Flag veto comes back at Christie

Gov. Christie, center, arrives for funeral services for singer Whitney Houston at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark on Saturday.
Gov. Christie, center, arrives for funeral services for singer Whitney Houston at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark on Saturday. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)
Posted: February 23, 2012

PALISADES PARK, N.J. - A month before his controversial order to honor the late Whitney Houston by flying flags at half-staff, Gov. Christie rejected a bill that would have required the deaths of active New Jersey service members to be reported to local and county leaders to ensure a similar show of respect.

Despite unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, the Republican governor let the measure die by not signing it. That's known as a pocket veto.

The bill is of renewed interest because of outrage that followed Christie's order to fly flags in the state at half-staff last Friday, the day before the New Jersey pop star's funeral. Social media exploded with commenters saying a singer with a history of drug abuse should not be afforded the same honor given to slain service members.

Asked at a news conference Wednesday about the bill he vetoed last month, Christie said he did not remember it. He noted that many pieces of legislation were sent to his desk in the waning hours of the legislative session. And he reiterated that he had ordered flags lowered to mark the deaths of dozens of service members, police officers, and public officials, as well as a high school baseball coach and E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

Then the governor lashed out at critics, saying people get "beer muscles" on Twitter and think they can say anything they want.

He said he was deeply offended by those who e-mailed him and called Houston a "crack 'ho." And he said not a single person complained to him in person.

He received a brief standing ovation at Houston's funeral, which he attended.

In extended remarks at a news conference after a town-hall meeting, Christie defended Houston's legacy as a philanthropist and cultural icon, and cited personal relationships with others who died after battling drug addiction.

"We need to start dealing with the underlying disease and stop calling people names," he said. "That's not what's going to make them better."

A longtime board member at a substance-abuse center in Morris County, Christie has a proposal, which he plans to unveil next week, to send nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

The dozens of e-mails he received about the flag issue and the Twitter comments, some of which he personally and publicly responded to, revealed "some ugly stuff in America," he said.

The public reaction "spotlights an underlying problem that is much more important for us to deal than if a flag is up" or half-staff, he said.

Christie recalled how singer Cissy Houston cried out in pain as her daughter's casket was taken from a Newark church while a recording of Whitney Houston played in the background.

"The kind of stuff that has been said about Houston . . . and what has been said to me about lowering the flag on her behalf, shows the worst part of ignorance in America about what substance abuse is all about," he said. "It's easy to vilify people, it really is, especially on Twitter."

Reaction wasn't limited to Twitter. The father of a slain serviceman in Michigan burned a New Jersey flag in protest.

State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), a sponsor of the bill, has reintroduced the measure, which would have the state notify officials to fly the flag at half-staff for a military member. She said she did not know why Christie vetoed it.

Though Christie's executive orders mandate that the flag fly at half-staff, some towns don't follow the edicts and others do it on the wrong days, Allen said. Her measure would ensure that every governing body lowered the flag at the same time.

She offered no opinion on the Houston controversy, but said she hoped Christie would sign her bill this time.

"It's a matter of respect," she said.

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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