On Blog, an Ex-Christie Ally Showed Approach to Politics

Mr. Wildstein saved the messages, but protected the confidences, believing in loyalty above all.

He loved stories about politicians caught in a lie, and nursed grudges with sources who had lied to him. And he had a rule: Do not attack political operatives for doing stupid things, because they do what they do for their bosses, the politicians.

Mr. Wildstein, the former director of interstate projects for the Port Authority, is now the wild card in the scandal surrounding Gov. Chris Christie and the revenge-fueled closings of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in September. Last week, his lawyer released a letter saying that “evidence exists” to show that the governor knew about the closings while they happened, contrary to what he had said at a marathon news conference. The lawyer also wrote that Mr. Wildstein himself had evidence to show that the governor spoke inaccurately about Mr. Wildstein, whose hiring he had authorized at the agency that runs the bridge.

Mr. Wildstein is in a position to know the back story of the lane closings: He took the order from a staff member in Mr. Christie’s office to create “traffic problems” near the bridge.

While it is unclear what his evidence is — his lawyer is not saying — Mr. Wildstein’s time as Wally Edge reveals much about how he approaches politics, and, former sources and staff members say, much about his motivations and strategy now. And it marked an important — and at times, mutually beneficial — moment in his relationship with Mr. Christie. Eventually, he would become a crucial person for the governor at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and find himself in the middle of the scandal.

Bridget Anne Kelly, whom Mr. Christie fired after she was revealed to be the staff member who gave the order to create traffic problems, was one of Wally Edge’s best sources. Bill Stepien, the former campaign manager whom Mr. Christie sidelined after his name surfaced in emails disparaging the mayor of Fort Lee, was one of the young operatives whose career he nurtured.

The scandal, former sources and employees say, is the kind of story that Wally Edge lived for.

“He’d love every single bit of it, except for how it impacts staffers,” said one former employee, who did not want to be quoted by name because of conflicts with a current job.

“The most interesting thing I’ve learned in all this was that David was the statistician on Chris Christie’s high school baseball team,” the person added. “That gets where he’s coming from.”

The person continued: “He’s a person who’s on the bench who deeply, deeply respects the game.”

It was an audacious move to start a politics website in 2000 — before blogs, long before websites like Politico. Mr. Wildstein started PoliticsNJ.com on his own, adopting the pen name Wally Edge, after a long dead New Jersey governor. After two years, he began to hire reporters without their knowing who he was.

It quickly became a must-read. One Democratic strategist recalled receiving an email from Wally Edge saying Gov. James E. McGreevey was about to announce he was gay and resign. He checked with other Democrats, who insisted it must be wrong, until they saw the governor on television 20 minutes later.

Mr. Wildstein, meanwhile, was working on occasional political campaigns. One Republican strategist recalled emailing Wally Edge while on the phone with Mr. Wildstein.

In his 20s, he had served on the town council in his hometown, Livingston, where he was a year ahead of Mr. Christie in high school, and the two had met, the governor said recently, as teenagers working on Thomas H. Kean’s first campaign for governor.

Mr. Wildstein had left office to tend to the family business but remained a political addict.

He seemed to know everyone in New Jersey politics.

“I could ask him a question, and he’d have at instant recall an I.M. conversation on that subject from a year earlier that he would copy and paste into my window within 30 seconds,” said Brian Murphy, a history professor at Baruch College who wrote for the site in 2001 and 2002.

“He could establish very quickly with sources that he knew what was going on, and he was somebody who knew the game,” said Steve Kornacki, now host of his own show on MSNBC, whom Wally Edge hired in 2002.

He used his column to needle people with whom he had feuds — mostly, politicians he thought had lied to him. Paul Aronsohn, the Democratic mayor of Ridgewood who had been a spokesman for Mr. McGreevey, was often on the losing end of the keyboard.

But he never seemed to support a particular candidate. Few guessed that he was a Republican in a state where Democrats are a majority.

When Loretta Weinberg, now the state senator leading the investigation into the lane closings, was fighting against the Democratic political establishment in Bergen County, Wally Edge was on her side, repeatedly taunting the Democratic bosses.

But he liked the staff members above all — he cultivated relationships, particularly with political operatives he saw as up and coming — and would rarely if ever drag them into his columns.

“I would tell him about some staff member doing something stupid, he’d say, ‘Staff is off limits,’ ” recalled one Democratic source, who also could not be identified because of conflicts with a current job. “It was politicians he liked to put on the spot.”

He explained, this source said, that he had once worked as a staff member in the Legislature, and had never forgotten how a legislator had once belittled him.

When it came to their bosses, his affections leaned toward the up-by-the-bootstraps politicians, the fighters: Gov. James Florio, Senator Robert G. Torricelli. It was this instinct, his onetime sources and former employees guess, that made him like the pugnacious Mr. Christie.

Mr. Christie liked PoliticsNJ, too. When federal agents raided the office of James W. Treffinger, a Republican who was the Essex County executive in 2002, Mr. Christie, as United States attorney, tipped off the website, handing it an exclusive story, employees said.

Mr. Christie leaked often, to several news sources, and most of Mr. Wildstein’s employees believe that he did not know who Wally Edge was (the governor’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment).

Wally Edge was not always easy on Mr. Christie. In the final weeks of his campaign for governor, there were stories that he had not reported a personal loan to a deputy, had awarded lucrative contracts to allies, and had tried to get out of a speeding ticket by telling an officer he was a federal prosecutor. Wally Edge chided Mr. Christie, “who was supposed to be the ethics candidate” for “self-inflicted wounds.”

But a year after Mr. Christie was elected, the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority, former State Senator Bill Baroni, hired Mr. Wildstein for a newly created position at the agency. Among the things he was tasked with was selling an unpopular toll increase the governor needed, without political damage to Mr. Christie. Mr. Baroni was one of Mr. Wildstein’s best friends — he had worked with him on the Senate campaign of Bob Franks, along with Mike DuHaime, Mr. Christie’s chief political strategist, and Mr. Stepien.

Mr. Christie has acknowledged that he signed off on the hiring. And when The Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper, published a profile of Mr. Wildstein, calling him Mr. Christie’s eyes and ears at the port, Mr. Christie’s spokesman defended him against charges that he had created an atmosphere of fear at the agency.

“He is there in that job because he is well suited to the task of playing a role in reforming the Port Authority in accordance with the governor’s goals,” the spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said.

By this time, Wally Edge had sold PoliticsNJ to Jared Kushner, whose father Mr. Christie had prosecuted. But his identity was revealed only when he took the port job.

Mr. Wildstein was not happy. He took out the domain name for Bob Sommer, who had been among the executives at Mr. Kushner’s company, and whom he believed had been behind the decision to scale back the investment in PoliticsNJ, which resulted in most of the staff being laid off. When visitors logged on to BobSommer.com, they were redirected to the Yankees site; Mr. Sommer is a hard-core Mets fan.

When Mr. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December, as the bridge scandal began to grow, he consulted first with Mr. Drewniak. They worked carefully on the language of the statement Mr. Drewniak would give to a reporter about Mr. Wildstein. Mr. Christie signed off on the statement, praising Mr. Wildstein for being a “tireless advocate” for New Jersey.

Last week, after Mr. Wildstein declared that he knew of evidence to show Mr. Christie was lying, Mr. Christie attacked his onetime operative, claiming he was not to be trusted. One of the main reasons: He had once written an anonymous political blog.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment