"Got it," replied Wildstein, days before ordering that orange cones block two lanes of Fort Lee's local entrance ramp to the iconic Hudson River bridge, spreading crippling gridlock across the town for four days last September.
The emails brought the apparent case of political retribution - Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich has said the closure happened shortly after he declined a request to cross party lines and endorse Christie - and a slowly simmering scandal into the governor's office for the first time. There is still no direct evidence, however, that the governor himself knew what aides were doing.
But the scandal news hit not just New Jersey but national politics with the force of a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb - especially on social-media sites like Twitter, where 140-character pundits gave the controversy names like "Bridgeghazi," or mocked Christie and his omnipresent 2013 tourism ads with the hashtag #StrongerThanTheCones.
Christie responded uncharacteristically to the dire news, canceling the lone public event on his schedule and then - instead of one of his trademark bombastic news conferences - issuing a written statement that expressed shock and ignorance, blaming the matter on his aides.
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable," Christie said. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
Minutes after the statement, the fallout intensified as the Bergen Record reported that emergency responders on at least four ambulance calls were slowed down by the September traffic tie-ups in Fort Lee. It reported that in one of the cases - that of a 91-year-old woman who was unconscious as ambulance crews struggled to reach her - the victim was later pronounced dead, although there was no way of knowing if the delay caused her to die. Officials had complained at the time that buses carrying children were also late for school because of the gridlock.
Fort Lee Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky said she knows of one woman who couldn't get over the bridge to be with her husband, who was undergoing a stem-cell transplant, and another who couldn't get to New York to be with her son as he went through kidney dialysis.
"I'm ashamed to be an elected official in New Jersey," Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich told CNN last night. He also said, directed at the governor: "Don't call me, but call the families. He has to publicly address the folks who are specifically impacted by this."
The leaked emails showed that the Port Authority's Wildstein had derisively called Sokolich "the little Serbian," even though he is actually of Croatian descent.
While Democrats gleefully pounced on the report, even some leading Republicans seemed openly incredulous about Christie's handling of the matter, including former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who called the emails "a big deal" because they tied the governor's office to the matter, which previously had only been linked to Christie allies on the Port Authority. Wildstein and another Christie appointment to the bridge authority have already resigned.
Much of the cable chatter yesterday focused on the damage to Christie's White House chances, as polls had shown him as a Republican front-runner if he entered the 2016 contest to replace President Obama. But some local observers wondered if the controversy could now bring political gridlock to Trenton, where Democrats control both houses in the Legislature, and thwart Christie's planned push on key issues such as school reforms.
Steve Sweeney, the Democratic state Senate president who's cut legislative deals with Christie since he became governor in 2010, was quoted yesterday on CNN.com as calling the bridge matter "the worst kind of politics."
- The Associated Press
contributed to this report.
On Twitter: @Will_Bunch