The Feb. 26 sentencing of Bill Baroni made national news as one of the final chapters of the years-long Bridgegate saga.
Baroni has been synonymous with Bridgegate for most of the decade now. The plot was hatched as political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Gov. Chris Christie for re-election. Baroni played a key role, as deputy executive director of the Port Authority in September 2013, by closing the local access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge. While many have been assumed to have been involved, Baroni is one of only two people to take the fall in its aftermath.
On Feb. 26, Baroni, now 47, received a sentence of 18 months in federal prison for his role in the scandal. He was scheduled to enter prison this month. It cemented Baroni as a guilty man, a criminal.
Here, in Baroni’s hometown, all of it—the insider scheming, the national infamy, the loss of moral compass and backbone—contradicted the man we knew.
For those that watched Baroni grow up—saw him as a promising student at Reynolds Middle School and Steinert High School—he long seemed destined for great heights. He had a gift for connecting with people, a sharp mind for details. He naturally gravitated toward politics, volunteering for Republicans at the local and state level.
His first attempt for public office was an unsuccessful one, a failed bid for Hamilton Township council in 1999 when he was 27. He returned to the campaign trail four years later, his trademark style mastered in just his second run for office. Baroni did what he was good at—he met people where they were, talked to them, listened. Baroni said he knocked on 10,000 doors during the 2003 campaign. The effort carried him to victory.
In August 2007, the Hamilton Post featured Baroni, then a two-term assemblyman, as he sought election to the state senate. Our reporter spent a day with Baroni, going door-to-door campaigning. Everyone already knew him.
“He’s a man of his word, and he sticks to his character,” one resident said. “He’s not a fake.”
Another Hamilton resident featured in the 2007 piece felt so strongly about Baroni that he hosted a campaign fundraising event for the candidate. The event—which only allowed donations of $10 or less—abided by Baroni’s wishes to keep his campaign clean of undue influence.
“He’s one of the few politicians who are honest,” the resident said. “I’d kill him if he wasn’t, and so would his dad.”
* * * * *
I met Bill Baroni in 2002, in the run up to his successful first campaign for state assembly.
I was a senior at Steinert High School; he came in as a guest speaker to my government class, a program called GALRE. My teacher Doug Martin, as a joke, suggested I wear a “Baroni for Hamilton Council” T-shirt he had from 1999. I did. Baroni noticed and seized on it immediately.
“Thanks, Rob, for reminding me,” Baroni said sarcastically.
During the course of that year, Baroni remembered that moment and more. Like all the other people who came to know Baroni, I appreciated that ability. I worked with and met dozens of politicians during that school year. Baroni was the only one who cared enough to get to know me, or at least the only one smart enough to know a little personal touch goes a long way with voters.
Martin had a requirement for “outside experiences” in GALRE, and when he told us we could get credit volunteering for a campaign, I readily signed up to work for Baroni. I spent evenings stuffing envelopes at his campaign headquarters, and the Trenton Saint Patrick’s Parade giving green balloons with “Inverso/Baroni” stamped on them.
After the parade, Baroni treated his volunteers to pizza at JoJo’s Tavern. He sat down at the table with our group from Steinert High. A graduate of GALRE himself, Baroni knew Martin loved the pies from DeLorenzo’s Pizza, and that Martin went to great lengths to pass the preference on to his students. Baroni took the opportunity to educate the young zealots, debating that JoJo’s was better. It has stuck with me that of all the topics a man in the heat of a campaign could be doing, he chose to talk pizza with a bunch of teenagers too young to vote. Baroni seemed totally at ease.
Six months later, during the Campaign of 10,000 Doors, one of Baroni’s shoe-rubber sessions brought him to my parents’ doorstep. The conversation somehow turned to me, with Baroni asking how I had adjusted to college life during my first semester at Syracuse University. They called me after Baroni left, impressed that he remembered these details. They called him “Bill” in the way they would a longtime friend, not a political candidate they just had met for the first time.
That experience inspired me to write the only thing I’ve ever written in support of a political candidate, a letter to the editor of The Trenton Times. “Believe in Baroni,” The Times headlined it.
Years removed from my life as a piece in the political machine, I received an invitation in August 2011 to receive a tour of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan as a member of the local media. Baroni, the Hamilton guy, had been put in charge of the rebuilding effort. The world watched intensely as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, but it was a personal mission as much as a professional one for Baroni—a Steinert classmate of his, Jeannine Damiani Jones, died in the 2001 attacks.
It had been eight years since I had seen or talked with Baroni. On the day of the tour, he once again remembered my Steinert and Syracuse connections, and joked that one of his press officers was “a Syracuse person” from Hamilton, too.
Baroni hadn’t changed at all. I had become much more cynical than I was in high school, but Baroni really did seem to be the guy I assumed he was in 2002.
He was still two years away from Bridgegate. It’s hard to reconcile the man who gave me that tour—the man I knew—with the guy described in the Bridgegate legal briefs, the one who stood before a panel of state legislators in 2014 and lied that the Fort Lee lane closures were for a traffic study.
Maybe he wasn’t fully entangled in Christie’s political circle yet. Or maybe he was just really skilled at hiding it.
* * * * *
Baroni knew how to give a performance.
Whether he learned from starring in the school musicals as a student at Steinert High or from his years as a law student and later a professor of law, he knew how to speak, how to control an audience.
One such performance marked the beginning of the end for Bill Baroni.
In January 2010, a bill came to the state Senate proposing the legalization of gay marriage. Baroni strongly supported the bill, and spoke in favor of it on the Senate floor. He told a story of two couples, both deeply in love. One of the couples is gay.
“Government says this couple is different, and segregates them from the married couples,” Baroni said in his speech. “And that is textbook, old-fashioned discrimination.”
Times and attitudes have changed some since 2010, but this was a shocking position for any loyal, lifelong Republican and devout Catholic to take.
Baroni was one of 14 state senators—and the lone Republican—to vote for the gay marriage bill. Baroni’s vote flew in the face of Christie’s stated position, just days before the newly elected governor was to assume office. Baroni had crossed party lines at a politically inopportune time.
The marriage equality bill was defeated, but the damage to Baroni had been done. By February, Christie announced Baroni’s move to Port Authority. A newspaper story announcing the change called the two men “old friends.”
To my knowledge, neither Christie or Baroni have ever connected Baroni’s gay marriage vote to his appointment to Port Authority. But the move, even at the time, seemed sudden—and odd.
Just a few years earlier, there had been whispers that Baroni wanted to run for United States Senate. His political star had been rising fast enough to make it more than a far-fetched rumor. And, here, weeks after his most daring vote, that was gone. Baroni’s political career had been put on ice.
At the same time, with the move, Christie and the Republicans opened up a spot in the senate that could have been theirs for as long as Baroni wanted it. Former Hamilton councilman Tom Goodwin warmed Baroni’s seat for 10 months, and then lost a vicious race to Democrat Linda Greenstein. The Dems and Greenstein have held the seat since, with little challenge from the Republicans.
Once Baroni had been filed away in New York, losing touch with the constituents and the Hamilton roots that had guided him for so many years, he was toast. He instead became beholden to Christie, who held the keys to the politically appointed Port Authority position and its $290,000 annual salary.
We know how that worked out.
* * * * *
On Feb. 26, Baroni addressed the court for about five minutes, a piece of paper in his hand, defeated and trembling.
“I always thought I had a clear sense of right and wrong,” he said, according to a report from northjersey.com. “When I went to work for the Port Authority and for Gov. Christie, that line disappeared.”
Baroni described a “cult and culture” that surrounded Christie, voraciously sucking in all those around the governor. It led people, like Baroni, to lose themselves.
“I always tried to help people,” Baroni said, according to northjersey.com. “Here I hurt people.”
This could be the sympathy-seeking mea culpa of a man wanting to save face. And, likely, that is part of the story.
But one look at Christie shows Baroni may not be too far off from the truth.
Bridgegate (and Donald Trump) torpedoed the former governor’s presidential aspirations, but Christie continues to make the rounds. He makes regular TV appearances to promote himself, including a recent spot on The Late Show where he sipped tequila with host Stephen Colbert. During the segment, Christie admitted to believing he would make a better president than the one currently in office, and struggled to explain why he continues to be at the president’s beck and call. Colbert also pointed out the additional absurdity of Christie’s loyalty considering that Christie has been backstabbed, demeaned, belittled and otherwise discarded by the president on multiple occasions. Christie said he does it because Trump is “a friend.”
That answer provides a nifty look into how someone can get sucked into a “cult and culture” even when your morals, your mind and all your prior actions would have led you in a different direction.
While it’s amusing to some to watch Christie become a fool at Trump’s feet, the similar dynamic between the former governor and those loyal to him has a much sadder byproduct. People like Bill Baroni lost touch with their guiding principles out of loyalty to the governor. And, for that, Baroni has lost a teaching job he loved, his political career, his ability to practice law, and—for 18 months—his freedom.
After the initial verdict, Baroni started work campaigning for marriage equality in Ireland, where he holds dual citizenship. He also began volunteering in New York with LGBT youth and immigrants, according to the northjersey.com report.
Baroni started going back to the ground, back to the people. He really has no other choice.
But for those who know Baroni, this is a familiar callback to the man who existed 15 years ago. And it provides hope there’s a chance that man still exists.