Christie Watch, Feb. 20, 2014
Surprisingly — no, actually, shockingly is the right word — Chris Christie got through an entire town hall meeting with several hundred New Jersey residents on Thursday morning without once being asked to say a single word about Bridgegate, the allegations about withholding Superstorm Sandy aid from Hoboken, and other scandals swirling around the governor. Held in at a VFW hall in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown, in the middle of areas devastated by Sandy in 2012 and still not rebuilt, Christie put on a masterful display, taking question after question from residents who came to beseech the governor and his cabinet, many of whom came in tow, about a wide range of problems, from Sandy aid to family law to treatment of disabilities. But no one — not a single questioner — even mentioned the ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, the governor used part of his performance in Port Monmouth to blame New Jersey’s troubles after Sandy on President Obama, Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — Christie referred to the agency as “the new F-word, FEMA” — and, most surprisingly, the National Flood Insurance Program. He blamed, in short, everyone but himself.
How is it even possible that the lane closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge and the allegations that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened to cut off Sandy aid to Hoboken unless the mayor of that city backed a development project that Christie wanted weren’t even mentioned? And all this in front of perhaps two dozen cameras from national and local television stations and reporters from throughout New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, plus not a few national outlets?
First, as usual in Christie’s town hall events — and this one, he said, was his 110th — reporters don’t get to ask questions.
Second, Christie held the event, his first town hall meeting since last spring and his first public appearance in weeks, on friendly territory, in precincts known to support Christie and the Republican party. And as evidenced by interviews conducted by two Christie Watch reporters with participants, there was indeed a strong reservoir of support for Christie in the room.
Third, according to several participants in the event — which was, to be sure, open to any and all comers — Christie aides and staff both outside and inside the hall told attendees that no signs, posters or placards would be allowed. Gert Sofman of Highlands, New Jersey, whose home and business were both flooded by up to six feet of ocean water and who still hasn’t recovered damages, said that the event’s organizers strictly disallowed any sign of activism inside the building. “They’re shutting down any kind of demonstration,” said Sofman. “I’m so absolutely angry at this point.” And Isabel Newson of Keansburg, a lone activist who pulled out a small sign reading “Christie Resign” toward the end of the event, said that two other, similar signs had been confiscated by the staff.
Fourth, Christie himself, in laying out the ground rules for the event at its start, warned that he wouldn’t be passive if anyone challenged him. If anyone, he said, had it mind, with all the cameras present, to “take the governor out for a walk,” well, he said, “We’re all from New Jersey.… If you give it, you’re going to get it back.” Anyone familiar with Christie’s bullying, hectoring YouTube videos in which he lays into critics with abandon knew exactly what they were in for.
And finally — and this is most puzzling — there was no sign at the event of any presence by teachers and trade unions who’ve clashed with Christie, of activist groups such as Citizen Action who’ve opposed him, or from groups such as the Fair Share Housing Center, which has emerged as a key critic of how Christie’s administration has handled the distribution of Sandy-related aid.
In a bit, we’ll get to how Christie unleashed a barrage of anti-government, anti-Washington and pro-privatization rhetoric in response to questions about Sandy assistance. But for most of the attendees at the town hall, it was a chance to listen and ask questions of a very personal nature, hoping against hope that the governor and his aides would promise to help. Before the event got underway, your Christie Watch reporters talked to quite a few audience members, and all had tales of woe, of heartbreak and discouragement, even desperation. Joe Wernock, an out-of-work construction and demolition man from Keansburg, lost nearly everything and recovered only $20,000 from insurance. “I want to find out what’s going on,” he said. “The insurance company said that they can’t insure me now unless I lift the house, and I can’t afford to lift the house. They’re fighting with everybody, the people across the street, the guy down the street.” Ron and Jessica Sickler, of Fort Monmouth, said that their house is gutted. “We pay the mortgage in Fort Monmouth and we pay rent in Tinton Falls,” said Jessica. “I think the funds could have been handled better.”
Richard Isaksen, representing the Belford Seafood Cooperative, said the several hundred fishermen in his coop were “barely working” because the creek they have to get through to reach the ocean hasn’t been dredged since the hurricane and is barely passable. And although there was supposed to be several million dollars set aside for the fishing industry, he said, “we haven’t seen a nickel” of the money his group needs to repair the ice machines and other machinery they use for the fish. “We just need some help.”
But none of these people, nor most of the other folks lined up outside to enter the event knew exactly whom to blame, they said. “We’re here to get information,” said Ron Sickler.
And, at the event, Christie did his best to shift the blame for post-Sandy problems away from his office, and his administration, and onto the federal government. Perhaps most outrageously, Christie went ballistic about the National Flood Insurance Program. “The entire flood insurance business in this country has been taken over by the federal government,” said Christie, just getting warmed up. “There’s not much I can do. We’re stuck in dealing with the federal government.… Why they think they’re the best people to deal with flood insurance is beyond me. They don’t have the first idea of what they’re doing.”
There’s so much wrong with Christie’s attack on FEMA and the NFIP that’s it’s hard to know where to start. For decades it’s been obvious that private insurers don’t have the wherewithal to be able to cover flood damage at prices that would be affordable, and so the federal government has come to the rescue. The truth is that the federal government is the only place people can buy flood insurance, because private insurers don’t want to touch it. “Because of the catastrophic nature of flooding, the difficulty of adequately predicting flood risks and uncertainty surrounding the possibility of charging actuarially sound premium rates, private insurance companies have historically been largely unwilling to underwrite flood insurance,” concluded a recent study by the Government Accountability Office.
Responding to Christie, Representative John Pascrell (D-NJ) said:
“When Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast, I fought alongside my colleagues to ensure the federal government delivered the resources New Jersey families desperately needed to rebuild their lives. Instead of playing partisan politics and passing the buck, the Governor should focus on correcting the botched rollout of the state-run RREM [Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation] program that has left scores of New Jersey families out in the cold.
“The federal government cannot be blamed for the state’s lack of transparency, lost applications and the mysterious firings of Sandy contractors. More than a year after the storm, there are still folks not back in their homes that deserve answers. It’s time for Governor Christie to take responsibility for his administration’s mismanagement and do what’s right by the people of New Jersey.”
And the Fair Share Housing Center, which has studied the issue in depth, has issued a series of reports and statements indicating that it was Governor Christie’s private contractor, HGI, which was assigned to manage the distribution of Sandy aid, that bears most of the responsibility for recent problems.
One member of the audience did indeed try to raise the issue of the problems with HGI with the governor. “All I hear from you is privatize, privatize, privatize,” he said. “Why was HGI fired?” And, indeed, so far the Christie administration has refused to disclose the problem with HGI, hired in 2013 and then dismissed in December without explanation. At today’s town hall event, Christie once again refused to say why HGI was fired, but he had to speak over loud protests from some in the audience, including one man who shouted, “Answer the question!” Still, Christie provided no answers.
Steve Sweeney, the Democrat who is president of the state Senate — a sometimes collaborator, sometimes rival of the governor — issued a statement following the town hall meeting, saying in part:
“The administration has twice fired a contractor handling aid in secret and given no reason. They’ve denied people aid, nearly 80% according to Fair Share Housing, who should have received it. They’ve failed to properly inform people what documentation they need to receive aid. They provided the wrong information on deadlines and appeals on the Spanish language website, and shut out the people who were misinformed from applying. They rejected African-Americans at rates 2.5 times higher than Caucasians. Millions of dollars that should have been going to homeowners and businesses have been withheld.
“These problems were not caused by the federal government. They were caused by his administration’s failed policies.”
Christie, who’s well known to be a fanatical Bruce Springsteen fan, brought the Boss into the town hall event, at least indirectly. At the start of the event, as people were filtering in — and again at the close, as the governor made his exit through a curtain at the back of the room — the hall echoed to the strains of “We Take Care of Our Own,” from Bruce’s 2012 album, Wrecking Ball. It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate song to be played at a Chris Christie event. Its lyrics are a strong denunciation of Republican go-it-alone policies and a bitter denunciation of the fact that in today’s America many people can’t make it on their own. Bruce sings:
I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne.
I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home.
I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone.
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.
Recently, Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon rocked a hilarious parody of “Born to Run” criticizing the governor’s lane-closing fiasco that [youtube http://youtube.com/w/?v=VKHV0LLvhXM]. And at the Port Monmouth event, one audience member, who identified himself as with the VFW, said he and some friends had discussed what to ask the governor. Here’s what they came up with: “When you go home, will you please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs?” The governor said, in response, that he hopes that the Boss will come around as he gets older.