In line, awaiting entrance to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s first town-hall meeting since the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal became, well, a scandal, stood a few middle-aged men. They discussed the debate over Christie’s claims that he knew nothing of the bogus traffic study orchestrated by his puppets at the Port Authority. “He probably knew,” one of them said. “And I don’t give a shit.”
Not far away, union-organized protesters held signs reading “Stronger Than the Subpoenas?” and “Bruce Springsteen Hates You!”
But inside the VFW hall, it was as though Bridgegate had never happened.
Christie today made his first smart political move since he became embroiled in scandal. He chose to face the people of his state for the first time since Bridgegate, in a place where nobody cares about Bridgegate: Middletown, a location hit hard by Hurricane Sandy.
Christie, his tan the result of a recent vacation to Puerto Rico, and his confidence that of a politician who has come to the realization that his survival now greatly depends on utilizing every ounce of power that his famous personality holds, was back on message. Gone was the wounded look he sported during the weekend of the Super Bowl. For the first time since his marathon press conference Jan. 9, he stood tall, strutting into the middle of a packed crowd on Veterans Lane.
The governor used every opportunity to drive the narrative of his choosing: It’s the federal government, stupid. Oversight on top of oversight and red tape on top of red tape, Christie said, was the real enemy. Any criticism of inadequate response in the wake of Sandy, Christie spun into an example that the federal government was holding the people of New Jersey hostage. The federal government, he said, is like a “greedy corporation,” “FEMA is the new F-word,” and they don’t have “the first idea of what they’re doing.”
Christie managed to bat away criticisms of his own administration’s handling of Sandy. He skirted around the issue of why he had fired HGI, a company hired in a $68 million contract to help restore the homes of Sandy victims. “Answer the question!” some in the audience yelled. But he didn’t. And the audience moved on.
Christie dealt with an emotional woman who had just lost her mother while she was living in a temporary home after being displaced by Sandy. He listened to her thoughtfully, his chin resting on his fist. The moment, unbelievably, became a positive one for the guv, with the woman telling him of her recently deceased mother, “She really liked you.”
He had fun with the audience, telling a man, to much laughter, “If you stand up and ask a stupid question, I am telling you the crowd will turn on you.” He chatted about his Bruce Springsteen fandom, “I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. [Bruce] is it for me.” He melted hearts when he fielded a question from an adorable 3-year-old named Nicole.
The town-hall clocked in at more than 90 minutes, and the biggest political story of Gov. Christie’s career—perhaps the biggest political story in the country—didn’t come up once. Christie’s staff, embedded in the crowd like Secret Service agents, prevented disaster where they could. When a woman held up a sign inside reading “Resign Christie,” an aide asked that she be removed. When a man attempted to distribute flyers that claimed the majority of Sandy victims felt “forgotten,” he was told to stop.
The decision to get back out there in this way, in this specific part of New Jersey, was pure Christie genius. It allowed Christie to remind the press that his skill as a communicator has not diminished since the scandal, and it allowed him to get up on his high horse. Asked by a reporter about not hearing any concerns about Bridgegate as he was leaving the town hall, Christie snapped, “People care about real problems.”