This past September, two lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge were closed down for four days, turning the town of Fort Lee into New Jersey's largest parking lot. When Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich asked for an explanation, he was told the closures were the result of a traffic study.
In November, The New Jersey Star-Ledger obtained a letter sent by the mayor to Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni, on September 12, day four of the lane closings. In the letter, Sokolich asserted that the lane closures were punitive, implying that they were the result of Sokolich's refusal to endorse Governor Christie's re-election effort.
Yesterday, subpoenaed emails and texts relating to the controversy confirmed Sokolich's suspicions. The emails reveal a conspiracy between Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein to cause traffic problems in Fort Lee:
David Wildstein wrote, in reference to Sokolich:
Here's what you need to know about the Croatian (not Serbian) mayor of Fort Lee:
1. He Was Orphaned at 13
In a friendly interview with the Fort Lee Dispatch, from December 2011 Sokolich explains that not only has he lived in Fort Lee all his life, but that he was literally raised by the community, after both his father and mother died within one year of each other when he was 13:
He said, “Fort Lee treated me like a surrogate son.”
If he stepped out of line, a friend’s parent or a neighbor would step in to set him straight. It is this unique historical relationship with the community that fuels his commitment to public service.
2. He Was Elected Mayor in 2007
Sokolich served as a town council member for four years, until being elected mayor in 2007, following the sudden death of incumbent mayor Jack Alter. As mayor, Sokolich has worked to balance the small town's budget through eliminating 40 city employee positions, and raising $1 million in revenue through an "ambulance co-pay" program. He also oversaw the "Area 5" development project, which is set to erect two 47-story glass towers with 900 luxury rental apartments, along with a public park, movie theater and museum.
According to a bio on Forbes, Sokolich is a member of the Fort Lee Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, and is the founder of the Fort Lee Flag Football Association.
3. Sokolich Played College Basketball at Rutgers
At Fort Lee High School, he was an All-State basketball player and collected many scholarship offers before breaking his ankle and seeing those scholarships withdrawn. After graduating in 1981, Sokolich went to Rutgers, where he tried out for the Scarlet Knights as a walk-on and wound up with a full basketball scholarship from the university.
4. Sokolich Is Only a Part-Time Mayor
The mayoralty of Fort Lee is a part-time position, and Sokolich divides his time between the mayor's office and his own law firm "Sokolich and Macri,"which he founded in 1998. As an attorney, Sokolich's specialty is banking law. His firm has primarily represented banking clients who need legal assistance for closing commercial and residential real-estate closings.
Fort Lee is a town of 35,345 people, and has a median household income of $72, 341.
5. Sokolich Told Christie Not to Visit Fort Lee
— HuffPost Politics (@HuffPostPol) January 9, 2014
In a marathon press conference on the lane closures this morning, Governor Christie announced plans to visit Fort Lee to offer the town a formal apology for the lane closures fiasco:
Later today I'm going to be going to Fort Lee, asked to meet with the mayor to apologize to him personally, face to face, and also to apologize to the people of Fort Lee in their town. I think they need to see me do that personally, and I intend to do that later on today.
However, Sokolich told MSNBC early this afternoon that he'd prefer the governor not visit Fort Lee, emphasizing that he did not mean to slight the governor, but that he felt a visit would be more appropriate once an investigation into the matter was further along:
JUST IN: Mayor of Ft. Lee, town disrupted by lane closures, tells Christie not to visit today
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 9, 2014
Last night, on MSNBC, when asked to respond to Wildstein's description of him as a "little Serbian," he replied "David Wildstein needs his ass kicked":