On Feb. 16, Governor Chris Christie swooped down near MetLife Stadium in a $12.5 million state police helicopter to celebrate the announcement that WrestleMania, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.’s biggest annual event, would come to New Jersey next year.
The 36-minute chopper trip from Ewing to East Rutherford, which saved Christie about an hour of travel time, cost about $1,500, based on the hourly charge. It was his sixth flight in less than two weeks, following trips for events that included a Manhattan speech to a pro-Israel group, a Super Bowl championship rally for the New York Giants and a public meeting in Caldwell, where he urged towns to cut costs.
Christie, 49, a first-term Republican who has slashed lawmakers’ spending requests and criticized officials who abuse taxpayer-funded perks, has more than tripled his use of state helicopters since June, when Democrats chided him for using the aircraft to get to political and personal events.
“I am not going to be, with four children, driving around this state at 90 miles an hour trying to make stuff, and put my life at risk and put the life of other people at risk,” Christie told reporters yesterday in Bridgewater. “When it’s appropriate to use the helicopter, I will.”
The governor, whose approval rating reached a high of 59 percent this month, took 64 helicopter rides over the nine months through February, averaging a trip every four days, according to flight logs released under an Open Public Records Act request. During his first 16 months as governor, he took 33 flights, averaging once every two weeks.
The trips over the fifth-smallest U.S. state included Jersey Shore tourism stops, hurricane damage tours and a news conference to kick off National Health Center Week.
Christie’s flights in the nine months included five stops at his house in Mendham or at a vacation home the state owns for governors’ use at Island Beach State Park. Each is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the statehouse in Trenton.
In all, Christie’s helicopter trips have cost at least $217,700 since he took office in January 2010, according to the flight logs. Of that, $1,741 was reimbursed by the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Republican state committees for two political trips, and an undetermined amount for a third flight was paid for by Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Christie’s travel increased as his national profile rose, first as a possible presidential contender and then as a Romney endorser and fundraiser.
Christie, whose state ranked 40th in economic health in the fourth quarter in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index, has gained a reputation as a cost cutter. He has asked public workers to cede benefits as part of “shared sacrifice” in trimming the size of government. When he signed a $29.7 billion budget in June, he vetoed $1 billion added by Democrats for schools, police and tax credits for the working poor.
The governor drew criticism from Democrats who control the Legislature after he flew by state helicopter to his son Andrew’s May 31 high school baseball game in Montvale. Christie then rode via chopper to Princeton for a meeting with Iowa Republican Party donors who wanted him to run for president.
In a Bloomberg New Jersey poll conducted less than a month after the incident referred to as “Choppergate” by CNN’s Piers Morgan, 70 percent of residents disagreed with Christie using a helicopter to attend the ballgame. He and Republicans in June reimbursed the state about $3,400 for that and another ballgame flight.
“Chris Christie completely misses the point; this isn’t about reimbursement, it’s that even he doesn’t buy in to his own rhetoric about shared sacrifice,” State Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski said in a statement at the time.
Taxpayers bear no additional expense for transporting governors because the crew flies routinely for training or security missions, State Police Lieutenant Stephen Jones said in a March 26 telephone interview. The choppers cost $2,500 an hour to operate, according to Jones.
Republican Tom Corbett, Christie’s counterpart in Pennsylvania, which is six times the size of New Jersey, has used a state police helicopter six times since taking office in January 2011, said a spokeswoman, Kelli Roberts. Half of those flights were to inspect flood damage.
Half of Christie’s flights since June involved bill signings, policy announcements, swearing-in ceremonies, speeches and town-hall meetings where he touts “the Jersey Comeback,” an economic-recovery plan fueled by a 10 percent across-the-board income-tax cut.
Christie took three trips related to damage from Hurricane Irene in August and September, the flight logs show. Nine times the aircraft picked up or dropped off Christie in New York City for interviews, receptions and meetings.
“He balances the needs of his job, which never stop, with the reasonable needs of his family,” Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said in an interview. “It’s been a very busy policy year for us. He’s always going to take the car if it fits into his schedule.”
In October, as the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan grieved at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Christie flew there to be by their side. A week later, he met them again in Newark, New Jersey, for the staff sergeant’s funeral.
Crossed Out Names
The state Department of Law and Public Safety, which released the flight logs, blacked out the names of passengers other than Christie and Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. Drewniak gave additional information about each trip’s purpose.
The New Jersey Republican State Committee reimbursed the state $994.97 for Christie’s Dec. 20 trip to New York City, according to Douglass Mayer, a spokesman. The Pennsylvania Republican State Committee paid $746.23 for Christie’s Dec. 9 flight to New York, Valerie Caras, a spokeswoman, said by telephone March 30.
Romney’s campaign reimbursed the state for a Dec. 12 Christie flight to Parsippany, New Jersey, according to information supplied by Drewniak. That evening, Christie hosted Romney’s $500-a-ticket New Jersey campaign kickoff reception at the Parsippany Hilton, according to the Bergen Record.
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney, didn’t reply to two e-mail requests for comment on the Dec. 12 flight, and her voicemail was full.
Guadagno, 52, used the chopper eight times since June, including three Irene flood tours and funerals for a Marine captain and a police officer. During the first 16 months of the administration, she flew once, for a dinner with Irish Republic President Mary McAleese in New York City.
Christie rides in the helicopter far less than did former Democratic Governor James McGreevey, Drewniak said. McGreevey used the helicopters 277 times in his first year in office, while former Governors Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, and Jim Florio, a Democrat, flew hundreds of times a year, the New York Times reported.
Republican Christine Todd Whitman, during her successful campaign to unseat Democratic Governor Jim Florio in 1993, cited his use of the aircraft as an example of government waste. In 2002, McGreevey publicly apologized for using the choppers for 14 non-business flights, and his party reimbursed the state $18,200.
Christie’s predecessor, multimillionaire Democrat Jon Corzine, personally paid for his own air travel. In April 2007, then-Governor Corzine almost died in the accident of a state trooper-driven car traveling 91 miles per hour on the Garden State Parkway. A panel that reviewed the crash suggested that state helicopters be used more often to cut the security and safety risk for a motorcade that traveled about 100,000 miles each year through the country’s most densely populated state.
“We’re a small state, but it’s hard to get everywhere,” Ben Dworkin, director of the David Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said by telephone April 4. “We see these stories in every administration. Political opponents of whoever the sitting governor is will criticize the use, and then they’ll be on the other side when their guy becomes governor.”