Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Lesson for Chris Christie in How Mayor Daley Shut Down the Airport

The New Jersey governor’s political career may not survive his current scandal—but Mayor Daley succeeded with what could have been a bigger one.

Members of Friends of Meigs Field hold down a giant yellow ribbon on Sunday March 31, 2013 in front of the former Terminal Building as a group of private pilots make a flyover to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Mayor Richard Daley's destruction of the airfield. Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune

When two of three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York were closed for four days last September—starting on Monday, September 9, during rush hour, no less—horrific, predictable traffic jams and delays resulted. Drivers were forced to merge into one paralyzed cash-only toll lane to fork over the $13 to cross the bridge.  Fort Lee, the small New Jersey regular-guy borough across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was strangled with traffic; at one point 550 cars clogged its narrow streets.

The purpose of the lane closure was supposedly a traffic study, but questions arose immediately and have festered since on why anyone would approve a study, with no advance notice, that lasted over the course of several days at a busy post-Labor-Day time of the year.  Now we learn that the traffic study was made-up, allegedly to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who did not endorse his state’s governor, Chris Christie, in the gubernatorial election last November. Not that the governor needed the mayor’s endorsement; incumbent Christie won handily won with 60 percent of the vote.

Previously seen as tough, hands-on, no-nonsense, Chris Christie is now portrayed, in the media at least, as bullying, possibly lying, and if not lying, then indefensibly clueless to the political machinations of his aides. Once on everyone’s short list to take on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, he’s now seen as damaged—perhaps irreparably so—goods; a man who would be lucky to win another term as governor of New Jersey, much less president of the United States. 

On Thursday, Christie spent almost two hours apologizing and taking questions. Since then, as more bridge-related documents have been released, his abject apologies, his firing of one top aide (the one who gleefully emailed a Christie-appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”), and the sidelining of a political confidant and former campaign manager have not stemmed the flow of criticism.

His press conference performance on Thursday is now being critiqued and ridiculed—too many references to “I” and “me” and variations on same, 1095 in 108 minutes, according to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. His statement aimed at distancing himself from one of his Port Authority appointees (the man has since resigned) with whom he went to high school—“I was the class president and athlete,” Christie added—along with too much portraying himself as the victim of the deliberately plotted mess, instead of recognizing that the victims were the poor New Jerseyites who couldn’t get where they needed to go.

And then there’s the question that reporters have honed in on. If he knew nothing about the planned traffic jam from hell and only found out about it at 8:50 Wednesday morning—he was that specific—why did he complain during his press conference, “I haven’t had a lot of sleep the last two nights.” The feds are investigating, and so are the Democrats in the state assembly. A class action suit has been filed on behalf of people who were hurt professionally because they were late to their first day of work, missed a job interview, missed an exam, missed class because they were trapped on a school bus. And how about those emergency vehicles stuck in the gridlock that couldn’t reach people in need? Calls for Christie’s resignation, impeachment, indictment continue, and his many enemies can barely contain their glee at the vision of the obese governor in a XXXL orange jumpsuit. 

Citizen complaints received by the Port Authority and Fort Lee officials are being released and each one is a arrow in Christie’s skin and his presidential ambitions. Why, one woman asked, was the Authority “playing God with people’s jobs.” She mentioned that her husband was late to a new job after being out of work for a year.

It’s a little bit like a different shutdown, by a different leader, over a decade ago.

On Sunday night March, 30,  2003, then-Mayor Rich Daley ordered city crews to bulldoze the single runway at Meigs Field, the lakefront airport located on Northerly Island, south of the Adler Planetarium. Daley also ordered backhoes to carve 6 giant X’s into the ground where the runway once stood. The mayor had long expressed his desire to turn the airport, used by the elite, into a park to be used by everyone.

No argument that his actions were highhanded and arrogant. But so what? A sufficient number of Chicagoans apparently felt that Daley had done the right thing, a good thing. He never had to apologize. He would later tell the Sun-Times, “It isn’t [for] the few with the airplanes … It’s [for] the people right here in Chicago. This is their lakefront.” Demolishing an airfield that allowed CEOs to take off in their private jets, who cares?  

Not only did Daley not apologize, he later told the Sun-Times, “I think [closing Meigs is] the greatest thing I’ve ever—one of the great things I’ve done besides the public schools.”

And yes, Daley’s plan to replace Meigs with a still unfinished 91-acre Northerly Island park with a permanent concert pavilion, nature reserves, bird sanctuaries, ecosystems, a harbor walk, wetlands, pond, savanna, etc., sounded pretty good to the average Chicagoan.

Was it dangerous to close the airport, opened in 1948, with no warning, leaving 16 planes stranded and the potential for danger the next morning as pilots attempted to make their scheduled landings? Yes. Was Daley’s action illegal? Some thought so and argued that he should be criminally prosecuted.

I, for one, never once stepped foot on Meigs Field, much less boarded a private plane. But I’ve driven or been driven across the George Washington bridge scores of times since childhood, without experiencing any memorable traffic problems. Back in 2003 I thought that Daley’s behavior was alarming and wondered at the time if he was sane. I scoffed at the argument he made at a news shortly after the demolition that, in the wake of 9/11, he was enhancing Chicago’s safety by eliminating a potential launching pad for terrorists.

Back to the beleaguered Chris Christie: If a particle of evidence emerges that he knew anything about this political shenanigan disguised as traffic study, his political career is over. Everyone who has ever been the driver or passenger in a car understands the nerve-wracking nightmare of being stuck in traffic, and we’re talking hours, not minutes. And the people who use the country’s most traveled bridge are not just tycoons, but moms in minivans and school kids on yellow buses. 

In Chicago, Daley came off as a champion of the people and walked away from Meigs unscathed. In New Jersey, the governor, once bursting with bravado, is now deflated by regret, and his undisguised presidential hopes are TBD—the abbreviation his scheming aides used in discussing what to tell the public; what concocted conclusion they should claim that so-called traffic study reached.

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