Key Point: "Mr. Sokolich was approached by Matt Mowers—who was the campaign's regional political director—indicating an endorsement would be welcome, according to a person familiar with the conversations."
WSJ: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's Aides Pressed Hard for Endorsements
Traffic Scandal Puts Spotlight on Campaign's Tactics with Local Officials
By HEATHER HADDON
Jan. 12, 2014 8:32 p.m. ET
New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie's ability to secure Democratic endorsements supported his overwhelming re-election last year and helped establish him as a 2016 presidential contender, but now a traffic scandal has put the spotlight on his campaign's tactics with local officials across the state.
Interviews with mayors and other New Jersey Democratic officials show that Mr. Christie's allies in conversations that swung from friendly to persistent fostered a perception of better access to the governor's office and state commissions for those who cooperated, while a few who stayed neutral or endorsed Mr. Christie's opponent said they felt locked out. Others suffered no harm.
One question is whether carrot-and-stick political tactics by Christie aides played a role in a traffic scandal allegedly engineered as a political punishment for a Democratic mayor who didn't endorse the governor.
State lawmakers and federal prosecutors are seeking to untangle the facts behind days of lane closures in September that stalled traffic for hours on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, which links commuters with Manhattan. State officials initially said the lane closure was part of a traffic study.
New Jersey lawmakers will decide this week whether to reauthorize subpoena power for the investigation, and more subpoenas could be issued to Mr. Christie's staff as early as Monday.
Mr. Christie in a news conference last week denied any advance knowledge of the street closures, which he said may have been a "political vendetta" by his aides against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., Mark Sokolich, who didn't endorse the governor.
Mr. Sokolich was approached by Matt Mowers—who was the campaign's regional political director—indicating an endorsement would be welcome, according to a person familiar with the conversations. Mr. Sokolich has said he was never directly asked to endorse Mr. Christie.
The governor has since parted ways with Bill Stepien, who as Mr. Christie's campaign manager and senior adviser helped organize the endorsement effort. Mr. Christie also fired Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, who wrote in a recently released email weeks ahead of the lane closures: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Ms. Kelly and Messrs. Stepien and Mowers didn't respond to requests for comment.
Jersey City's Democratic Mayor Steve Fulop said there was swift retribution when he failed to endorse Mr. Christie. Mr. Fulop, elected in May, was seen as a pragmatist, rising star—and potential Christie ally—in the state's second largest city.
Mr. Christie spoke at Mr. Fulop's inauguration in July, and the Democrat's campaign gave early indications it might endorse the Republican, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The Christie campaign in phone calls, according to one person familiar with the discussions, offered new access to state commissioners, who hold the purse strings for many Jersey City services.
Mr. Fulop decided against endorsing the governor. Within an hour of relaying his decision, the mayor said, meetings with several state commissioners were canceled.
Since then, he said, "nearly every single meeting we have requested with state commissioners with regard to proactive Jersey City issues has been unfortunately rejected over the last six months, along with countless requests we made to the Port Authority" of New York and New Jersey, a bistate agency Mr. Christie jointly controls with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Mr. Fulop's name surfaced when Christie representatives discussed in emails how to respond to Mr. Sokolich's pleas for help during the traffic mess in Fort Lee. "Radio silence," one Christie ally wrote, regarding Mr. Sokolich. "His name comes right after mayor Fulop."
Asked about Mr. Fulop during his news conference Thursday, Mr. Christie said they have had disagreements but "we've continued to work with Jersey City over the course of time since he's been mayor." Mr. Christie pointed out that the state had approved about $190 million in economic development financing for Jersey City projects.
The mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, said she was invited to the state capital in February to meet with Mr. Christie and Mr. Stepien. The conversation began with talk about securing federal money for superstorm Sandy damage then turned to politics. The governor, she said, asked her to endorse his re-election.
"It was not that easy to tell him no," Ms. Zimmer said.
Other mayors who didn't endorse the governor said they suffered no harm. Matt Doherty, mayor of the Jersey Shore borough of Belmar, said he never endorsed Republicans, but state officials nonetheless helped his town after Sandy.
"They've been great to work with and never hinted at an endorsement," he said.
On Thursday, Mr. Christie said his campaign had asked hundreds of Democrats for their support—so many he didn't know all their names. In all, 61 Democratic elected officials endorsed the governor, and their willingness to cross party lines helped burnish an above-politics image for Mr. Christie.
His campaign hoped to show voters around the U.S. that he was a Republican who could draw support from Hispanics, labor unions and other traditionally Democratic constituencies.
Mr. Christie defeated state Sen. Barbara Buono with 60% of the vote, including nearly a third of New Jersey voters who described themselves as liberal, according to exit polls. The state has about 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republican, though its greatest share of voters have no party affiliation.
Mr. Christie's big win resonated across the U.S. last fall, making him the early front-runner as a Republican candidate for president in 2016, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "This was the prelude to a national campaign," he said.
Mr. Christie's push for Democratic Party support was unusual in New Jersey, but followed the example of his mentor, former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean. Mr. Kean's 1985 victory included wins in every municipality in the state but three.
Kevin Roberts, Mr. Christie's campaign spokesman said Democrats who endorsed the governor weren't coaxed but stepped forward on their own. He said neither the governor's office nor the campaign punished Democrats who declined to endorse.
Democratic elected officials said they received overtures from Mr. Stepien and Mr. Mowers, now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. Their inquiries were delivered in a polite but persistent tone. There were invitations to Drumthwacket, the historic governor's residence.
Anthony Davis, the Democratic council president in Paterson, N.J., said he endorsed Mr. Christie in the hope of receiving more state aid.
Endorsing Mr. Christie posed risks for some Democrats from their own party. Dina Long, mayor of the Jersey Shore borough of Sea Bright, was stripped of the Democratic chairmanship of her town.
After the November election, Mr. Christie invited his Democratic supporters to a breakfast at Drumthwacket. He encouraged them to call if they needed help cutting state bureaucracy or navigating agencies, said a Democrat who attended.
—Ted Mann contributed to this article.