New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in the first town-hall meeting since a political scandal about traffic erupted in his administration, blamed the federal government for holding up the distribution of billions of dollars in Hurricane Sandy aid.
The 51-year-old Republican and potential presidential candidate focused on storm recovery as he spoke to a crowd of about 300 people in Middletown Township near the Jersey Shore. While no one asked him about the intentional lane closings at the George Washington Bridge in September, Christie faced the wrath of audience members who accused him of dodging questions about aid delays.
“I don’t control the checkbook,” Christie said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. “I’m not the king of New Jersey. I’m just the governor.”
The meeting was the 110th since he took office in 2010 and the first since his January decision to cut ties with two aides who prompted four days of lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, which clogged the town of a mayor who didn’t endorse him. The matter is being probed by the U.S. Attorney’s office and lawmakers in Trenton.
The governor has used the town halls to highlight the response to Sandy that earned him record approval ratings last year as he sought re-election. He beat his Democratic opponent in November by 22 percentage points.
The bridge affair has since taken a toll on his ratings in New Jersey as well as nationally. In a Quinnipiac University poll released today, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, topped him in a possible 2016 match-up by 49 percent to 36 percent among voters in the swing state of Ohio. The two were essentially tied in a November survey.
Today’s meeting, rescheduled twice because of snow, was peppered with people wearing anti-Christie t-shirts and a group of environmentalists carrying signs urging him to oppose the acceptance of any gas-fracking waste. One woman held up a sign saying “Resign Christie.”
At one point, an audience member praised Christie for honoring a promise to assist his 86-year-old mother in the wake of Sandy, saying the governor gave the family “no bulls--t.” Christie then referred to him as the “no bulls--t guy” and said to the room, “Aren’t you glad I called on the guy in camo?”
The session had none of the strobe lights, prepared films or music that were at many of Christie’s past town halls, including the 109th that was in June. Christie opened the event with a 15-minute speech -- about half the length of his usual monologue -- and most residents stuck to the topic of Sandy. The governor took off his suit jacket for the question-and-answer period and remained in the center of the room.
The storm, which made landfall near Atlantic City in October 2012, killed 38 people in New Jersey and left 2.7 million households in the state without power. Flooding crippled mass transit while waves and gales tore up boardwalks and beach towns along the 127-mile (200-kilometer) coast.
It proved to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Christie estimated it would take $36.9 billion to repair the damage and prepare the state for the next hurricane.
Of the first $1.83 billion round of federal aid for Sandy relief, $1.03 billion has been or is in the process of being distributed, according to a statement from the governor’s office. The second round totals $1.5 billion, while New Jersey faces more than $19 billion of unmet needs, the office said in the statement.
“My job here is to tell you the truth, whether it’s happy or unhappy,” Christie said.
The governor brought several cabinet-level commissioners to the 90-minute meeting, and they remained after he left to answer residents’ questions.
“I hate to see the buck passed to FEMA, the White House and Congress,” said Donald Yacavone, 67, a registered Democrat and mortgage broker from Ocean Township. “As usual, more questions remain to be asked than he answered. You can’t just say it was because the feds did this, or Congress did this. He needs to say more.”
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