TRENTON, N.J. -- The issue at hand is small, even for local politics: The sudden closure, over four days, of a pair of access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge into New York. But in this traffic mystery, Democrats see a potential scandal that could permanently harm Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been riding high as a prospective 2016 presidential candidate.
In September, two of Mr. Christie's top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered the lanes abruptly shut to traffic, causing days of gridlock in Fort Lee. Democrats allege that the move was political retribution against the town's mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Mr. Christie for re-election this year.
With Democratic legislators and the news media continuing to dig up emails and other evidence, the two appointees involved in the lane closure have resigned.
Mr. Christie has claimed no advance knowledge of the incident and has denied any wrongdoing on the part of his administration. But that hasn't kept Democrats in Trenton and Washington from pouncing. The goal is to puncture the image Mr. Christie carefully cultivated of himself since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 as a bipartisan bridge-builder and trustworthy, if pugnacious, executive.
His detractors say the episode reveals Mr. Christie as who they say he really is -- a nasty and corrupt New Jersey politician who bullies those standing in his way. "It undercuts his key argument that he's a straight shooter," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin. "It highlights the worst about his bombast and his condescension."
Several Democratic groups have jumped into the fray with videos and graphics attacking Mr. Christie, including the DNC and Correct the Record, a new effort by the American Bridge super-PAC to defend Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and target her potential GOP foes in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.
In Trenton, the charge has been led by the leader of the state Senate's Democratic majority, Loretta Weinberg, a 78-year-old widow who has been among Mr. Christie's most aggressive and indefatigable foes.
"Do I think Governor Christie called the Port Authority and said, 'Close lanes!'? No," she said. "But do I think he's helped to create an atmosphere where his political operatives think they're free to use the biggest bridge in the world for punitive action against somebody? I have to believe that it has to do with politics, because there is no other rational explanation for it."
Officials initially claimed that the lanes were closed as part of a traffic study, but no evidence has surfaced supporting that.
The two officials who resigned were political intimates of Christie: Bill Baroni, a former state senator and rising GOP star, served as deputy executive director at a salary of $290,000, while David Wildstein, a high school friend of Mr. Christie's and a former mayor of their home town of Livingston, made $150,000 per year as director of interstate capital projects. A 2012 profile described Mr. Wildstein as Mr. Christie's "eyes and ears within the byzantine agency."
"It was a juvenile high school prank orchestrated by a high school classmate of the governor's," said state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a former state Democratic chairman who has led the legislative probe as Transportation Committee chairman.
A senior aide to Mr. Christie, who requested anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity, said Mr. Wildstein's relationship to Mr. Christie has been "overstated." The aide said the governor's closest Port Authority ally is David Samson, whom Mr. Christie appointed as chairman of the Board of Commissioners.
Mr. Christie's advisers said they anticipate the controversy will be short-lived.