MOORESTOWN, New Jersey -- Town hall Chris Christie is back and he wants New Jersey residents to know that if he does run for president in 2016, it won’t affect his ability to govern his home state.
The Garden State governor and potential Republican presidential candidate on Tuesday held his first town hall meeting in five months here in this Burlington County township – just 15 miles from Philadelphia -- and in his closing remarks acknowledged that some residents are concerned that his decision about whether to run for president will affect how he performs his day-to-day duties in New Jersey.
“I am focused on this job. I care about this job,” said Christie at the Moorestown Recreational Center to a crowd of about 300 people. He later added, “I can walk and chew gum at the same time.” His remarks come as a spate of recent polls indicate New Jersey residents believe Christie cares more about 2016 than leading the Garden State.
The governor also insisted that he had not made up his mind on whether he’ll run for the nation’s highest office. “I don’t know what I’m going to do and I have not made up my mind,” he said.
After a rough few weeks, Christie on Tuesday relied on the town hall format that has helped him in the past. The event marked his 128th town hall since taking office but the first of 2015 after spending much of last year criss-crossing the country to stump for midterm election candidates as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The town hall came just a day after he delivered his state budget address in which he clearly tried to demonstrate that he's doing all he can to get his state’s troubled finances in order.
The town hall also comes at a critical time for Christie, with a slew of recent news stories slowing down his national momentum. The Washington Post reported last week that Christie’s home-state donors are turning to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Politico ran a survey showing Christie dropping from the top tier of 2016 candidates; and then of course there were his controversial remarks about vaccinations during his trip to England.
To top it off, a day before his budget address, a judge declared that Christie broke state law when he refused to make the full payment last year to the state’s beleaguered pension system. The governor has promised to appeal the decision to a higher court.
At the town hall, Christie was greeted by a friendly crowd. He spent his opening remarks making a pitch for his budget – touting that it has no tax increases, that he is reaching across the political aisle and that he is putting forth a plan to fix the state’s beleaguered pension system.
The questions residents asked largely had to do with local issues – the pension system, state care for the disabled, Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and the decline of Atlantic City.
The Q&A turned briefly to 2016 when 16-year-old Brian Pontious of Moorestown asked the governor about his controversial veto of a pig-welfare bill in December, which would have prohibited pig farmers in New Jersey from using gestational crates (which animal advocates and some legislators deem as cruel and inhumane). While pig farming isn’t a particularly big business in New Jersey, it’s a huge deal in Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucuses, which kick off the presidential nominating process. In fact, Iowa is the country’s largest pork producer and critics argued Christie vetoed the legislation to cozy up to potential Hawkeye State voters. The bill passed in both houses in the New Jersey State legislature in October and polling showed the majority of state residents were in favor of the legislation.
Pontious, a Moorestown resident who identifies himself as a Republican, asked Christie if he issued the veto because of the important Iowa caucuses. The governor said that there were no hog farmers in New Jersey who use gestational crates. “I don’t look for solutions when there is no problem,” he said, adding, “This is the stuff that drives people crazy about government.” After the town hall, Pontious told msnbc, however that the gestational crate ban was a “common sense issue” and “it’s about stating what New Jersey stands for and that we care about animal rights.”
Overall though, Christie was well-received by the audience and there were no hecklers who interrupted, unlike several town halls last year. Joseph Griffin, a 55-year-old Moorestown resident who asked Christie about the pension system during the Q&A said afterward that he was pleased with Christie’s budget plan and that he’d support the governor if he ran for president. Griffin, a self-identified independent said, “We need a president that’s no-nonsense like Christie.”
As Christie tries to repair his image at home, it’s not a surprise that the governor is holding town hall meetings, said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Dworkin said 2014 was a “completely wasted year” for the governor at home because he spent much of the time dealing with the aftermath of the scandal known as “Bridgegate” in which some of the governor’s allies and staffers ordered the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge — creating traffic for days — seemingly for political retribution. Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot. Meanwhile, the second half of that year was spent stumping for 2014 candidates.
“I think what we’re seeing here with this town hall is an effort by the governor to re-launch his administration even though he continues to launch a great deal of time campaigning for president out state,” said Dworkin. He added, “The stronger he is in the state, the better his pitch when he goes national ... When you spend almost an entire calendar year not able to build yourself up, in your home state the way he had in 2014, I think as a national candidate you want to have your home state locked up.”
In the coming months, Christie will also begin holding a series of town hall meetings in the early vote of New Hampshire. The Granite State is emerging as a do-or-die 2016 state for Christie, a northeastern moderate who experts say would have trouble in other critical early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina – where voters tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives.