For Christie, Politics Team Kept a Focus on Two Bids

Officially known as “intergovernmental affairs,” the operation was a key element of the permanent campaign that allowed Mr. Christie to win twice in a largely Democratic state. It was led by Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, and then by Bridget Anne Kelly, who succeeded him in his role in the governor’s office.

They were part of what one high-ranking Republican called “the crew” around Mr. Christie: friends who strategized at Mr. Christie’s kitchen table in Mendham and socialized with him in the governor’s box at MetLife Stadium.

Now this operation is at the heart of the growing scandal over the closing of lanes at the George Washington Bridge in an act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

Mr. Christie has said that he had not been aware of his office’s involvement in the maneuver, and nothing has directly tied to him to it. But a close look at his operation and how intimately he was involved in it, described in interviews with dozens of people — Republican and Democrat, including current and former Christie administration officials, elected leaders and legislative aides — gives credence to the puzzlement expressed by some Republicans and many Democrats in the state, who question how a detail-obsessed governor could have been unaware of the closings or the effort over months to cover up the political motive.

Mr. Christie fired Ms. Kelly after it was revealed that she sent an email calling for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” He cut ties with Mr. Stepien, whom he had recruited to run the state’s Republican Party and work for Mr. Christie in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. With a legislative committee and the United States attorney’s office looking into the lane closings, nearly every one of Mr. Christie’s most trusted staff members, along with his re-election campaign, is under subpoena.

“With any governor, but especially with Chris Christie, it’s impossible to separate politics from policy, but clearly Stepien was politics first, policy second,” said David Pringle, the campaign director for New Jersey Environmental Federation, who served on the transition team after the organization endorsed Mr. Christie in 2009 but backed his Democratic opponent last year. The group has since accused Mr. Christie of abandoning his principles on the environment.

“There wasn’t anything of significance that Stepien did without the governor being aware of it,” Mr. Pringle said.

Mr. Christie relied on two kinds of loyalists to run his office. There were his trusted aides from his days as United States attorney: Kevin O’Dowd, his chief of staff and nominee for attorney general; Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who was his chief counsel and attorney general; Charles B. McKenna, until recently his chief counsel; Michele Brown, whom he put in charge of appointments and then economic development; and Michael Drewniak, his chief spokesman.

Then there were the political people, primarily acolytes of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and former Representative Robert D. Franks, who died in 2010: Mr. Stepien, who led the office of intergovernmental and legislative affairs, and became a deputy chief of staff; Ms. Kelly, who succeeded Mr. Stepien in those roles when he left to run the re-election campaign; and Maria Comella, Mr. Christie’s communications director.

In general, the aides from Mr. Christie’s tenure as United States attorney tended to policy and the day-to-day functions of the governor’s office, while the others oversaw his political strategy.

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