Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
Embattled by scandal and blamed for a slow Sandy recovery, Gov. Christie returned to a forum that he has tapped for populist strength during the first years of his governorship: The town hall meeting.
At a VFW hall in Port Monmouth, near the Shore so devastated by Sandy, Christie began more softly than normal but gradually injected his remarks with humor and charm. Despite a few hecklers at the start, and protesters outside with “Resign Christie,” after 90 minutes he seemed to have won over the crowd – his quips brought huge bursts of laughter and his response to 3-year-old Nicole Mariano, who said her “house is still broken,” elicited awwwws.
“We’re going to get your house fixed,” Christie declared.
Yes, Christie said, he knows that Sandy relief dollars have not gone out to victims as quickly as some may have hoped – but that’s not his administration’s fault. New Jersey did not get enough money from the federal government, which is plagued with bureaucratic rules and delays.
“What happens when you deal with the federal government is the red tape is immeasurable,” he said.
First, the National Flood Insurance Program is a mess, he said, and it explains why government shouldn’t be in the business of running insurance. Second, regulations put in place after fraud in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina have meant delays in getting Sandy victims money, while efforts to get waivers have been rejected by the Obama administration, he charged. And despite his own pleadings in the Oval Office, he said, President Obama refused to waive the rule allowing second homeowners to get funds.
Finally, Christie said, Congress still deserves blame for delaying approval of a Sandy aid package so money didn’t start flowing until the Memorial Day after the October 2012 storm.
Drawn by the scandals enveloping the Christie administration in recent weeks, national TV cameras descended on the town hall meeting. But to the surprise of reporters and to the evident relief of his communications team, not a single question about Bridgegate was asked.
There were protesters outside, though, and a woman inside sat quietly with a RESIGN CHRISTIE sign.
Some victims blame his administration for the slow trickle of funds, or for grant applications inexplicably denied, but Christie turned their ire on the federal government and directed them to talk to his cabinet members, who were on hand answering questions.
He made only subtle references to his own culpability, and he didn’t address accusations that his administration has not been transparent in how it selects grant recipients.
“We need to be patient,” Christie said. “[But] it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying harder every day to be do better.”
The governor evaded a direct question about why the largest contractor in charge of getting people back in their homes, HGI, was fired in December and given a $10.5 million settlement to walk away. Christie officials have refused to explain what happened, and while Christie indicated performance issues with the company, he wouldn’t answer the question directly.
That elicited a response from a heckler: “Answer the question!”
“I am answering the question,” he said.
Christie repeatedly tried to assure victims that he felt their pain.
“I’m Debbie from Brick and I just wanna go home,” said one woman who has been wait-listed for grants that she could use to rebuild her demolished home.
“And I’m Chris the governor and I want you to go home,” he responded.