Karen Heller: Live! SRO! It's New Jersey's other Boss

Gov. Christie hugs Kim Coll, with Joey Meitz nearby. Staffers advised arriving an hour early, and they were not kidding.
Gov. Christie hugs Kim Coll, with Joey Meitz nearby. Staffers advised arriving an hour early, and they were not kidding. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 22, 2012

Having missed Bruce Springsteen's two-hour set in Asbury Park last Saturday, I decided to catch up with Jersey's other rock star, Chris Christie.

A natural performer, he has conducted 70 town-hall meetings since becoming governor two years ago, but the Voorhees event was Christie's first ever in a mall. It was a Town Mall meeting! Also, the launch of the 10 percent Tax Cut/Christie for President 2016 tour.

The governor's staff advised arriving an hour early. Really, to discuss the budget? But, yes, 90 minutes before Christie's arrival there wasn't a seat left at the event wedged between Macy's and Bath & Body Works (Introducing Escape to the Tropics).

I can't imagine Tom Corbett drawing this size a crowd. Then again, Governor Garbo doesn't hold town-hall meetings. He doesn't tend to meet.

For a man not running for anything, Christie spent the week appearing on Today, Morning Joe, Imus in the Morning, and Charlie Rose, and sharing Aha! moments on Oprah's Next Chapter. The Divine O admitted, "I don't make a habit of talking to politicians," but she finds Christie so "intriguing."

In the governor's Mendham home, Oprah and Christie discussed their issues with weight, why he's not running for president ("In terms of me, I'll be much more ready four years from now"), and why he's so intriguing.

Before Christie's Voorhees arrival, a video with soaring music trumpeted his achievements, while an advance team of a dozen white guys milled around in dark suits. There was a banner between U.S. and Jersey flags, reading "The Jersey Comeback has Begun," albeit in an unfortunate, dreary industrial gray.

When Christie finally arrived, one man barked, "You're late," the heckling now a staple in the Governor YouTube road show.

"What can I say? Traffic in New Jersey stinks."

Badda boom.

And, with that, the governor began another command performance for a standing-room-only crowd of 400.

Christie's an entertainer, gifted at charming crowds with a blustery ego to match.

He's the anti-Mitt.

The governor's a master of self-deprecation - "people say a lot of things about me; subtlety isn't one of them" - and rarely strays far from himself as subject. "I say things straight and direct. People say, 'Oh, God, I can't believe he said that.' My wife says that all the time." He reels off stats flawlessly and constantly, even if they don't always hold water.

Christie takes credit for creating 60,000 private-sector jobs. That same day Romney, whom Christie has endorsed, said that politicians "taking credit for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet."

The governor is promising 10 percent tax cuts across the board for the working poor, middle class, and one percenters like himself. "This is the fight of the next five months."

The problem is that Christie won't offer specifics in how the government will provide relief without cutting funding, especially in education, his holy war in New Jersey politics.

No, it appears he will let the Democrat-controlled Legislature play the heavy in balancing the budget and possibly killing the carrot of a tax cut in overtaxed New Jersey. Or, as he said, "it's like your money is stuck in their dead, cold hands."

Curiously, Christie claims not to play partisan politics while indirectly blaming Democratic legislators and predecessor Jon Corzine for many of the state's financial woes.

Christie has inspired a video festival of him barking at anyone who crosses his path. At town-hall gatherings and news conferences, people wait for these moments the way they might the final car chase in a buddy caper, the eventual kiss in a romantic comedy. Sure enough, the Town Mall meeting did not disappoint.

Given that New Jersey is sliced and diced into an improbable 565 municipalities, voter issues become hyperlocal in a matter of seconds.

The most pressing matter in Voorhees? The planned Regis Academy Charter School, projected to yank $2.8 million in state aid from four area districts. Christie listened but said he was powerless to change the law. "I am not king, despite the fact that I would love to be."

A resident challenged the governor, questioning whether he was friendly with the charter operator.

Christie yelled back. "Guys like you are rude" and "don't allow for civil discourse in this state!" Christie ended: "You don't like the answer? That's the answer!"

The crowd roared.

"America's seeing New Jersey in a totally different light," Christie said earlier.

Garbage. It was precisely this moment of pure in-your-face Jersey indignation that won the crowd, just as it had beguiled Oprah.

Realizing he had wowed yet another audience, even at the mall, Christie left for Atlantic City to the boisterous din of Bon Jovi's "Have a Nice Day."

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com,

or @kheller on Twitter. Read

her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

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