With controversy engulfing his administration, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie opened the first town hall meeting of his second term with a non-combative tone and placed the blame for delayed Hurricane Sandy relief funding on the federal government, calling the Federal Emergency Management Agency “another f-word.”
“This is why we should let government run as little as possible, because allowing the federal government to run an insurance company is just folly,” Christie said at the event in Port Monmouth, N.J. FEMA pays the flood insurance claims for Hurricane Sandy.
“While I have certainly gotten along with the Obama administration,” Christie said, referencing cooperation immediately after the October 2012 storm that won him scorn from fellow Republicans ahead of the election, “This is one of those areas where they certainly should have stepped up and gotten into this arbitration and mediation program. I don’t know how this administration justifies not being able to sit down and talk to its premium payers.”
“If [another business] took the position that they were unwilling to speak to their policy holders… you know how would come down and kill them? The federal government. Guess who the greedy corporation is who’s taking your money and not paying you now? The federal government.”
Christie also said that secondary homeowners “have been left to the side” because “federal law does not permit us to cover secondary homeowners.”
“I made that argument in the Oval Office as hard as I could,” Christie said. “The president refused to include it in the bill he sent to Congress.”
Christie used the moment to hammer home his earlier point: that the federal government should not run an insurance program, because if it goes wrong, “your only option is to sue the federal government.”
It appeared to work.
“Where do I sign up?” a female New Jersey resident quickly replied.
Throughout his first term, Christie has frequently used the opportunity to take his case straight to his constituents. He hosted more than 100 town hall summits since taking office in Jan. 2010. Amid controversy over the George Washington Bridge lane closures and allegations that Christie aides held and granted Sandy relief funding in exchange for political favors, Christie sought Thursday to shore up support.
The response from New Jerseyans at Thursday’s town hall was far more favorable than Christie’s falling poll numbers would suggest.
Connie Freestone from Point Pleasant, N.J., told Christie her mother passed away Saturday in a rental home, and detailed their troubled attempts to get aid after the storm. But she mentioned that her mother was a fan of Christie’s, and that she is as well.
“Your exercise program – good. Lookin’ good,” another woman told Christie at the start of her comments.
“I’ve always thought that you are the true ‘Governator,’" one resident said, referencing the nickname given to former California governor and Terminator movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, “because of your shoot-from-the hip style. It’s no nonsense. You’ve been criticized for it… [but] I give you credit for that.”
“When you go home tonight, would you please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs?” a member of the VFW urged Christie. “He’s not a friend of yours, governor.”
Springsteen joined NBC’s Jimmy Fallon on stage in January to skewer the governor in song, changing the lyrics of “Born to Run” to center on the “bridgegate” controversy.
“He told me we were friends nearly a year and a half ago. And I live in hope of that,” Christie said, noting he has been to 132 shows. “You are probably giving me wise, sage counsel that I should accept, but my heart is telling me not to.”
A school bus driver dressed in camouflage thanked Christie for helping save his mother’s home after the storm, saying “what you did for my mother was unbelievable.” Christie turned around and thanked the administration official who placed the call, saying he did not know until today that his staff was able to help. “I just called Ken and said, 'You need to call this guy; here’s his info,'” Christie said. “My cabinet, they’re not like the dog that runs for the bone and brings it back, like ‘Hey, look what I did.’”
Christie then segued into what he said are the greatest things about being governor. “Every once in a while, an 86-year-old woman who couldn’t find anyone to help them has her son come and you get the chance to actually help.”
At the same time, the episode helped distance Christie from the day-to-day operations of his staff, his involvement in which has been called into question since his former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly emailed “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” to former Port Authority official David Wildstein.
Christie also arranged a meeting between a retired U.S. Army Master Sargent who described an infrastructure improvement plan and DOT Commissioner James Simpson.
The town hall ended with a plea from a three year old, “May you fix my house is still broken,” allowing Christie, crouched down to her height, to showcase his softer side.
Christie’s administration told NBC News that the governor did not take questions from pre-screened applicants.