdened Spitzer from the day it exploded in July 2007 until March 2008 when his patronage of prostitutes caused him to resign.
Both scandals occurred because the governors clearly signaled that political opponents were enemies and must be punished. Christie’s tirades are running on highlight reels, and too numerous to bear repeating. Spitzer’s disdain for then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, the opponent targeted in Troopergate, was known by everyone from day one. Spitzer even insulted him in his inaugural address.
Both Spitzer’s and Christie’s senior appointments included attack dogs, who assumed their jobs included punishing the governor’s political foes. A hockey team owner can’t be granted much sympathy when he puts goons on his roster and the ice is later covered with blood.
The third and most important similarity among these and similar scandals, including Watergate, is that regardless of which thug metes out punishment to the king’s enemy, the public eventually focuses on what did the boss know and when did he know it? In Spitzer’s case, I was initially assigned to find out, and was given unfettered access to all email, meaning thousands in his government and private accounts. After reading them twice and interviewing authors and recipients, I concluded that Spitzer hadn’t known that his subordinates had targeted Bruno, clearly told them to stop when he suspected they might and, at worst, was deliriously happy after Bruno’s misuse of state aircraft became public. With Christie we don’t yet know what he knew, but absolutely essential for finding out is complete access to his unredacted email and other communications that can be reviewed after the fact.
That is where the similarities in the two scandals end. The target in Troopergate, Bruno, was traveling on state aircraft from Albany to New York City at great public expense to engage in primarily private and partisan political activity. The dirty trick played by Spitzer appointees was simply to reveal Bruno’s misconduct, albeit using possibly illegal methods. Christie’s appointees targeted Democratic elected officials in Fort Lee, N.J., for refusing to endorse his re-election bid. They caused a traffic jam that crippled Fort Lee for days, putting children, the elderly and the infirm in peril. In one exchange between a Christie staffer and David Wildstein, the governor’s high school friend and patronage appointment to the Port Authority, Wildstein responds to the comment, “I feel badly about the kids,” with, “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the upcoming election. Nothing that happened in Albany during Troopergate approaches the callousness and depravity evidenced in this Trenton-initiated exchange.
Leaving aside their own knowledge or lack thereof, another stark contrast was the governors’ respective demeanors when they publicly addressed what their subordinates had done. Spitzer was ashamed, almost crushed and repeatedly apologized privately to his staff and abjectly to the public. Christie took a different tack, at times denying, then sarcastically berating truthful accusers and then finally failing to understand what he had done. On Jan. 9, after months of obfuscation, Christie, pressed by reporters, said that his responsibility lay in appointing people who had lied to him — not understanding that his primary failure was hiring enforcers — like the goons in King Henry II’s court who would not have mistaken the clear directive to kill Thomas Becket when the king wondered out loud “who will rid me of this insolent priest.”
Oh yes, one more connection between Troopergate and the Christie crisis that will resonate with people on both sides of the Hudson: Christie’s appointees punished Fort Lee by tying up access to the notoriously overcrowded George Washington Bridge. Bruno’s plane rides were substantially motivated by his desire to avoid crossing that span at all costs.