New Jersey

Yes, It Is ‘That' Bridget Kelly on Some New Jersey Ballots This Election Day

The people of Bergen County initially got to know Bridget Kelly as part of a small group of Republican political operatives behind the infamous 2013 Bridgegate scandal; the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out her conviction

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Voting in New Jersey this Election Day? There are more than a few critical -- and highly publicized -- races, for sure. You're choosing whether to stick with the same governor or go another way. The state Senate and Assembly seats are up for grabs.

You've got a few ballot questions to consider. And you've got Bergen County clerk.

It's not quite head of state. And it's not a state position. It could be easy for some to overlook the county clerk post, which involves administration of a wide array of services like document filing and recording, passport processing, electoral supervision and more. But if you look at your ballot, you won't overlook the name.

Yes, it is that Bridget Kelly -- of 2013 "Bridgegate" infamy during her time with the former Chris Christie administration. The 49-year-old mother of four and former deputy chief of staff to then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie had said in 2019 she was a George Washington Bridge scandal scapegoat and wanted to still serve.

Consider Bergen County clerk her first step at an ambitious political resurrection.

Kelly announced her intent to run for the elected position in late January. She handily won the Republican primary for Bergen County clerk in June, even earning 40% more votes than the party's nominee for governor, reported.

She faces incumbent John Hogan, a Democrat seeking his third term who announced his reelection campaign in March with the George Washington Bridge as a backdrop. (Track election results live here once the polls close at 8 p.m.)

The U.S. Supreme Court a year and a half ago tossed Kelly's conviction for conspiring to create gridlock to punish a mayor who wouldn't endorse her boss. She had been weeks away from reporting to federal prison when that happened.

Christie was never charged in the case. And Kelly has said she doesn't mind talking about the scandal now.

“I have nothing to hide from ‘Bridgegate’ at all. I am happy to discuss it at length,” Kelly said in a July interview on her candidacy. “I also think people are tired of it. And I do think that people, if I talk to them, they kind of start to like me and they know I’m as genuine as you’re going to be.”

Her campaign to become the county clerk, an official responsible for handling the mundane but important transactions of daily life — liens, mortgages, passports, photo cards for veterans, naturalization records — could test the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

“She must have near-universal name recognition, which is an asset that cannot be overvalued in a low-profile race like this one,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the nonpartisan Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“The key question is whether the countywide electorate, which skews heavily Democratic, is willing to do what she’s asking them to do: Look past the single thing they know about her,” he added.

Kelly has lived most of her life in Bergen County, which is also home to Fort Lee.

Former gubernatorial aide Bridget Kelly takes questions and reacts to seeing former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the Supreme Court heard arguments on the 2013 Bridgegate scandal.

Her rebranding as a career public servant who got caught up in something she didn’t fully understand is at odds with the narrative presented by prosecutors: a willing conspirator who was in on the scheme from the outset and reacted with seeming glee when gridlock ensued.

Not surprisingly, her supporters choose the first version.

“She got thrown under the bus,” Mahwah resident Cary Grobstein said at a June fundraiser for Kelly. “She picked herself up off the mat, got up and started swinging, after what she went through. Everybody deserves a second chance.”

That take doesn’t sit well with Democrat Mark Sokolich, who still serves as Fort Lee's mayor.

“I have forgiven her and hope she moves on with her life,” Sokolich said. “But you don’t close down the busiest bridge in the world, jeopardize the safety of tens of thousands of people and, as a result, get some recognition and use that name recognition to run for a constitutional, county-wide position.”

Hogan, meanwhile, has served at multiple levels of local government and comes from a family whose involvement in politics stretches back more than 80 years. He contends Kelly's past conduct should be a disqualifier.

“If I was a voter, I wouldn’t even consider her for a spot after what happened with the bridge,” Hogan said.

For Kelly, it's a simple matter of moving on.

“If I was trying to hide anything and I really wanted to run away from ‘Bridgegate,’ I don’t know if I’d put myself out in the public again,” she said this summer. “It will never leave me. Never. It will always be there. But it’s time for me to get back my life back.”

In the closing hours of New Jersey’s campaign for governor, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy is travelling the state touting the progressive accomplishments during his first term and Republican Jack Ciattarelli is also on tour railing against high property taxes and mask mandates in schools. NBC New York's Anjali Hemphill reports.
Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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