SOUTH RIVER, N.J. – For the second time in a week, protesters harangued embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a contentious town hall meeting in Middlesex County. And once again, they were booted by police.
At least 17 people were kicked out after interrupting the governor following a question on why parents who have children in Catholic schools must pay taxes that go toward funding public schools.
Among their gripes: how the Christie administration has divvied up relief aid following Hurricane Sandy. They also asked why Christie hasn’t fired David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority, following some of the governor staffers’ alleged involvement in a political payback scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge back in September.
“New Jersey deserves better,” the protesters chanted, adding: “There are still families without homes,” and “We are here to demand you stop your corrupt uses of Hurricane Sandy money.”
Most of the protesters identified themselves afterward as Rutgers University students. Last week, at a town hall meeting in Mount Laurel, N.J., six hecklers from Rowan University were thrown out after interrupting Christie on a number of issues, including so-called “Bridgegate.” The governor has insisted he had no prior knowledge of the scheme and has since fired top aide Bridget Anne Kelly and cut ties with his former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Up until last week, the town halls Christie has held in GOP-friendly municipalities have been on the friendlier side. Security has since increased, with additional police on the premises and residents being systematically wanded for metallic objects before entering.
Christie ignored the protesters at the St. Mary Coptic Community Center in South River on Tuesday. In his opening remarks, he warned the crowd of about 400 that there may be protesters planted from state unions, including the Communication Workers of America, and to just ignore them if they interrupt.
“I’m a soothsayer,” Christie said after demonstrators were escorted out. “They do it because they have no other choice” because they “failed at the polls.”
Many of the demonstrators said they were not affiliated with any union.
One of the protesters, Frangy Pozo, 20, specifically criticized federal Hurricane Sandy money going to a high-rise in New Brunswick. The Rutgers junior charged that Christie was intentionally choosing to hold town halls in wealthier, primarily white municipalities.
Mary Ellen Marino, a protester from Princeton who wore a shirt with the words “Christie’s Sandy failure: Incompetence or corruption?” also questioned the governor’s use of the money, arguing it was going to municipalities without significant damage.
In addition to the lane closure probe, Christie is being investigated for the potential misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief money to produce tourism ads featuring his family during his bid for a second term in office.
“We knew the chances of getting the question all the way answered and adequately answered were not that high,” said Marino, 74, a member with the Progressive Democrats of America. “So we were prepared to show our force in the sense of how many people think the governor isn’t doing a good job.”
The town hall became heated over a number of other issues, including Medicaid and a move by the State Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) that essentially ends Tesla’s direct sales operation in New Jersey. Critics charge that the MVC is packed with Christie allies and the decision has angered many on both sides of the political spectrum.
The car company sells its vehicles directly to customers in an effort to avoid a middleman at the car dealership. When asked about the decision at the town hall Christie said, “My job is not to make laws; it’s to enforce the laws.”
Christie also exchanged terse words with Maura Collinsgru, a health policy advocate of the New Jersey Citizen Action group who criticized the state for not informing residents about their coverage options under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Christie’s Administration refused a $7.6 million grant from the federal government to help explain the law. The two largely talked over one another with Christie saying Collinsgru was “simply wrong,” that she “has an agenda” and “I’m sorry that you favor Obamacare and I do not.”
Meanwhile, the state committee investigating the lane closures is waiting on a decision by a judge who is considering whether to enforce a subpoena delivered to Stepien and Kelly mandating they turn over any documents related to the lane closures. They both have both pleaded the Fifth Amendment, insisting that handing over any information to the committee investigating the September 2013 lane closures would violate their rights against self-incrimination.
Emails turned over to the judge by the panel and made public on Monday show Stepien was kept in the loop about the lane closures. The committee has argued that such emails strengthen the argument that Stepien knew about the plan and should have to abide by the subpoena.