BRICK, N.J. – Chris Christie offered a challenge to critics who allege the New Jersey governor created a culture of intimidation that led to so-called “Bridgegate”: Prove it.
The Republican defiantly made his case Thursday at a town hall meeting in Ocean County after an attendee told the governor that his friends and family believe that Christie must have cultivated a toxic environment that allowed such an abuse to take place.
Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. resident Len Ludovico, 71, said he wanted to know what argument he could make to such critics, insisting he knows Christie would not risk his “political career and integrity on something as petty as lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.”
Christie advised the retired high school teacher to argue: “Point to something factually – something that proves that” he created such a culture.
The governor, who once led the GOP pack in the nascent race to become the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee—then pointed to his record of bipartisan cooperation, which he said includes passing pension and benefits reform, capping property taxes and keeping spending low.
“If, in fact, I created a culture where people were going after each other, then how did we do all these things together with Republicans and Democrats?” Christie asked the crowd of about 500 people at Lake Riviera Middle School.
A Christie-ordered internal review of the September lane closure plot, ordered by some of the governor’s staffers and allies – seemingly for political retribution – cleared the governor of any wrong doing. The bridge plot is still under investigation by federal prosecutors and a state legislative panel. The governor has insisted he had no prior knowledge of the plan and has since fired a top aide and cut ties with one of his chief political advisers.
Hoboken, N.J. Mayor Dawn Zimmer has also claimed that Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy relief funds unless she approved a development project in her town. Christie’s office has denied those claims.
Meanwhile, members of a state legislative panel looking into the scandal have said they may begin to ask witnesses to testify about the lane closures. When asked recently on a local radio program if Christie would testify if asked, the governor replied: “I’m not going to talk about that.”
The Q&A on Thursday was Christie’s 120th town hall since being elected governor– and his 12th such event in the past two months. Since the Christie-authorized internal review findings have been made public, a newly emboldened Christie – clearly trying to regain his footing – has repeatedly said he doesn’t think the lane closure plan will affect the 2016 race.
At the Brick town hall, Christie said he would never complain in public about the lane closure accusations. “I’m a big boy and I understand this business … When you’re the guy, you’re the governor, you’re the guy carrying the ball, you’re the guy they’re going to try and tackle.”
Christie said he mostly doesn’t mind the criticism but acknowledged that “some days it gets me really upset.”
Public opinion isn’t on the governor’s side. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed 41% of New Jersey voters disapprove of his job performance. And the majority – 63% – said Christie’s own internal review was not objective. Just 22% believe Christie’s explanation of what happened. Several GOP consultants have said Christie’s 2016 presidential prospects are “on life support.”
Christie was warmly received by the town hall audience on Thursday, answering questions mostly about Hurricane Sandy recovery and education. During a lighter part of the event, a Girl Scout leader asked Christie if he would put on a blue T-shirt that read “man enough to be a Girl Scout.” He gladly said yes.
In his closing remarks, Christie acknowledged he has faced a rough couple of months but said he doesn’t regret signing up for the state’s top job.
“I never told you that I was going to be perfect or all the people that work for me are going to be perfect … What matters when mistakes are made, no matter what they are … how do you fix them? How do you put your life back on track? How do you do what you need to do to be the responsible adult, the responsible human being in civilized society? We’re always judged not by the fall but how we get up.”
Afterward, Ludovico told msnbc he hopes the governor is vindicated. “I’m sure he will and that we can beat back the narrative that he has created this culture that would approve of this behavior.”