Larry Chatzidakis knows cars, he knows roads, and he knows NJ politics. He spent over a decade in the New Jersey legislature, 42 years as an auto dealer, the last three as a Director at the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission, and was an early leader in banning cell phone use while driving. And when it comes to the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal, he does not believe his fellow New Jersey Republican politician Chris Christie – the state’s governor and the party’s potential presidential nominee in 2016 – is guilty of any wrongdoing.
The Bridgegate scandal surfaced on January 8, when the Bergen Record reported that Christie’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly orchestrated the early September closing of numerous lanes on the George Washington Bridge – which connects New Jersey and New York States via Fort Lee and Washington Heights (Upper Manhattan), respectively, purportedly to create a massive traffic jam. Why intentionally cause thousands of motorists to suffer? As payback to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the story goes, because he did not cross party lines and support Christie’s reelection bid (Christie won the election in November by a landslide).
Christie fired Kelly, has denied any prior knowledge of the closings or motive to close them as retaliation tactics, and has agreed to cooperate fully with any and all investigations into the matter.
Though not in the Assembly since 2008 and not close enough to the inside to know for certain, “I do not believe the governor had any prior knowledge or involvement in the bridge closing,” Chatzidakis told TNH.
PIONEER ON MOTORIST SAFETY
A topic concerning motorists about which Chatzidakis does know a great deal about, however, and was a pioneer in leading the charge to pass legislation to support, is safety – namely, in making talking on a cell phone while driving illegal.
“Out of my concern for driver safety,” Chatzidakis said, he introduced the legislation many years ago, long before most states even had such a law on their radars, let alone on the books. “It evolved into a wider concern for driver distractions,” he added – and sure enough, New Jersey eventually expanded the law to prohibit texting while driving, and the state is now a leader in further preventing driver distractions. For instance, a new law that goes into effect in October will increase the fines (now $100) for texting and driving to $200 to $400 for a first offense, $400 to $600 for a second offense, and $600 to $800 and a 90-day driver’s license suspension for the third or subsequent offenses.
Some legislators are following Chatzidakis’ lead and taking things even further. Democratic State Senator Richard Codey wants to ban texting even for motorists stopped at red lights or sitting in traffic, the Star-Ledger reported, and to require the written portion of the state’s driver’s test to include segments about driver distractions.
Codey’s Republican colleague State Senator James Holzapfel wants to permit police officers to Holzapfel confiscate the cellphones of motorists involved in accidents if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the vehicle driver was talking or texting on the phone when the accident occurred, CNN reported.
Though Chatzidakis has not been personally involved with this issue as a legislator for years now, his active pursuit to turn these safeguards into law maintained the momentum until fellow legislators in his state, and throughout the country, got on board and made it happen.
CARS AND POLITICS
Chatzidakis’ passion for driver safety is not by chance. “My family was not in the diner business,” he told TNH. “We owned and operated an Oldsmobile Auto retail establishment for 32 years. I spent a total 42 years in the auto retail business,” Chatzidakis said, and the last three as a Director of Agency Support Services for the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission; he retired from there on New Year’s Eve.
His involvement in politics stemmed from his civic involvement in the community. “I first served 16 years on the Mount Laurel Township Council, 4 years as Mayor. I also served one term (3 years) as Burlington County Freeholder before serving 11 years in the New Jersey Legislature.”
Though he has no intentions of running for office again, Chatzidakis remains involved in politics, currently serving as Republican State Committeeman from Burlington County. He has also served on the Burlington County Board Of Elections.
LARRY, NOT TERRY
“My Greek name is Eleftherios,” Chatzidakis told TNH, but “from what I understand it was my godmother who decided that I should be called Larry because Terry was a girl’s name.” But what about “Chatzidakis?” “My long last name was a benefit to me,” he said. “Politics is about name identification. Obviously, my last name leaves an impression. It also opens up dialogue to speak about my heritage and how to pronounce it. Actually, a reporter wrote an article on the pronunciation of my name.”
His parents emigrated from Athens in 1947, via Caracas and Montreal, before finally settling in Philadelphia in 1955. He is “deeply saddened” about the crisis in Greece, and does not believe the “entitlement culture” is exclusive to his ancestral homeland. We have seen it spread here in the United States, too, he said. In any event, he is hopeful that “the populace can recapture the glory of ancient Greece with economic and cultural reform.”
CNN recently reported that according to the Department of Transportation, approximately 3,000 people were killed and 387,000 injured in 2011 in accidents that involved distracted drivers. As more and more lives are saved by increased enforcement against cell phone use while driving, motorists throughout New Jersey – and to some extent, throughout the rest of the country – have Larry Chatzidakis to thank for creating planting that legislative seed way back when.