Bridget Anne Kelly: The aide at the center of the storm

This Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey shows Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly during a tour with Gov. Chris Christie of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk, after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff's "stupid" behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen)
This Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey shows Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly during a tour with Gov. Chris Christie of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk, after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff's "stupid" behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen)
Posted: January 11, 2014

Just over a year ago, Bridget Anne Kelly was thanking her boss, Gov. Christie, and fellow staffers via Twitter for making her 40th birthday "great." On Thursday, the account had been deleted, and the nation watched Christie call her a liar, dub her behavior "stupid," and announce on national television that he had fired her.

Kelly, the woman behind some of the e-mails in a plot to gridlock the George Washington Bridge, was described Thursday by some as a cheery, intelligent mother of four - but with a "vindictive" side.

"She's a 4-foot-9 perfectly pleasant soccer mom, but she could be a 6-foot-10 linebacker if she needed to," said a Republican operative with knowledge of the governor's inner circle, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation. "If you crossed her, she could be vindictive."

As news broke Wednesday that she had typed the now-infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," friends and colleagues asked themselves whether the Ramsey resident was a sacrificial lamb or had a dark side.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club, dealt with Kelly for more than a decade beginning in the early 2000s, when she was an aide for Assemblyman David Russo, a Republican who has supported environmental legislation.

"I'm really very surprised she'd even be in something like this, just knowing her - knowing her background. I just don't believe she did it on her own. There's just no way. It sounded like she was putting something forward that was decided at a previous meeting," Tittel said.

On Thursday, before a swarm of news cameras, Christie announced Kelly's firing.

Christie said that as a deputy chief of staff, Kelly did not have the authority to order lane closures at the bridge. "And so, if she acted in a manner which exceeded her authority, which seems, you know, to be a possibility, you know, that's what she did."

He also said he had instructed his former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, to withdraw from consideration for state party chairman and to cease consultant work with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads.

Stepien was copied on many of the e-mails dealing with the lane closures. In one, he called Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich "an idiot."

The Republican operative labeled Kelly as Stepien's "righthand woman." Another party insider said the two were "attached at the hip." Many speculated the two orchestrated the lane closures together.

"This is a Bridget-and-Bill thing," the operative said. "They might have cooked it up in a Dunkin' Donuts in Trenton or at a nice little dinner in Yardley, Pa."

Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (D., Bergen) was one of many Democrats who said he found "it hard to believe [Kelly] acted alone while in the shadow of the governor." Johnson said he supported Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski's vow to summon Kelly, along with "any other individual involved in this fiasco."

Efforts Thursday to reach Kelly and Stepien were unsuccessful.

Kelly received a degree in political science from Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., and has remained an active alumna. In 2008, she posted on a reunion blog organizing a gift from the Class of 1994.

Kerry McDevitt of Colts Neck, who attended St. Mary's with Kelly, described her as "a great and very kind person."

Kelly's Twitter feed, cached online, is filled with proud shout-outs to her young children.

Before her job at the governor's office, Kelly worked for Russo and chaired the Ramsey Republican Club from 2005 to 2011. She volunteered on the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, according to an Associated Press report.

After running a phone bank in Bergen County in 2009 for Christie's first gubernatorial campaign, she was hired in 2010 as director of legislative relations. In April, she replaced Stepien as deputy chief of staff - a position earning her $140,000 a year.

Kelly lives with her children. She is separated from her husband, Joe, a professional golfer, according to public records.

Tom Wilson, former state GOP president, said, "She was always very active and engaged in Bergen County, and could always be counted on to pitch in and help out and support the effort."

A longtime Republican official in Bergen County - who also did not want to be named - said Kelly had a reactive side "if she felt threatened."

There were instances, he said, when she would block volunteers vying for political jobs from moving up. "If someone talked to her funny or didn't give her the right amount of respect, she'd make a phone call and put the kibosh on it." The official said that when he read the e-mail, the language sounded a lot like Kelly.

"It's the banter she would usually have used. It's something that she would have said. I'm just surprised she'd be stupid enough to write it down."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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