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A Cold Welcome for Christie in a Setting He Once Ruled

NY Times, Feb. 20, 2014


PORT MONMOUTH, N.J. — When Chris Christie started to talk over a complaining questioner, a signature tactic of the bellicose, pre-scandal governor, the audience here briefly turned on him.

“Answer the question,” some shouted.

When he took a microphone from a long-winded speaker, the man startled Mr. Christie by snatching it right back.

And when he singled out a young woman as his inspiration for repairing the Hurricane Sandy-battered coastline, he failed to grasp that the girl’s mother — sitting just a few feet from Mr. Christie — was angry with him for not doing enough.

“He’s full of it,” she said.

For the embattled Mr. Christie, bogged down by scandal and dogged by investigations, Thursday was supposed to represent a defiant, maybe even triumphant, return to the town-hall-style meeting, an intimate and comfortable setting in which he could bathe in the adulation of his fans and unleash harsh denunciations of anyone foolhardy enough to challenge him.

Over the course of four years, and 110 of the cozy sessions — all recorded by aides and quickly uploaded for consumption by his fast-expanding audience — Mr. Christie transformed himself from a little-known former prosecutor into the public face of New Jersey, a national emblem of straight-talking government, and the most forceful presence in the national Republican Party.

But the two-hour forum here near the Jersey Shore on Thursday, his first since controversy enveloped his administration, demonstrated just how difficult it will be for Mr. Christie to quickly recreate the political magic that once seemed certain to put him in contention for the White House.

The man who once commanded these rooms just by walking into them seemed unmistakably mortal.

The event, which was delayed several times by snowstorms, took place in Monmouth County, a location carefully selected to highlight Mr. Christie’s leadership in recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The county was hard-hit by the hurricane, but the governor carried it overwhelmingly in his re-election last fall.

Yet Mr. Christie arrived amid a flurry of protesters, who waved placards mocking his administration’s role in lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, demanding his resignation over the imbroglio and reminding him that even his musical idol was angry about the issue.

“Hey Gov,” read one, “Bruce Springsteen hates you.”

Once inside, amid the brown folding chairs and white linoleum floors of a local V.F.W. hall, Mr. Christie encountered fury on an entirely different, but no less intense front: from homeowners inflamed by the pace of recovery from the hurricane.

With homemade T-shirts and handwritten signs, they complained that his administration had let them down: Subsidies that allowed them to rent a temporary home had run out; reimbursements for emergency repairs never arrived; and, above all, the distribution of federal aid was painfully slow.

It was a jarring tableau for a governor who, just six months ago, was heralded as a hero for consoling devastated families up and down the state’s shattered shores, and for berating Congress until it increased recovery funding for the state.

One man asked Mr. Christie why he had put so much recovery money into the hands of outside contractors, sarcastically noting, as Mr. Christie did at the start of the bridge scandal, that the governor oversees a staff of 60,000 employees. Why not use state workers, as New York had?

Mr. Christie leapt in — defending his decision, casting doubt on New York’s performance, and challenging the man’s grasp of the facts.

In past moments like this, when Mr. Christie seized on the slightest provocation, he invariably earned applause and turned the rest of his audience against whoever had confronted him.

But this time, the crowd directed its frustrations at the governor. Several people began to loudly clear their throats; a few of them demanded that he answer the question.

“I am answering it,” Mr. Christie replied coldly.

Mr. Christie forcefully defended his administration, saying that it had delivered funds to hundreds of thousands of homeowners and assigning blame to the federal government for most of the problems.

“FEMA,” he said mischievously, “is the new ‘F Word.’ ”

There were moments when Mr. Christie struck an empathetic tone, telling homeowners that their woes consumed him and acknowledging his own frustration at the slow pace of the recovery.

“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make this better for everyone,” he said.

Despite rules he outlined at the start of the event, he allowed several speakers to vent at length, uninterrupted.

But at times, it seemed as if the crowd had lost its patience with Mr. Christie’s instinctive playbook — doling out inconvenient truths and administering tough love.

Mr. Christie — who explained that for now, funding went to those with the greatest need — chafed when a woman asked why she had not received help, despite severe damage to her home.

“I’m there,” she said, explaining her poor finances.

Mr. Christie replied, “You must not be quite as there as you think you are.”

At that, a few men and women in the audience gasped. “Nice,” one of them shouted to Mr. Christie.

Mr. Christie seemed relieved to be grappling with questions from constituents about urgent housing needs, not about a traffic tie-up from five months ago. The bridge scandal was not broached by the crowd; when an out-of-town reporter shouted a question about it, Mr. Christie glared at him and said, “People care about real problems.”

And many in attendance still seemed to revere him. A woman who recounted the pain of watching her mother die in a rented apartment, because her house was still damaged from the storm, paused to tell Mr. Christie that “she really liked you.”

Another woman called Mr. Christie “the real governator — not Schwarzenegger.”

“Because of your shoot-from-the-hip style,” she explained. “It’s no nonsense.”

A military veteran, displeased by those who have ganged up on Mr. Christie, said that he could not understand why the governor did not destroy all of his Springsteen CDs.

Mr. Christie made clear that, after 132 Springsteen concerts, the idea was anathema to him, even after Mr. Springsteen had performed a parody of Mr. Christie to the tune of “Born to Run.”

“We get attached to certain people as youngsters,” Mr. Christie said.

But for once, it was the anger of Mr. Christie’s detractors, not his own, that most colored the event.

Gail Doherty, 44, said she had seethed as Mr. Christie highlighted her young daughter Ginger’s role in making it clear how much pain Hurricane Sandy had inflicted, especially on children, a story he has told across the state.

Ms. Doherty said she resented Mr. Christie for invoking their experience, since she and Ginger remained homeless.

“I don’t think he’s kept his word,” she said. “It’s beyond frustrating.”

Ginger, she added, “just wants to go home.”

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