“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Those eight words in an email set in motion the scandal known as Bridgegate, which shutdown two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to the George Washington Bridge—the world’s busiest vehicular bridge—for four days in September 2013, causing massive traffic jams. They were written by Bridget Kelly, then a deputy chief of staff to then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and they have haunted her ever since.
The lanes were supposedly closed for a traffic study, but witnesses later testified the shutdowns had actually been designed to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the gubernatorial election.
Christie, who did not return a request for comment for this story, denied knowing about the motive behind the closures and fired Kelly, calling her “stupid” and “deceitful.” The termination ended her 20-year career in government. (She has been unable to find work since.)
After a lengthy federal investigation, Kelly was indicted on nine counts, including misusing resources and violating the rights of Fort Lee residents. She was ultimately found guilty of seven counts, including conspiracy to commit fraud, and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Kelly remained free while she appealed the ruling, and her case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in May 2020 ruled unanimously in her favor. The justices held that because no money or property had changed hands, Kelly wasn’t guilty of federal-program fraud or wire fraud. “Not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime,” the decision noted.
Now, ELLE has exclusively learned that Kelly is announcing her candidacy for Bergen County Clerk. Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that the local GOP was recruiting her to run, leading the tabloid to quip that it “might be a bridge too far.” But Kelly is hoping voters will do what no employer has so far: give her a second chance. “I joke with people that I feel like I’m Rip van Winkle, just woke up from a seven year nap,” Kelly told me in an interview on Friday. “Everyone else has been allowed to rebuild their lives and I struggle to get food on the table for my kids. So, why would I do this? Because I want people to get to know me for me, not as I’ve been defined by others.”
ELLE: Everyone has heard about your email, but not as many people know the Supreme Court ruled in your favor. Is part of running for office about getting that word out?
Bridget Kelly: Listen, the elephant in the room is Bridgegate and I get that. Does running now give me a louder microphone? It sure does. I testified in court for five days. And so much of what I said was never reported, or it was struck down by the judge, or objected to by the prosecution, and then upheld by the judge. I was silenced so many times. So if it comes up, I’m not afraid to talk anymore. I have nothing to hide. And if it comes up, there’s a lot people need to know. If they ask the right questions, I’ll tell them. I mean, it’s simple as that to me. But my motivation for running is certainly not, this isn’t scorched earth, that’s not what I’m doing. But there’s obviously questions that need to be answered and I’m happy to do that.
ELLE: Did Christie just assume you wouldn’t turn on him? Even after he started insulting you?
BK: I spoke to former Governor Christie the night before the email came out. He sat in my office for a very long time. The next day, I’m literally driving to work, and I get the phone call that the email was released, and I’m calling all the people that I work with that I believe are my people, and no one will take my call. And then I get this random call from this attorney. And he’s like, “The governor and his staff, they want to make sure you’re taken care of.” And it was almost like planting seeds in my head that they were sitting there worried about me, whereas they actually just wanted to know what I was going to say.
The attorney told me that he was told to take care of me. He was told to make sure they’d get me a job, but he just wanted to talk to me. Now, this is in day two of the email coming out public. I said to my mom, “They’re going to take care of me.” She said, “Do you really believe that, Bridget?” And the answer is I did. So I met with their attorney, Kayla, and downloaded to the attorney, almost everything I knew. And then it turns out that he probably went back and shared anything I was going to say.
I found out on the Daily Mail that the attorney had opted out—he said he wasn’t going to take the case anymore—after I downloaded everything to him. And he then got appointed to the State Supreme Court by Chris Christie. So I was naïve.
Christie sent him there to be like, “Find out what she’s going to say.” So in my mind, I think Christie actually believed that I would take a plea deal. I don’t think he thought that I would be strong enough to go through a federal trial. I don’t know that Christie honestly thought that I would take it as far as I did. I don’t think he thought I had it in me to really stand up and tell the truth, which would then lead everybody to know what they already knew, which was that he was involved. So I think he was probably a little surprised. And I think to this day, he sees me as the one who ruined his path to the presidency.
ELLE: You’ve made vague statements like that in the past, implying Christie was involved. Can you explicitly say he ordered the lanes to be closed?
BK: So, I can’t say that he ordered it, but I would say that he was aware that it was happening. I know that he had conversations with other staffers at the Port Authority and elsewhere. I could do the blonde girl joke and say, I’m a blonde and I fell for this, but my understanding was, and how it was sold to me by David Wildstein, who went to high school with Chris Christie and was Christie’s political guy at the Port Authority. David Wildstein told me that this would be good for Christie’s reelection and that he and the Port Authority believed that if they could move traffic across the George Washington bridge quicker, it would benefit Chris Christie in the long run.
Now, as a Republican and as a staffer of Christie, the focus was always on the next election, so words like ‘this will help Chris Christie’s election,’ and in a bipartisan manner, was something that made sense to me.
So it had been presented to the governor elsewhere. I had a conversation with him and he was like, “Let Wildstein do what he’s going to do.” And at the end of this traffic study, the goal was to have an event with Governor Cuomo and tout the results of people moving faster over the George Washington Bridge. All of that made sense to me, the fact that there was malice and ill will towards the mayor of Fort Lee, I didn’t know anything about that.
ELLE: Really? Because writing, “time for traffic problems in Fort Lee,” certainly makes it sound like you knew what you were doing, even if the orders weren’t coming from you.
BK: And you know what? I can appreciate that. And I’m happy to talk about it as I did ad nauseum in court. So preceding that email is life. So it’s 7:45 in the morning when I sent that. And I was on my way to work after getting my four kids off to school. And prior to that, David Wildstein had said, there’s going to be traffic problems in Fort Lee when we do this.” I had told the governor, absolutely this was going to happen. There was going to be traffic issues.
So what I did in a very, very obviously poorly worded email, mimicking David’s words, I’m literally stopped at a light going to Trenton that morning. And I’m like, “Oh crap. I never followed up with David.” And I sent it in an ill thinking, quick thinking, quick witted really, really bad form email. And I have owned it. I’m happy to own it. I hate it that I have to own it, but I do. But there was no malice. There was no ill will. I’ve never met the mayor of Fort Lee, not in my life. I ran the office of intergovernmental affairs. And I didn’t know that there was this behind the scenes issues with the mayor of Fort Lee. So the problem is I had a title, I didn’t carry any of the clout, and I certainly didn’t have any power to realign, close, or do anything to the George Washington Bridge, other than pass along the approval from the governor that they can do this traffic study.
What I should’ve said and what I regret it to this day, is, “David, the governor said it’s okay to do the traffic study in Fort Lee,” is what I should’ve said. But in my male dominated world that I worked in, quick witted, texted it off or emailed it off, and I’m going to pay for it for the rest of my life. Most people can say that they have sent a quick text or something to someone in their life that the person knew what you were saying, but if interpreted by another person, it’s going to come off wrong, and that’s the problem. So that email, there was no context to it.
ELLE: I hear you, but I feel like writing it as you did makes it seem like you were taking glee in people sitting in traffic, or that it was indeed ill-intentioned in some way.
BK: I get it. I totally get it. And I would say this: There are a lot of text messages that I sent during that week that were snarky and they were fresh. They were misconstrued and they were inappropriate. And I have apologized for them. At the same time, as I look back to the 41-year-old woman that I was in a very fast paced, male dominated world, I absolutely understand why I sent them, because there was clearly more going on than I was aware of. And I was almost like the nerdy kid in school that wanted to be a part of something. But I didn’t know to what detail at that time. And if I have a regret, that’s probably one of my biggest ones. I regret typing that email every day in my life, Kayla. Every day in my life.
ELLE: You’ve said that since that email came out, you’ve felt like you had the plague. Do you still feel that way?
ELLE: Has that changed at all since the SCOTUS ruling?
BK: No, not at all. The Supreme Court case that will now be used in precedent cases, will be Kelly v. the United States of America. So I’m honored about that, but do I still have the plague? Absolutely. And what’s sad is that I’m the only one who hasn’t been able to rebuild my life. I really am the only female in the mix of names of the Bridgegate saga. And everyone else is gainfully employed, welcomed back into the circle, and embraced. And every time I’ve tried to get a job, both in the private and public sector, I’ve been told that they can’t hire me out of fear of Christie still, and he’s been out of office for four or five years.
ELLE: It must also be frustrating knowing the investigation commissioned by the governor essentially said you closed the lanes because you got dumped.
BK: The master report, which whitewash of Chris Christie, basically they investigated the governor’s office. And what they found out in their stellar reporting was that my heart was broken by Bill Stepien, and that’s why I shut down the bridge. And that was truly the conclusion.
It was a year before Me Too. And unfortunately for me, it largely went unnoticed. But when I tell you, I had Democrat Senators saying, “This is Bridget Kelly being slut-shamed.” The fact that they’re saying, “Bridget’s an emotional, her heart was broken by Bill Stepien, so as a result of that, she realigned the lanes of the bridge.” I mean, the logic is illogical. Bill and I dated, but he wasn’t that good of a boyfriend. That’s all there is to it. And I say that to be funny, but the fact that they were allowed to write that, and that didn’t even matter to anyone, and the state paid that kind of money to basically bemoan me as this emotional female who can’t keep it together and does this, it just was ridiculous.
ELLE: Given how all of this has impacted your reputation, why do you think anyone would vote for you?
BK: Because I think they’re going to get to know me, and I’m not how I have been portrayed. I’m doing this because I believe I would do the job very well. And I really just want people to get to know Bridget, not the Bridget that has been maligned by the men I worked with. I’m still Bridget Kelly that I was seven and a half years ago or seven years ago. I’m just a little bit more careful in who I trust and definitely what I put in an email or a text message.
ELLE: Do you think Christie will endorse you?
BK: The day I look for Chris Christie’s endorsement is the day that I need to recheck my values at the door and not look my children in the eye. Chris Christie’s endorsement is the last thing I need, and certainly not something I think would be appropriate for me to accept if he was to offer it. You know why? You know why? Because it’s not genuine.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
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