Capital Beat: A deeper look at Mowers’ ‘Bridgegate’ involvement
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer smiles during a town hall meeting with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, in West New York, N.J. Gov. Christie is pushing for a stalled package of bills he says are an essential 'toolkit' for helping the state municipalities to rein in costs. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New Hampshire’s connections to the New Jersey political scandal now known as “Bridgegate” resurfaced last week with news that the New Hampshire Republican Party’s executive director received a subpoena to testify before a legislative committee investigating last fall’s lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
To refresh your memory: Matt Mowers came to New Hampshire to work for the state party in November after working in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office and on his re-election campaign. News broke in January that it was Mowers who discussed a possible endorsement with Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. His decision not to endorse Christie is what allegedly led to retribution from Christie staffers in the form of creating a massive four-day traffic jam.
Mowers has not commented on the investigation, but state party chair Jennifer Horn said he has cooperated with every step. More details on the extent of Mowers’s involvement in the drama, however, were recently revealed through an internal investigation by law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which was hired and paid for by Christie to conduct the investigation. (That investigation, notably, absolved Christie of all wrongdoing.) The internal investigation was shared with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the legislative committee before which Mowers will testify.
The 15-page memorandum from Mowers’s interview, which is publicly available, gives us a bird’s-eye view into his role in the still-unfolding scandal, including the scope of his duties in Christie’s office, his relationship with Bridget Kelly, who was fired and has been painted as the prime conspirator, and his discussions with two mayors about endorsements – Sokolich and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who has also accused Christie of political retribution.
The report is “a summary of the discussion that reflects counsel’s mental thoughts and impressions,” not a direct transcript of Mowers’s interview. Also keep in mind that Christie’s office paid the law firm to conduct the investigation. Those caveats in mind, let’s get to the details:
Mowers, 24, started working for Christie in 2010 and became a regional director in the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) office that December. He stayed there until joining the re-election campaign in April 2013. In January 2011, he began reporting to Kelly, then IGA director. In his interview, he described Kelly as someone with an “authority complex” who was concerned with how people perceived her. (The planning and execution of Bridgegate has been pinned largely on Kelly, and Mowers’s characterization of her plays well into that narrative.)
At the IGA, Mowers covered a region that included roughly 183 mayors, according to the report. Part of his job was to help local officials navigate state government by putting them in touch with the right departments.
Mowers met Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, through this role. The two met roughly 10 times, sometimes off the clock, and often discussed projects in Fort Lee. Mowers did not join the re-election campaign until April 2013, but had conversations with Sokolich in February and March about a possible endorsement. According to the interview, Sokolich brought up the topic of endorsements first. According to the report, Mowers’s campaign activities before April were “voluntary and occurred on his personal time.”
After those two conversations, Mowers said it became apparent Sokolich was not going to endorse Christie for several reasons, including his worry that he might lose business in his private law firm from Democratic towns. Mowers said he did not view Sokolich’s endorsement as particularly important to the campaign and did not ask him about it after the March meeting. The two communicated only once after Mowers started on the campaign, when Sokolich thanked him for passing on kind words about Fort Lee to his successor at IGA.
Mowers did not discuss Sokolich’s decision not to endorse again until Aug. 12, when Kelly called him to ask about it. The next day, Kelly sent the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” email to someone at the Port Authority, which allegedly kicked off the September lane closures. Mowers said he was unaware of the email and did not think his call from Kelly was odd at the time. It wasn’t until a January article in the Wall Street Journal referencing the email that Mowers made a connection between her call to him in August and the lane closings, according to the interview.
Although Mowers’s interactions with Sokolich have received the most attention, the interview also reveals that he had conversations with Zimmer, the Hoboken mayor, about a possible endorsement. According to the interview, Mowers met with Zimmer roughly a dozen times while working for IGA and more frequently after Superstorm Sandy hit. She later alleged Christie’s office threatened to withhold recovery funds because of a dispute over a development project.
According to the interview, Zimmer’s husband discussed the possibility of her endorsing Christie with Mowers at a 2012 Christmas party, before Christie had formally announced his re-election plans. According to the interview, Zimmer’s husband told Mowers then that she likely wouldn’t endorse him but would praise him publicly.
Conversations with Zimmer and her chief of staff throughout the next several months took a similar tone, with Zimmer saying she wanted to support Christie’s re-election bid without using the word “endorse.” After several conversation, the Christie campaign drafted a statement of support for Zimmer to read at an October Christie event in Hoboken. According to the interview, both sides agreed on the content of the statement. But after reading it, Zimmer’s team watered it down to the point that Mowers said it was not relevant to the campaign.
After that communication in early October, Mowers said dialogue on a statement of support for Christie ended.
Mowers was hired by the New Hampshire Republican Party in October and joined the team in November, which many people have seen as a calculated move by Christie to place one of his people here prior to the primary.
Although Mowers himself is not under investigation, the New Hampshire Democratic Party has accused him of bringing dirty New Jersey politics to New Hampshire. (On Twitter, the party even suggested Mowers could go to prison, which is in no way a possible scenario.)
The state Republican Party has stood behind Mowers, with party chair Horn saying she looks forward to his continued work here. But you can be sure the Democrats will throw the words “Mowers” and “Bridgegate” together whenever they have the chance.
Fiscal woes continue
Reports of weak April revenue, $21.6 million below projections, combined with the possible loss in revenue from the loss of the Medicaid Enhancement Tax are providing fodder for Republicans to charge Democrats with ill management of the state’s fiscal house.
Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, released a statement Thursday before the official numbers came out, giving him a jump on Democrats and a chance to define the narrative. In his statement, he urged the House to put all $15 million of the state’s surplus into the Rainy Day Fund. (Democrats want to see $7 million of it go to the Department of Health and Human Services.) Last week, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the state’s bond outlook from “stable” to “negative” and Moody’s made similar warnings about upcoming revenue problems.
“It should be painfully obvious at this point that any effort to spend any portion of this surplus would be ill-advised and harmful for our state’s fiscal standing,” Morse said in a statement.
Hassan, in her own release, noted revenue is still ahead for the year. She didn’t suggest much decisive action, and instead said the state must continue to promote economic growth and work with all stakeholders to address the MET challenges. She also said lawmakers should “strengthen” the state’s Rainy Day Fund but didn’t say by how much.
“By working together, I know that we can resolve these challenges, build on the bipartisan progress that we have made and keep New Hampshire’s economy moving forward,” she said.
What to watch
∎ Both the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees will discuss fixes to the Medicaid Enhancement Tax, a major revenue source recently ruled unconstitutional by two lower courts, on Tuesday. If these amendments offer different ways to solve the gap, we’re in for a potentially long and difficult committee of conference on the matter.
∎ A two-casino bill will get one final shot at life on the House floor Wednesday. After being killed by one vote last week, Rep. Mario Ratzki, an East Andover Democrat, requested reconsideration at this Wednesday’s session. Ratzki allegedly came forward to request reconsideration right after the vote, but Democratic leadership quickly moved to end the session. Had Ratzki been successful and changed his vote, it’s possible the inexpedient to legislate motion could’ve been rejected, opening up the floor for passage. On Wednesday, if a majority of House members vote yes on reconsideration, debate on the bill will reopen.
∎ Walt Havenstein and Scott Brown, the two Republicans likely to top the New Hampshire ticket this fall, will attend a fundraiser in Manchester for state Sen. Andy Sanborn tomorrow night. This is the first event Brown and Havenstein will attend together. Notably, Sanborn hasn’t endorsed either and chose not to join some fellow Republican senators behind Havenstein at his campaign announcement last month.
∎ U.S. Sen Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, will give the keynote speech at the Rockingham County Republican Committee’s annual dinner in New Castle on Friday.
∎ Republican state senate primaries are continuing to heat up. WMUR reported Friday that businessman Steve Kenda will challenge Sen. Nancy Stiles of Hampton. Jerry Little, former president of the New Hampshire Bankers Association, also announced that he’ll run for retiring Sen. Bob Odell’s seat, putting him in a primary against JP Marzullo, vice chairman of the state Republican Party.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)