Bridgegate? What Bridgegate?
That seems to be the mentality, or at least the public posture, of both embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and many of the residents attending his recent town hall meetings. The Republican has held three such events in the weeks following e-mails and texts being made public tying Christie’s appointees and associates to lane closures on the George Washington Bridge – seemingly for political retribution.
Surprisingly, Christie, who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016, has yet to receive a single question at these events on the scandal that has tarnished his administration. No one has inquired about the federal investigation into whether Christie may have improperly used Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family as he was running for re-election. And allegations that two members of his staff threatened to withhold aid from storm-hit Hoboken if the city’s Democratic mayor didn’t greenlight a redevelopment project seem like a distant memory.
Christie – who has denied any prior knowledge of the allegations attached to the lane closures – told the audience of about 500 in Toms River, N.J., on Tuesday, “You can ask me about whatever you want to ask me about.” But no one asked about these controversies.
Christie holding the theater-in-the-round style town halls in GOP-friendly districts is perhaps why tough questions haven’t been thrown his way. Establishing ground rules before the Q&A, he always jokingly warns potential questioners contemplating taking on the “governor of New Jersey out for a walk” in front of the many cameras that “If you give it, you’re going to get it right back.”
During an interview with 101.5FM’s “Ask the Governor” program, Christie told host Eric Scott that he wasn’t going to give “into the hysteria” of questions surrounding the lane closure scandal, pointing out that it hasn’t been brought up at the town halls. “You folks are the only people at the moment who are asking me about this,” he said.
The town hall questions, which, according to Team Christie, are never pre-screened, have been more personal in nature, with topics including rebuilding grants, school choice, austism funding, a pesky traffic light, a noisome landfill, and family law. When Christie was heckled at a town hall in Long Hill last week by audience members angry that he vetoed an anti-fracking measure, the governor largely ignored them. Protesters who held signs outside in Toms River saying “Christie botched the recovery for 16 months” stayed quiet at the event.
Since the “Bridgegate” scandal, polls have shown that overall Christie’s popularity has taken a huge hit. According to a new Rutgers-Eagleton poll, Christie’s post-Hurricane Sandy efforts received a 54% approval rating from state voters. That’s a 15-point drop since mid-January and 26 points from November 2013. But the governor’s overall favorability rating was 49%, which is statistically unchanged from January when it was at 46%. His job approval was at 55%, compared to 53% at the beginning of the year.
A new survey by the Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy shows Christie is actually pulling women voters from Hillary Clinton in the bellwether and swing state of Virginia.
The governor, who chairs the Republican Governors Association and has been ambitiously fundraising for the organization for the 2014 midterms, has been raking in cash. The RGA recently announced it set a monthly fundraising record – $6 million – in January. Christie’s Feburary trips on behalf of the RGA in Texas and Illinois brought in $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively.
Does all this suggest that Christie has turned the page?
“I think it’s possible if nothing ties him to this, he can maintain his governorship,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University. She said public interest in the story may have waned as we’re in a “holding pattern” due to the ongoing investigations. But, nationally, Zaino said Christie will have an uphill battle, regardless of what role he has played.
“On the national stage, he’d be asked about it and rightly so,” Zaino said. Many will ask, “How could he have hired these people … I don’t see him making a viable  run.”
The Democrats certainly think Christie’s troubles won’t fade.
“Six months since the lane closures and we haven’t been able to answer basic questions: Why were the lanes shut down, who ordered the lane closures and who knew what when?” said Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Michael Czin. “Folks still have a lot of questions and it won’t go away until he can answer these basic questions.”
Several Christie supporters at the town halls dismissed the probes.
Sharon Young, a 66-year-old Toms River resident who asked Christie about Obamacare at Tuesday’s town hall (the governor advised residents to ‘elect a new president’ to a standing ovation) said: “I don’t believe a word of it.”
John Mullaly, 72, of Berkeley Township said Christie “has bigger things to be concerned about, like the future of our economy and the nation’s debt. It’s unfortunate it happened, but there’s no evidence [Christie was involved].” The retired MTA employee even brought up the possibility that Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff who was fired over her alleged involvement in the alleged lane closure plan, “was bought off by someone to embarrass Christie.”
Perhaps in an effort to bounce back from the political fallout over the lane closures, Christie has focused his town halls on two subject matters: Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and his budget. On the recovery efforts, Christie has continually blamed the federal government for the slow response. In Middletown, N.J., he even called the Federal Emergency Management Association “the new F word.” On the budget, he’s quick to point out his spending plan doesn’t raise taxes and gives $2.25 billion payment to the public worker pension fund.
When directly asked about so-called “Bridgegate” and the alleged abuse of Hurricane Sandy money, several residents said before or after the town halls that they had real concerns, even though the issues weren’t brought up in the public setting.
“I don’t think these issues are going away,” said Pam Quatse, 63, of Toms River.
Richard Wieland, 70, of Toms River, who was protesting Christie’s response to Hurricane Sandy outside the town hall, criticized the governor for taking several out-of-state trips this year to fundraise for the RGA, including to Texas, Florida, Washington D.C., and Illinois. Wieland, who works in real estate, sustained substantial damage to his home following the superstorm.
“I wish the governor spent more time in New Jersey overseeing the recovery instead of being out of state raising money for political purposes,” Wieland said.