Christie performs well at town halls but misstatements could pose a campaign risk

Whether it’s arguing with a teacherconcerned about education cuts or calling an antagonistic former Navy SEAL an “idiot,” Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall-style events have provided some of the more eye-opening episodes of his time in office.

And while yesterday’s event in Old Bridge – the 134th Christie’s held since taking office in early 2010 — may not have delivered any such highlight moment, it did show why Christie’s political advisers are eager to get him out on the town-hall circuit as a potential GOP candidate for president in 2016.

The governor’s political action committee announced earlier this week that he will hold two town halls next week in the early primary state of New Hampshire, starting with an April 15 event in Londonderry.

For Christie, once a top-tier GOP candidate who now trails much of the field in the wake of last year’s George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, the events in New Hampshire should give him a chance to interact directly with potential voters and show off the charisma that political analysts say is his strongest asset.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the governor is pretty comfortable in this town-hall format,” said Ben Dworkin, a Rider University professor and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“The best thing this campaign has going for it is Chris Christie himself,” Dworkin said. In Old Bridge yesterday, Christie posed for selfie photos, demurred when asked about running for president and fielded some other layup questions, such as one from a man concerned about New Jersey’s low estate-tax exemption, which Christie himself has criticized.

He also told a Girl Scout in the audience who asked what he’d like to change about Washington, D.C. that a major problem in the nation’s capital is that everybody “goes to their separate corners.”

“They don’t talk to each other anymore, they don’t deal with each other anymore on a regular basis,” he told her. “They don’t get to know each other.”

“I think in Washington there’s too much anger right now,” Christie went on to say, adding that it’s easier to hate a political opponent – or even the new kid at school – when you don’t get to know them.

Later, he was encouraged by a teacher to “tone down” his act. The teacher cited some of his more famous interactions, like calling the Navy SEAL an idiot or telling a man protesting on behalf of Superstorm Sandy victims last year to “sit down and shut up.”

“I appreciate your comments, I really do,” Christie said in response, adding that sometimes, when he thinks he’s crossed a line, he’s not ashamed to apologize.

But the event also featured some conflict.

A group of noisy protesters gathered in a parking lot outside the event took issue with Christie’s decision last year to make only partial state payments into the public-employee pension system.

And inside the ‘town hall’ itself, Christie was pressed by a woman who asked him about state corporate-tax incentives awarded to companies that have contributed to political organizations connected to Christie and also expressed concerns about the way a proposed settlement with Exxon Mobil is playing out.

Christie waited for her to ask the full question, and then jumped all over a mistake she made in her premise – confusing millions with thousands at one point.

“If you’re wrong about the numbers you should know about it,” Christie said. ‘When your numbers are completely wrong . . . you’re just making stuff up.”

“It’s fine if you want to make your point and be dramatic about it, but you’ve got to be right,” he said.

But Christie has also had a penchant at the town-hall events to stretch the truth or make mistakes of his own when it comes to reciting numbers. And during yesterday’s event he misspoke a couple of times himself.

Christie said after Democrats raised taxes and fees 115 times before he took office in 2010 that he pledged that approach would end.

“In five and a half years, we’ve had no tax increases,” Christie said.

But it was his own budget last year that increased nearly two dozen state fees and fines. It also extended the sales tax to online retailers and sought to apply the state tobacco tax to so-called e-cigarettes.

Christie also said yesterday that New Jersey’s “millionaire’s tax” kicks in at $400,000, but the top-end state income tax rate of 8.97 percent actually begins at $500,000 for both married couples and single filers. That’s the same rate former Gov. Jim McGreevey enacted in 2004.

After the town hall, a spokesman for Christie said his comments on the millionaire’s tax were rooted in temporary tax rates that former Gov. Jon Corzine put in place for the 2009 tax year. Those rates have since expired.

Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, said he doesn’t expect much focus during Christie’s upcoming New Hampshire events to be put on New Jersey issues like the income-tax rates.

Voters there will be more interested in his stances on core-conservative positions, Murray said.

“These are the things that they’re paying attention to,” he said. “The questions there are going to be about gun rights and abortion and education.”

national poll released earlier this week by Monmouth’s polling institute put Christie at the back of the field among 17 potential GOP candidates. Just 5 percent of those surveyed said they would like to see Christie as the party’s nominee for president.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush led the field at 13 percent, followed at 11 percent by both Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But Murray downplayed Christie’s relatively poor standing amongst the other GOP hopefuls, saying his bigger problem is that Republicans nationally have an increasingly negative overall opinion of him.

“He’s going in the wrong direction,” Murray said.

Dworkin, the Rider professor, said Christie will have to lay out a vision for the country going forward that appeals to voters.

“Historically, presidential elections are not won on a person’s record,” Dworkin said. “It’s not that that’s not important. What they want to know is, what are you going to do for the country?”

Still, Valerie Nugent, the Hopelawn woman who challenged the governor yesterday on the corporate-tax incentives and the Exxon Mobil settlement, urged New Hampshire voters to do their homework on Christie.

“They should look at the real numbers in terms of New Jersey’s economy,” she said, citing the state’s poor credit rating and skipped full pension contributions as examples.

“I could just go on and on,” Nugent said.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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