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Christie Holds 100th Town Hall as Sandy Shapes Message

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
During each town-hall meeting, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie talks for as long as an hour, then invites questions from the audience, warning: “If you give it, you’re going to get it right back.” Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds his 100th town-hall meeting as he uses the gatherings to highlight the response to Hurricane Sandy that has earned him record approval ratings in a re-election year.

The event tomorrow at a church in Manahawkin, a shore town hit by the Oct. 29 storm, occurs more than two years after the first-term Republican sparred with a teacher over school-aid reductions at his second such meeting. That squabble, recorded by his office, spread over the Web, helping to build Christie’s national profile as a tough-talking budget cutter.

For Christie, the meetings are part voter meet-and-greet and part bully pulpit performances as he uses them to pitch his agenda to mostly friendly crowds and grab television news coverage. He may find them crucial as he seeks a second term with New Jersey’s jobless rate almost 2 percentage points above the U.S. figure and tax revenue missing his targets.

“It allows him to control his message,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “He gets to go to these 100 meetings and he gets to tell his story the way he wants to tell it.”

Christie, 50, who took office in January 2010, began his town-hall meeting tour that September at a boathouse on Packanack Lake in Wayne. He has traveled to all 21 New Jersey counties, holding about three town halls a month, on average.

Boardwalks, Churches

During each event, he talks for as long as an hour, then invites questions from the audience, warning: “If you give it, you’re going to get it right back.”

William Brown, a Rutgers University law student and former Navy SEAL, didn’t heed the advice. During a Roebling town hall in March, he and Christie got into a heated exchange over the governor’s plan to restructure higher education. The argument ended with Christie calling Brown an idiot, and police escorting the Iraq war veteran out.

Brown, a Democrat who lost a state Assembly race in 2009, later apologized, and in an October interview in Esquire, Christie said he shouldn’t have called Brown an idiot.

“Very rarely do I have second thoughts about something I said,” Christie told the magazine. “But one time I would have dialed it back was with the Navy SEAL.”

Teacher Scuffle

Christie hasn’t expressed such regret over his fight with Marie Corfield, the elementary-school art teacher who rolled her eyes at a September 2010 town hall as the governor began to address her complaints about his cuts. He told Corfield to sit down if she planned “to put on a show.” The nine-minute video of their squabble is the most popular of those posted on his page, with 1.2 million views.

Corfield, of Raritan Township, said confrontations are what have made the events so popular, just as they have for reality shows “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives.” The unscripted gatherings aren’t “town-hall meetings in the true sense of the term,” she said.

The meetings are rarely held at night, when most residents can go, which limits the variety of people who attend them, she said. Also, Christie controls the microphone -- and the message, she said.

“They are taxpayer-funded campaign rallies,” said Corfield, 53, who lost an Assembly campaign as a Democratic candidate after her confrontation with Christie. “If you go to talk about anything other than what he wants to talk about, you’re either escorted out or shot down.”

‘Pressing Issues’

Christie, speaking to reporters yesterday in Bradley Beach, said the town-hall gatherings aren’t campaign events. The doors open on a first-come, first-served basis and participants aren’t screened or weeded out, he said. He pointed to run-ins with critics as proof.

“I don’t go there and advocate for people to vote for me,” Christie said. “I go there and answer their questions and talk about the issues, and talk about whatever I see as the most important and pressing issues in the state at that time.”

The theme of the meetings change to reflect the proposals he is pushing. For most of 2011, he focused on ethics, pension and education changes. Last year he switched to a “Jersey Comeback” message, telling constituents the state could afford a 10 percent income-tax cut. After lawmakers blocked that move, he switched to an “Endless Summer Tax Relief Tour,” urging lawmakers to return to Trenton during a recess to reduce levies.

Sandy Focus

After Sandy, which left 2.7 million residents without power, crippled mass transit and leveled beach towns and boardwalks, Christie’s message has been all about the storm.

For weeks in November, Christie appeared daily for televised recovery briefings, surveying damage with President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and hugging victims amid the ruins. He devoted his Jan. 8 State of the State speech to Sandy and both town-hall meetings since the storm have been on recovery.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, have said Christie is using Sandy to avoid focusing on other issues, including a jobless rate that has been above 9 percent since he took office and a legislative analyst’s predictions that revenue may fall $700 million short of his targets for this fiscal year.

Christie’s approval rating jumped to 77 percent after Sandy, from 56 percent before, according to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. In their survey, released Jan. 7, his voter-approval rating was at 73 percent, including 62 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of independents.

‘Most Fascinating’

Barbara Walters, the ABC News personality, last month named Christie one of her “10 Most Fascinating People.” He was featured this month on the cover of Time magazine, which called him the “master of disaster.”

Christie said on Nov. 26 he will seek a second term to oversee the $36.9 billion job of rebuilding. He said today that he will forgo public matching funds for the June primary campaign after raising $2.1 million through December. That’s more than eight times as much as state Senator Barbara Buono, the only Democrat so far to declare her candidacy, has raised.

Gubernatorial candidates that accept matching funds in New Jersey are limited to spending $5.6 million through June. During his 2009 run, Christie accepted $3.1 million of public money for the primary and spent $5.3 million during that period, according to state elections data.

Media Market

Christie needs the town-hall gatherings to spread his message because New Jersey has no major television or radio stations of its own, said Brigid Harrison, who teaches law and politics at Montclair State University. Most residents get their news from broadcasters in New York or Pennsylvania, which give less coverage to New Jersey issues, she said.

“The town halls are akin to the Sunday talk show circuit at the national level,” Harrison said. “We don’t have anything like that in New Jersey, so to get the media you go to where they are.”

There was a nine-week gap between Christie’s 98th town-hall meeting, on Oct. 25 in Warren County, and his 99th, on Dec. 20, as he focused on Sandy. At the last one, in Belmar, a shore town ravaged by the storm, he told about 500 people in a municipal gym that the state would rebuild stronger than before.

Belmar resident Rick Adase, 65, a registered Democrat and retired New York school administrator who voted against Christie in 2009, said he isn’t sold on supporting the governor’s re-election because of the open spats with teachers and public unions. Still, he said Christie’s town-hall model is something politicians at all levels should follow.

“Their job is to run the country the way the American people want it to be run,” Adase said.

Voter Connection

Christie isn’t the first or only politician to use the open meeting format. Rick Snyder held them in 2010 while running for Michigan governor. Iowa’s Terry Branstad announced 14 such gatherings on education in August and September, scheduling as many as four in one day. Republican Mary Fallin of Oklahoma had a Sept. 26 Tulsa town hall on schools, with free lunch.

Former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, who was a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. co-chairman and U.S. senator before winning the state’s highest office, held town-hall meetings to explain his proposal to raise highway tolls 800 percent. The Democrat stopped about halfway through a schedule for 21 of the events after polls showed him failing to win support from voters. Christie defeated his re-election bid in 2009.

“Corzine in so many ways was an aloof figure and he was even like that in the Senate -- he never really made a connection with voters,” Cook’s Duffy said.

‘Hot and Sexy’

Christie has shown a softer side at the town-hall meetings, including at a Garfield gathering in May, when he wrote an excuse note for 11-year-old Peter Schwarz from Point Pleasant, who had skipped school to attend. During a March 2011 event in Hopatcong, the married father of four, who has acknowledged being overweight, was caught off guard when a female questioner told him he was “hot and sexy.”

The governor said the events are “a way of keeping me in touch with the people who put me in this job.”

“I’m proud to have that level of transparency in my administration and that level of accessibility for people to be able to just show up at a gymnasium, at a school or at a community center in their town and have the opportunity to ask me a question flat out and face-to-face,” he said.

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