MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faced rocky waters during his town hall meeting on Thursday morning, where six protesters, in an apparent coordinated attempt, interrupted the Republican on a number of issues, including his former staffers’ plan to shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge – seemingly for political retribution.
It’s the first time so-called “Bridgegate” and claims that Christie’s office may have misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds came up at one of his town halls since the scandals unfolded. The Q&A at the Mount Laurel YMCA was the governor’s fourth town hall meeting this year.
Christie largely kept his cool in front of the approximately 500-person crowd, and in laying the ground rules for the meeting even told the group beforehand that because he has four children he’s “trained to ignore yelled-out questions.” And that’s exactly what he did for the most part, except when he turned to the first heckler and told him to “either sit down and keep quiet or get out. We’re done with you.” The governor was met with loud applause.
Several of the interrupters identified themselves as Rowan University students and insisted they had no political affiliation. All six were escorted out by police. Meanwhile, about a dozen of different protesters from a variety of groups, including New Jersey Citizen Action, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, and the NAACP, protested outside prior to the event, some with signs saying, “Resign Christie” and “Samson Step Down” (referring to New Jersey Port Authority Chairman David Samson). Emails that were made public show Samson – who has been subpoenaed by a state committee investigating the closures – was consulted by those who were involved in the September lane closures and the resulting traffic jams.
One of the hecklers asked about Hurricane Sandy funding while another cited “Bridgegate,” shouting: “What does that say about your leadership? How much more of my money is going to your lawyers?” They were largely drowned out from the audience.
Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the lane closures, even telling a radio station that the issue hasn’t come up at the town halls because it’s not a concern of Garden State residents.
“I want Gov. Chris Christie to be held accountable for his actions. I want him to answer the questions that it seems like people don’t want to ask – about Bridgegate…how much money is he going to spend on lawyers, why systematically are African-American and Latino people being denied Sandy aid, why are towns devastated by Sandy not receiving proper allocations for funding?” said one of the hecklers, Leah Ly, after she was kicked out.
“I think a lot of us are discounted because we’re young. It doesn’t mean we don’t care. I don’t think Christie really wants to hear the voice of young people so we’re going to take it into our own hands,” said the 21-year-old senior at Rowan University when asked why she decided to interrupt the governor.
Kailee Whiting, another Rowan University protester who was booted from the event, said Christie hasn’t been transparent about the lane closures. “I’ll believe you [that you didn’t know about the plan] but what does it say about your leadership for hiring these crooks?” she said outside the YMCA.
Christie acknowledged the hecklers several times throughout the town hall, calling it a “partisan effort” and sarcastically saying it was a “fun interruption,” and that he was used to yelling because he has an Irish father and a Sicilian mother.
“I don’t know who these folks are, but in the end, understand something,” Christie said. “When people get up and yell and scream…they shut down the discussion.” The bulk of the crowd backed Christie, loudly cheering when the protesters were booted.
Christie’s overall demeanor was calm and toned-down compared to his rhetoric from two years ago, when he called a student an “idiot” or told a voter to “shut up” at one of his town halls. He has held 113 such events since being elected as governor.
Christie has been met with largely friendly audiences at his town halls, which have been held in GOP friendly municipalities. In Mount Laurel, 66% of residents voted for Christie for re-election in 2013 while just 33% voted for his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono. Gov. Christie – who came to Mount Laurel to discuss his proposed $34.4 billion budget – is scheduled to hold another town hall meeting in South River next week.
William “Skip” Brockner, a truck driver from Collingswood, New Jersey who asked a question about guns, apologized to Christie on behalf of the audience for the heckling. Afterward, he said it was “disrespectful,” adding “I asked a couple of cops if I could go over there and slap [the hecklers].”
Meanwhile, a new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University finds Christie’s approval ratings are down from January. According to the survey, 41% said they approved of the governor’s job performance with 44% disapproving. In January, 48% said they approved of Christie’s job performance. And in November of last year, 61% approved.
The investigation into the bridge scandal revved up on Tuesday when lawyers for two of Christie’s former staff members attempted to convince a judge that their clients shouldn’t have to abide by a subpoena and hand over documents related to the lane closures to a state panel investigating the matter. The judge said she would make a decision at a later date.