WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
One morning this week, the American Legion Hall in Hackettstown was packed with a standing room only crowd that spilled outside. Everyone was waiting for Governor Chris Christie. Hackettstown, near the Delaware River, is a rural hub that still has a live animal auction. Almost half of its downtown storefronts are vacant. It's also solid Republican territory.
Christie knew he would have the crowd with him when he lowered the boom on the Democratic legislature for not passing his so-called "tool kit," that includes civil service reform to help local governments keep labor costs down.
But Christie says lawmakers are wasting time on legislative trivia.
"I introduced those bills in May and they said don't worry, Governor. We'll get them done," Christie said. "Then it was September, than October and now we have just 29 days left."
"And it's not like they're not doing somethings," Christie said mockingly. "S1643 was heard recently, one of my favorites. This requires that all cats and dogs released from shelters and pounds be sterilized with certain exceptions and establish penalties for non-compliance. Forget about property taxes, forget about pension and benefit reform. For God's sake, don't go near education reform."
He tossed out a couple other examples, slipping into a kind of Lewis Black pace that gets a bigger laugh each time.
There is never a script at these Christie town halls. He works the crowd like a right-wing Oprah. There's self-effacing humour about his appearance, but there's also a kind of intimacy and a spontaneous conversational quality that keeps the audience engaged.
Christie contrasted the health care plan he had as a federal employee when he was United States Attorney and what he's now entitled to as the governor. As a federal worker, he says he paid roughly a third of the cost of his health care premium, but as a state employee, he had to kick in just a fraction of that.
He said under the state's program, enrollees had little incentive to try and keep costs down. Federal workers, by contrast, "had skin in the game" and so would look for whatever health plan option gave their family the best value because they were responsible for part of the price tag. He said the current state plan was not sustainable.
When it was time for the question-and-answer portion of the program, dozens of questioners quickly lined up at the microphone.
One of the first to take the floor was home-schooled nine-year old Hunter Gallo. "My question is would you consider giving a tax break to home-schoolers that pay school tax but don't use the school?"asked Gallo.
"First of all, I am glad to know that your statistics are right," confirmed Christie. "Here is the thing, we have to reform the entire way that schools are funded in New Jersey but my first job is to try and make sure the money that we are spending already is spent better than it is. And so my answer to you is maybe. Just like your parents probably say to you all the time: maybe, we'll see, " Christie said.
Morris County police officer Bill Beck questioned Christie about the status of the state pension funds, which are underfunded by tens of billions of dollars.
"I have been a police officer in Morris County for 20 years so you know where I am coming from," Beck said. Christie told him that both parties have had a hand in the pension crisis. He admitted his own party passed a nine percent hike in pensions in 2001 that was never funded.
"The bill was passed — advocated for by the unions, passed by the Republican legislature, signed by Governor DiFrancesco, and a nine percent increase was given to all public employees without any income stream to pay for it," Christie asserted.
Christie took note that police officers and firefighters across the state had continued to paid 8 percent annually into their pension plans, while other public employees paid much less. He said in order to prevent the state pension system from going broke by 2020, public employees had to increase their contribution to their retirement up to 8 percent as well.
"But there's a way you could open up that dialogue?" Beck asked him.
"That's why I am here," responded Chrisitie. "That's why I have been all over the state."
One speaker took the governor to task for being unfair to the state's teachers. Christie took exception and said his critique was of the teacher's union, not their rank and file.
At the end of the town hall meeting, Christie said he wanted to offer the crowd some insight into his character. He said it would be more reliable than what he called the "psycho-babble" in the press about what makes him tick.
"I have an Irish father, and this will explain even more to you, a Sicilian mother," said Christie to laughs and applause from the audience. "She never allowed anything to be unsaid between us on any day. She didn't like something, she told you. She thought something you did was great, she'd told you,"recounted Christie.
Christie said while he was still U.S. Attorney, he was on the road in California when he got word from his family that his mother was near death.
"And so I took the red-eye home from San Diego and arrived at the hospital, " recalled Christie. "And she said 'what are you doing here?' And I said, 'I came to visit you' and she reached out and grabbed my hand and said, 'Go to work, that's where you belong. There is nothing left unsaid between us.'"
"Now, that will tell you everything you need to know about me. That's the woman I came from," he said.
Christie chose not to speak with reporters at the town hall meeting. Officer Beck said he felt he had a real exchange with the governor, but thought Chrsitie needed to do more to reach out to the state's public employees who, Beck says, often get bashed by a poorly informed public.
He said recent media reports about local police officers making six figures had led the public to believe that all muncipal departments get paid that well. "The public doesn't know that each police department has seperate contracts" with the local Mayor and Council said Beck.
"I have been fearful that the pension is not going to be there someday and I would rather making changes now and know that there is one," conceded Beck. "Now, I don't feel the whole burden should be put on my back. But I am willing to contribute more to my health care and I am willing to contribute more my into my pension. What else could you want from me?"
Beck's not the only anxious public employee. Thanks to the flat economy and weak revenues scores of municipalities are grappling with the prospect of layoffs. This week, New Jersey's Democratic legislative leaders pushed back on Christie charge that they were not making progress on his "tool kit."
In a statement, Assembly Speaker Shelia Olive countered that 22 of the Governor's 33 tool kit proposals were introduced and that it was the governor's staff that had failed to add details on what some of the reforms would cost to implement.
Municipal officials from both parties are caught in the middle. They say without Christie's cost-cutting reforms, the combination of the new 2 percent property tax cap and higher employee benefit costs could mean significant layoffs would be the only way to balance their books.