Christie In Public But Still Private As He Doesn't Address Media At Appearances

The Record ( — Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Record

In the nearly two months since Governor Christie held a marathon news conference pertaining to the lane-closure scandal at the George Washington Bridge, the governor has appeared at events across the state and traveled the country to raise money for Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Through three town-hall-style events in Republican strongholds, the introduction of his budget for the coming fiscal year, promotion of the Super Bowl and fundraising trips for the Republican Governors Association, Christie has managed to avoid questions about the growing scandal.

The governor hasn't fielded media inquiries since that Jan. 9 press conference, when he announced he had fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff who sent the now-infamous email, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," to a Christie appointee at the Port Authority.

In the interim, a liberal watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint against David Samson, whom Christie appointed as chairman of the Port Authority board; Christie's involvement in the 2011 toll hikes imposed by the agency has come into question; and the governor has hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an internal investigation while the U.S. Attorney's Office and a legislative panel also look into the lane closures. Questions also have been raised about the state's use of federal Superstorm Sandy aid and why the contractor hired to administer a housing grant program was fired in December.

Christie has not commented on any of those topics.

Outside Tuesday's town hall event in Toms River, nearly two dozen protesters, organized by the liberal advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, called on the Republican governor and Samson to resign. The Record has reported that Samson's law firm, which also has a lobbying arm, has benefited from several Port Authority projects, including one the board chairman initially voted for but later recused himself on.

"It's not business as usual anymore — the bungled Sandy aid, the terrible budget situation and then the corruption that has come to light with the bridge scandal," said Ann Vardeman, Citizen Action's associate director of organizing and advocacy. "People should be outraged."

But inside the clubhouse of the Holiday City-Berkeley retirement community in Toms River — a town where Christie garnered 13,000 more votes than his Democratic opponent for governor last year — there was no mention of the controversy. Residents in the storm-battered communities, where many lots sit vacant after dilapidated homes were knocked down, focused on the rebuilding efforts.

Christie spoke about the hurdles homeowners must overcome to qualify for federal aid, and he said New Jersey has been quicker to use funds to help rebuild homes than neighboring New York, which also saw significant damage from the storm. But he said there won't be enough aid to help everyone.

"They don't issue magic wands to governors, I wish they did," he said. "And they don't give us the checkbook; the federal government keeps the checkbook and they put all these different regulations into place that you have to follow or else you don't get the federal money, and these things are incredibly frustrating."

Carol Davis of Toms River is one of the residents hoping to get federal aid when the state submits its proposal for the second round of funds this month. Lacking flood insurance, she was able to rebuild with the help of volunteers and by raiding her retirement fund. If she doesn't get grants to elevate her newly renovated home, however, she'll have to move, she said.

Davis asked Christie whether state officials could mail specific information about grant deadlines and estimated award dates to keep residents better informed. She told him state officials didn't show up for a scheduled meeting with her and have yet to return her phone call.

Christie criticized the federal government, as he has repeatedly, for delaying its approval of disaster relief, but he also told attendees the state had launched 50 programs to help residents and business recover from the storm and that it wouldn't get everything right the first time.

"Our folks need to do a better job, too," he said. "I never promised you, nor would I, that this was going to be mistake-free. We're setting up a whole separate government, in essence, to run these programs, and it's hard."

Several residents in attendance complained the checks they received do not cover the cost to repair their homes.

The governor was critical of the National Flood Insurance Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the federal government should get out of the insurance business.

Of the 10 questions Christie fielded, only two were unrelated to the storm. One was about how the Affordable Care Act would affect senior citizens on Medicare. When Christie suggested voters elect a new president, the majority of people in the room stood up and applauded.

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