Since hecklers bombarded embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall in Mount Laurel last week, the Republican has been trying to play offense. He has taken it upon himself to warn his GOP-friendly audiences at subsequent events that the state’s chapter of the Communication Workers of America – the union that represents state workers – has planted its members in the audience to disrupt him.
It’s a “new and recent phenomenon,” he said at a town hall in South River Tuesday. “They are recruited by the people who we—we, collectively, have been standing up against for the last four-and-a-half-years. The folks who want more and higher taxes from you so they can get bigger raises, and more benefits, and bigger pensions.”
In Flemington on Thursday, Christie, in his opening remarks, urged audience members to ignore the CWA’s “latest trick” and wait until hecklers are escorted out by police. When six interrupted in Mount Laurel, Christie told the crowd, “Told you it was going to happen. I am a soothsayer.”
There’s just one problem: The six hecklers who were booted out of the Mount Laurel town hall said they were Rowan University students and were not associated with a union. And in South River, where 17 were escorted out, the majority said they were Rutgers University students or activists not associated with the CWA.
CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson told msnbc on Friday that there was no organized effort to follow Christie. Seth Hahn, a spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of the CWA said Christie was merely trying to “change the subject.” The governor is under fire for some of his staffers’ alleged plan to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly for political retribution back in September. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the scheme.
“Blaming CWA insults all the students, environmentalists, housing advocates, civil rights organizations and community groups whose legitimate questions about Sandy corruption and Bridgegate are being ignored. Perhaps Christie should spend less time complaining and blaming others, and instead listen to what his constituents are upset about and answer their questions,” Hahn told msnbc.
The governor’s office did not return a request for comment.
Of course, hecklers aren’t anything new at political town halls, nor are organized efforts to get them there. In 2009, for instance, astroturfing conservative groups packed congressional town halls with protesters during the August recess, catching Democratic lawmakers by surprise and at least temporarily seriously injuring the prospects of Obamacare’s passage.
Since the Christie heckling began, security has been amped up at the town halls. Additional police are on the premises and residents are systematically wanded for metallic objects before entering. And after complaints that state police were taking photos of those protesting Christie, the state’s attorney general has ordered police to stop taking photos for security or any other purposes.
Acting Attorney General John Hoffman told msnbc in a statement that it was an “overzealous security measure” and that any photos state police took of the protesters at the town hall meetings will be destroyed.
“I don’t think there was any First Amendment issue implicated. I was concerned that it just didn’t seem like a necessary security measure, and I want to make sure that in a situation in which people are engaging in an open and fair and constructive dialogue that they felt comfortable,” said Hoffman.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the AG’s office, said a review is underway to find out who within the state police authorized the decision to take the photographs.
Udi Ofer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said in a statement that “New Jerseyans must be able to express their viewpoints without having to fear police officers photographing them and creating political dossiers on them.”
The Times of Trenton published an op-ed on Friday saying the police have more explaining to do.
“A chill remains among myriad questions about First Amendment rights in New Jersey,” the piece says. “Has taking photos of those who question the governor been standard practice? Who authorized it? And why?”
Christie, meanwhile, is forging ahead. The 51-year-old, who chairs the Republican Governor’s Association, was in Michigan on Wednesday to raise campaign money for Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land and Gov. Rick Snyder. He’ll also host another town hall in Belmar, N.J. next week.