January 9th, 2014
05:17 PM ET
11 months ago

With scandal, Christie loses his top enforcer

(CNN) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired his deputy chief of staff on Thursday, admonishing Bridget Anne Kelly in harsh terms during a marathon Trenton press conference about the still-unfolding George Washington Bridge imbroglio.

But the scandal claimed another victim, stunning close-watchers of Christie and his tightly-knit operation: Bill Stepien, a sharp-elbowed strategist who managed Christie's two gubernatorial campaigns and was primed to play a senior role in a likely 2016 presidential bid.

Stepien "was asked to leave my organization," Christie said, telling reporters that he had withdrawn his support for Stepien to take over the New Jersey Republican Party. Stepien's consulting contract with the Christie-helmed Republican Governors Association was also terminated.

Though little known outside of New Jersey circles, Stepien was one of Christie's most trusted senior advisers, ranking just beneath political guru Mike DuHaime and longtime confidante Bill Palatucci in the governor's political hierarchy.

"There's no doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisers over the last five years," Christie said. "And so for that too I am sad today to have to take this action. But I also know that I have a job to do. And it's the job that I've asked the people of New Jersey to entrust me with. And I can never allow personal feelings or long-standing relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it's appropriate to do it."

Christie's decision to cut Stepien loose is akin to President Obama firing an aide as high-ranking as David Plouffe or David Axelrod.

"This is a huge, huge deal," said one Trenton insider. "This was the governor's guy."

This person said Stepien's influence in the state capital, and with Christie, expanded between the campaigns of 2009 and 2013, with DuHaime and Palatucci spending more and more time cultivating the governor's national image and building a wide-reaching donor base.

Stepien was often at the governor's side throughout the campaign of 2013, and sometimes traveled around the country with him for political and finance events.

"Stepien was the third leg of the stool running things in New Jersey," the source said. "To me, this is a true indicator of the governor's leadership. He is putting aside a guy that just this week he called the best Republican operative in the country because he saw impropriety."

Three words surfaced repeatedly Thursday in conversations with a dozen Republicans who have worked with Stepien: intense, disciplined and loyal, both to Christie and members of his staff.

Notorious for his short temper, he had very little patience with those who disagreed with him or were perceived as untrustworthy.

"Bill is smart and tenacious, a great guy to have on your side, but someone you don't want to cross," said an aide to another Republican governor. "He's the enforcer of Christie-world."

Stepien did not respond to an email seeking comment after Christie's press conference, and a Christie spokesman did not respond when asked if the governor would continue to receive any kind of political advice from Stepien.

Known to some friends as "Step," his backers describe him as a workaholic fiercely dedicated to the numbers-driven, nuts-and-bolts aspects of campaigns, a habit formed over the course of more than a decade of work as a field director for a range of GOP candidates.

"He is intensely focused on his job," said one Republican who has worked under him. "He works 25 hours a day. But he is also a guy's guy. He is somebody who one minute will be intensely focused on an issue, and a minute later cracking wise or talking about the Jets."

"This is probably one of his one of toughest days," the Republican added.

Stepien's resume gleams with high-level jobs that prepared him for a potential Christie presidential run: He was New Hampshire field director for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, and went on to serve as national field director for the ill-fated presidential efforts of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in 2008.

Stepien would go on to manage Christie's surprising 2009 gubernatorial win in New Jersey, as well as his blowout re-election win last November.

He also steered the 2003 New Jersey Assembly campaign of Bill Baroni – a Republican that Christie appointed to a top post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Baroni, of course, was a key figure in the bridge scandal that led to Stepien's termination on Thursday.

Stepien's name surfaced in emails leaked to the press on Wednesday, a revealing string of conversations between Christie allies that propelled a simmering local news story into a national drama - and the first full-blown political crisis for Christie and his ambitious team of advisers.

In exchanges with David Wildstein, another top figure at the Port Authority, Stepien described the mayor of Fort Lee as an "idiot." The emails also suggested that Stepien was aware of the maneuvering by that led to the lane closures - despite assurances from Christie in December that neither he nor his staff knew anything about the process that led to bridge shutdown last fall.

"I was disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude of callous indifference that was displayed in the emails by my former campaign manager, Bill Stepien," Christie said in Thursday's marathon press conference in Trenton. "And reading that, it made me lose my confidence in Bill's judgment."

Christie, the newly-minted chairman of the RGA, had recently installed Stepien in a key advisory role at the influential committee. The governor had also recommended that he take over the New Jersey Republican Party.

Both jobs would have given Stepien a foothold in national Republican politics as Christie quietly plants the seeds for a presidential campaign. But on Thursday, Christie said he instructed Stepien to step down from the RGA and withdraw his name from consideration for the New Jersey GOP job.

"He was going to be at the RGA and going to lead the state party, and in 24 hours that's all gone," said a GOP operative who has been in the campaign trenches with Stepien. "That's a shocking thing. It goes to show that what the governor is saying is true - if you are going to cut someone like Bill, that's one the toughest personnel decisions that the governor would have to make."

As for Stepien's hard-edged reputation, one Republican who worked with him on last year's campaign had a straightforward explanation: "I would think sharp elbows are standard operating procedure for New Jersey."


Filed under: Chris Christie • New Jersey
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Gurgyl

    GOP is gone to dogs, pretty much sure. Bribe, scandals, wars, Haliburton contracts, Iran-contra undercover financial dealings, shaking hands with drug dealers, you name it. At least they better wake up to pass JOBS-BILL, VOTER REFORM IMMIGRATION REFORM, LOOK THAT INDIA DIPLOMAT CAME CHEATED OUR VISA SYSTEM SHAME. TERM-limits etc need long overdue.

    January 9, 2014 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  2. Reggie53

    Wow....the only news I am seeing today is about Christie.....What about the tell all book that Robert Gates wrote. It is about time that becomes headline news. It is about our so-called president Obama and the village idiot VP Biden. You only see headlines here on CNN when it is about a republican. Let us see the headline news about Obama and Biden from the book. CNN is so left now that it does know how to fair and balanced.

    January 9, 2014 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  3. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    This is not just a NJ issue. The Port Authority is a Bi State Agency. Therefore, the Federal Government should get involved. A 91 year old woman died because first responders were tied up in traffic. Will Darrell Issa look into this? Rand Paul? Ted Cruz?

    January 9, 2014 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  4. Randy, San Francisco

    Gov Christie's house of cards is tumbling down. All his denials and apologies are hollow when he hires a law firm, signalling an indictment for crimes committed.

    January 9, 2014 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  5. Lynda/Minnesota

    "What about the tell all book that Robert Gates wrote."

    Presumably it is now on bookshelves ready to be purchased and read by those who don't need the media to do their reading for them.

    January 9, 2014 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  6. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    @Reggie53
    Wow....the only news I am seeing today is about Christie.....What about the tell all book that Robert Gates wrote. It is about time that becomes headline news. It is about our so-called president Obama and the village idiot VP Biden. You only see headlines here on CNN when it is about a republican. Let us see the headline news about Obama and Biden from the book. CNN is so left now that it does know how to fair and balanced.

    Hi Reggie. You new here? The bulk of the posts for the last year are more nonsense about Bengazi, IRS, Obama Care, and whatever scandal du jour the right wants to cook up.

    January 9, 2014 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  7. Babyboomer

    Four days of gridlock, a senior citizen that couldn't get help when needed, he joked about this at first and now we should believe that he knew nothing??? Hmmm...

    January 9, 2014 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  8. IA

    @ Gurgyl..." I can never allow personal feelings or long-standing relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it's appropriate to do it." When was the last time you heard that from a politician? Certainly not from your party. I know, how about, " what difference, at this point, does it make" I know you're a big Hillary fan , so how nice to support someone with that thought process? Go figure.

    January 9, 2014 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  9. Thomas

    Christie's decision to cut Stepien loose is akin to President Obama firing an aide as high-ranking as David Plouffe or David Axelrod.

    "This is a huge, huge deal," said one Trenton insider. "This was the governor's guy."

    Notorious for his short temper, he had very little patience with those who disagreed with him or were perceived as untrustworthy.

    "Bill is smart and tenacious, a great guy to have on your side, but someone you don't want to cross," said an aide to another Republican governor. "He's the enforcer of Christie-world."

    This is turning into an episode of Sopranos meets Untouchables !

    January 9, 2014 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  10. Silence DoGood

    @Lynda/Minnesota
    "What about the tell all book that Robert Gates wrote."

    Presumably it is now on bookshelves ready to be purchased and read by those who don't need the media to do their reading for them.
    --------–
    We won't hear from the Radical Right for a while until Rush and Hannity pretend to read it and tell them what to think about the book.

    January 9, 2014 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  11. IA

    @ Jeff Brown..."Nonsense"? Sure thats what we'll call it..."Nonsense" ..... because, " What difference, at this point, does it matter?" Gotta go watch a video....later JB.

    January 9, 2014 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  12. Gurgyl

    @reggie, what Robert Gate? Iraq is not USA problem, because it drained USA treasury. Now USA can not even pay unemployment benefits to its own citizens, you talk about IRAQ, GATES? Bull. Better shut up. Shame these wars took place for GOP garbage GREED. To give contracts and share the money among themselves–like thieves sharing themselves.

    January 9, 2014 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  13. Tampa Tim

    The group Idiots Anonymous (IA) continues to wrap their tentacles around the debunked Right wingnut faux outrage Benghazi. That is not enough to get a bagger elected.

    January 9, 2014 06:23 pm at 6:23 pm |
  14. belinda

    His closest aide andhe he knew nothing. Liar.

    January 9, 2014 07:44 pm at 7:44 pm |
  15. alex

    I can't imagine that he could be insulting this many people, who worked so hard and were so loyal for him and his aspirations, and they will just sit by and take the insults of their character. He has thrown so many people under the bus, and we know these are vengeful people. It's just a matter of time before they roll over on him.

    January 9, 2014 09:29 pm at 9:29 pm |
  16. newsreader

    These men were in Cristie's inner circle. They would not have dared do this without Cristie's order and permission. Don't worry about them. They'll be well taken care of and rewarded and be back when the next election is over.

    January 9, 2014 10:29 pm at 10:29 pm |
  17. penguin

    Amazing that petty political retribution gets more press than the Bush lies about weapons of mass destruction. People were needlessly inconvenienced by the lane closures while thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis died because of the WMD lie

    January 9, 2014 10:40 pm at 10:40 pm |
  18. S. B. Stein

    Christie is going to have trouble if his supporters keep getting caught doing his political dirty work. How will he make it to the nomination if his staff keeps screwing up.

    January 9, 2014 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  19. Evergreen

    Sounds like Mr. Stepian is someone The Governor might want to think twice about throwing under the bus. His "sharp elbows" are only going to get a sharper.

    January 10, 2014 12:25 am at 12:25 am |