TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is holding town hall meetings in Republican-controlled areas, renewing attacks on public employees and avoiding settings where reporters could ask about scandals that have hobbled the start of his second term and question his viability to run for president.
Christie’s new game plan comes as federal and legislative investigations threaten to drag on for months. Authorities are looking into twin scandals - an alleged plot to manufacture traffic jams as political retribution by Christie loyalists and alleged threats by two members of his Cabinet to hold up a riverfront city’s storm recovery funds unless its mayor approved a favored redevelopment project.
“He’s trying to go back to the old game plan, the game plan that established him as the national figure that he is,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who many say hopes to succeed Christie as governor. “It doesn’t surprise me - it worked once.”
Christie, 51, who may run for president in 2016, has not answered reporters’ questions since a marathon Jan. 9 press conference that was all about the unfolding plot to back up traffic at the George Washington Bridge, perhaps to punish a Democratic adversary.
Since then, there have been allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that members of Christie’s administration sought to trade Superstorm Sandy recovery money for approval of a mixed-use development, suggestions that the administration leveraged other storm allocations, and accusations that Christie’s chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, real estate lawyer David Samson, used his public position to benefit private clients.
Christie and Samson, through spokespeople, have denied all those allegations.
Christie ignored questions shouted by reporters as he shuttled last month among private fundraising events in Chicago and Texas on behalf of the Republican Governors Association. On his monthly radio show on Wednesday, Christie grew annoyed when the host broached the traffic jams.
“You folks are the only people at the moment who are asking me about this,” Christie said. “The public understands there are a lot of public issues that confront the state. I will be damned if I let any of this stuff get in the way of doing my real job.”
Since he resumed holding town hall meetings two weeks ago, the scandals have not been raised by anyone in the audience.
As he was rushed from the first event to a waiting SUV, Christie said he was not surprised.
“People care about real problems,” he said.
Political science professor Brigid Harrison concurs- to a point.
“There is a recognition on the part of most New Jerseyans that the governor is not willing to discuss Bridgegate in a meaningful fashion, so asking any questions would provide him with an opportunity to either joke or defuse,” said Harrison, of Montclair University.
Six public opinion polls taken after the bridge scandal erupted last month - with revelations that a Christie aide gave the go-ahead for the lane closings - show one-third to one-half or more of the respondents do not believe Christie is being completely honest about his knowledge of the bridge incident.
On the town hall circuit, however, he does not face such skepticism, especially in strong Republican areas, or on his radio show, where callers have not asked about traffic jams or the distribution of Sandy aid.
“His ability to communicate with a relatively small audience in person is magnificent,” said Harrison, who had witnessed some of Christie’s 111 town hall meetings. “He’s very comfortable in this environment and he emerges with very positive ratings.”
The positive coverage by local media is a welcome diversion from the scandal as well, she said.
Even in GOP country, however, the events have not been free of confrontation. A smattering of protesters greeted the governor in Middletown and Long Hill, and Christie was heckled briefly at each of the events.
By and large, however, “in a very Republican area, you get the response you want,” says Sweeney.
Sweeney, who has often worked cooperatively with Christie, was a key ally when the Legislature approved sweeping pension and health benefits changes over vehement objections of public worker unions. The changes forced public employees to pay more for benefits and helped Christie cement a national reputation as a blunt-talking governor who was not intimidated by the unions.
Now, amid a difficult budget year and facing potentially serious political difficulties, Christie says the sacrifices weren’t enough.
In his budget speech on Tuesday, he said retiree costs and debt obligations have a stranglehold on the budget, consuming all but a fraction of new revenue in the next fiscal year. At the next day’s town hall, he said he intends to loosen that grip, even if it means taking “more extreme measures,” which he hasn’t specified. He got no argument from the crowd of 525, most of them Republicans.
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said more town halls are being planned so the governor “can hear directly from his constituents about the important issues” like Sandy recovery and retiree costs.
Regardless of Christie’s motives for trying to engage public workers again, many Democrats including Sweeney say the issue is a nonstarter.
New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer says the most recent actuarial report shows the pension fund on a path to long-term fiscal health - so long as the state continues to contribute its share after years of skipping or skimping on payments.
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