SOMERVILLE, New Jersey – Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday defended a controversial, pending state settlement with Exxon Mobile but at the same time sought to distance himself from the agreement, saying he played no direct role in it.
The governor and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate characterized the deal at a town hall meeting as a “really nice settlement” when asked about it by Somerville resident Bick Truet. The governor later added, “The attorney general makes the decision. I don’t interfere with the attorney general.’’
Under the deal -- which stems from environmental damage to wetlands and marshes in northern New Jersey from a decade ago -- the oil giant agreed to shell out $225 million – a fraction of the $8.9 billion originally sought by the state. The New York Times also reported that due to legal fees, the settlement would actually come closer to $180 million.
"How much this is going to cost them, I don’t know. But neither do they. They’re going to have to clean everything up, no matter what it costs."'
Christie, at his 130th town hall since being elected governor, insisted to the crowd of about 400 people at Van Derveer Elementary School that the $225 million is in addition to the billions Exxon will give for environmental cleanup. “How much this is going to cost them, I don’t know. But neither do they. They’re going to have to clean everything up, no matter what it costs,” he insisted, while also taking a jab at The New York Times. Christie said the newspaper left information out because “they’d have to say something nice about me.”
Still, details of the pending settlement – including just how much the state will get at the end of the day and how it will be spent -- are not yet clear. Democrats and environmental groups alike have criticized the deal, saying the Christie administration is letting Exxon off the hook. They question whether the deal was made quickly to fill a gap in the upcoming state budget.
About a dozen protesters stood outside the town hall, some with signs protesting the settlement. Carol Gay, president of the New Jersey Industrial Union Council, carried a poster that read “Stop the $8.9 billion give away to Exxon” and said she has concerns, both about how little the state received, and how that money will be used. “The money is supposed to go to cleanup … Exxon is getting off scot-free,” the 67-year-old Brick resident said.
Overall, Christie was met by a friendly crowd at the town hall and the questions were generally local in nature. Topics included funding for community college, the state’s troubled pension and programs for the disabled. There were no hecklers who interrupted, unlike several town halls last year – or most recently over the weekend when the governor was in the early voting state of Iowa for an agriculture summit attended by several potential 2016 hopefuls.
Two protesters who identified themselves as New Jersey residents stood up to rail against the governor’s handling of Hurricane Sandy. But the governor wasn't rattled, interjecting with, “I’m glad to see that New Jersey has come,” adding “How great is that? Great to have you here. And I think you understand that I’ll deal with you the same way here as I deal with you in New Jersey.” The protesters were eventually removed.
The demonstrations, however, highlighted Christie’s problems at home, with a slew of polls showing the governor’s popularity taking a hit.
Christie isn’t faring well nationally either, with his recent trip to England overshadowed by his controversial remarks about vaccinations, a New York Times report detailing the governor’s questionable, luxury trips, and reports that donors are turning away from Christie and towards fellow moderate Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida.
According to the latest average of polling data surrounding the GOP 2016 presidential nomination compiled by Real Clear Politics, Christie is in sixth place with 6.4% support, trailing behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (16.2%), Jeb Bush (15.8%), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (11.6%), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (10.6%), and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (8.2%).