New Jersey Governor Chris Christie left the strobe lights home when he resumed his town hall meetings yesterday. The politician, who’s spawned dozens of viral video clips with his confrontations with teachers. lawmakers and even a combat veteran, took it down a notch.
And when he talked over a resident who criticized delays in Hurricane Sandy aid, Christie encountered something unfamiliar during the sessions: resistance. Audience members shouted for him to “answer the question.” The 51-year-old Republican then blamed federal government bureaucracy and said he didn’t “control the checkbook.”
The 90-minute session in Monmouth County near the ocean was Christie’s return to the spotlight in an area he carried overwhelmingly in his first 2009 election and again in November. Hurricane Sandy, the prime topic of the session, buoyed Christie: His approval ratings soared to record levels on his handling of the storm before plunging amid inquiries into alleged political dirty tricks by his administration.
“I hate to see the buck passed,” said Donald Yacavone, 67, a registered Democrat and mortgage broker from Ocean Township who had 16 inches of water in his basement after the storm. “What a lot of this was is just trying to mend fences with not just people in New Jersey, but to mend fences with political contributors and other elected officials nationally.”
The meeting was the 110th since he took office in 2010. It was the first since his January decision to cut ties with two aides who prompted lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, causing traffic jams in 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 had suspended the events shortly before the June primary in order to avoid accusations of state-funded politicking in an election in which 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 yesterday, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, topped him in a hypothetical 2016 match-up by 49 percent to 36 percent among voters in the swing state of Ohio. In a November survey, the two were essentially tied.
“My job here is to tell you the truth whether it’s happy or unhappy,” Christie told about 300 people at the gathering in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown Township. “I’m not the king of New Jersey. I’m just the governor.”
Yesterday’s meeting, rescheduled twice because of snow, was studded with people wearing anti-Christie t-shirts and a group of environmentalists carrying signs urging him to prohibit the state from accepting gas-fracking waste. One woman held up a sign saying “Resign Christie.”
The session had none of the light effects, films or music that were staples of many of Christie’s past town halls. The governor opened the event with a 15-minute speech -- about half the length of his usual monologue -- and most questioners stuck to the topic of Sandy. He removed his suit jacket for the question-and-answer period and stayed in the center of the room.
For Christie, the setting was more familiar than where he’s found himself in the second half of this winter.
Two former aides, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien, have said they won’t comply with subpoenas, and a judge yesterday ordered them to explain themselves. Christie cut ties to Stepien and fired Kelly, who sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, who ordered the closings, replied: “Got it.”
Last month, the governor’s office, re-election campaign and 16 other individuals were ordered by the committee to turn over documents and communications. On Feb. 10, it issued 18 more subpoenas. Members are poring over papers in a private room in the Statehouse Annex in Trenton.
Since apologizing for the episode at a nationally televised, two-hour news conference last month, the governor has kept his public schedule to a minimum.
Christie, who’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, made fundraising trips to Florida and Illinois, in which the candidates for whom he was raising money shunned appearances with him. He spoke to the Economic Club of Chicago on Feb. 11 and said “the last six weeks haven’t been the most of enjoyable of my life, I can guarantee you.”
Patrick Murray, who tracks Christie’s standing as director of the Monmouth University polling institute, said the governor needed to jump back into the public fray.
“He has no choice -- at some point he has to get back in the game or you lose all credibility,” Murray said. “What’s very difficult is knowing exactly when to get back in.”
Christie has already scheduled his next town-hall meeting. It will be held at a community center in Long Hill on Feb. 26, a day after he presents his spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The event is in solidly Republican Morris County, which also includes Christie’s hometown of Mendham.
Not all was doom and gloom yesterday for a governor who roams the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore with markers to accommodate autograph-seekers.
At one point, an audience member in camouflage 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?”