At a sometimes-tense town hall event Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faced frustrated residents hit by Hurricane Sandy, and tried to deflect their anger by placing blame on the federal government for not doling out enough aid.
The event in Middletown, N.J. was the first town hall the Republican governor has held since questions arose about his staffers’ plan to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, seemingly for political retribution.
It also came as the governor is being probed for the potential misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief money to produce tourism ads featuring Christie’s family during his bid for a second term in office. The so-called “Bridgegate” scandal did not come up at the town hall, but Christie did hear from many residents who are still without a home nearly a year and a half after the 2012 storm.
Christie told a group of approximately 500 people that the state is anywhere between $15 billion and $20 billion short of what it needs to completely rebuild.
“What happens when you deal with the federal government, the red tape is immeasurable,” he said. Later, Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said, “Guess who the greedy corporation that’s taking your money and not paying you now [is]? The federal government.”
The governor also criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program and its refusal to participate in a mediation program.
“The fact is that they don’t have, in my opinion, the first idea of what they’re doing,” Christie said. “We don’t regulate the federal government so we’re at a loss.”
Debbie Fortier kicked off the meeting by telling Christie she was on a waiting list after the storm pulverized her home.
“I’m Debbie from Brick, and I just want to go home,” said the 53-year-old waitress who wore a shirt with the words “One year still homeless” branded on the front.
Christie replied: “Debbie, I’m Chris the governor and I want you to go home. But the fact is that if the checkbook was purely at my disposal and I could review your papers personally and not have the federal government involved, you’d probably be home already.”
Fortier said afterward that she is inclined to believe him. “I have to hope. I have no one else to turn to.”
Meanwhile, a new poll by Monmouth University shows the bulk of Garden State residents hardest-hit by the storm do not approve with how Team Christie has handled the storm.
The majority, 64%, of residents who suffered damage to their primary home and applied for state aid via the “renew Jersey Stronger” program said they are dissatisfied with the state’s recovery efforts so far, while just 36% reported being satisfied.
Sea Bright resident Tom Largey, who has been unable to move back into his home since the storm, criticized the governor for using private contractors and asked Christie why the state ended its contract with Louisiana company Hammerman &Gainer Inc. The $68 million deal was inked in May, but it was quietly cancelled Dec. 6. Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell Jr. – both of New Jersey – have called for a federal probe into the state’s dealings with the New Orleans-based firm that was hired to oversee the divvying up of approximately $600 million in federal homeowner relief following Hurricane Sandy.
Christie argued the state government simply doesn’t have enough employees, and if they hired new workers, it would cost billions. Christie did not address Hammerman & Gainer, to which some residents yelled: “Answer the question!”
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman at the state’s Department of Community Affairs, has previously told msnbc that the decision to end the relationship with the firm was “mutual” and “coordinated and efficient with no interruption in services.”
Largey said after the town hall that he was not optimistic Christie would help get him more money to repair his home. “People who are not Hurricane Sandy victims think he did a good job,” said the attorney, who identifies himself as an independent. “I don’t think we’re going to get anything.”
Several residents said they lost faith in Christie over what they see as the state’s slow response to the storm. The lane closure scheme and allegations his office may have misused money only fuels that feeling, they said.
Kathy Serra, whose Lavallette home was damaged, said, “Once the lane closure story came out, his lack of credibility was confirmed.”
Serra, a retired restaurant owner who says she voted for Christie for re-election said, “I regret it. I wouldn’t vote for him for president.”
Isabel Newson said she has been unable to live in her Keansburg home for 16 months. She held a sign that said “resign Christie,” which was taken away by one of the governor’s staff before the event. Newson said she received about $60,000 through insurance, not enough to rebuild her home, which would cost about $215,000.
“In the beginning he talked about all this grant money and said, ‘I’m going to help.’ It’s been 16 months. Where is the money?” Newson, a Democrat, said of the lane closure plan (which Christie denies any prior knowledge of): “This was the nail in the coffin. It’s one scandal after another. There’s too many for him to not be involved in any of them.”
The Democratic National Committee immediately pounced after the Washington Post’s Robert Costa recalled asking Christie about Bridgegate after the event. He tweeted: “Christie glared at me, shook head, and said ‘people care about REAL problems.”
DNC Spokesman Michael Czin said: “It’s been over 160 days since Christie’s office ordered the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. That order caused days of traffic backup. Kids couldn’t get to school. Parents couldn’t get to work. Emergency responders were held up, putting people’s safety at risk. These are real problems. But Christie has continued to attack and bully his opponents and those asking direct questions. Now he’s dismissing the seriousness of his office’s actions – claiming Bridgegate isn’t a real problem that people care about.”