Buono: Christie using Sandy ads to boost campaign

Posted: August 09, 2013

NEPTUNE, N.J. - In a slashing attack accusing Gov. Christie of using the post-Sandy "Stronger Than the Storm" commercials to strengthen his own reelection campaign, his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, demanded Wednesday that he repay some of the millions of dollars being spent on the ads.

Buono, a state senator from Middlesex County, launched her most direct assault yet on one of the Republican governor's key campaign assets - his shepherding of the state after Sandy - as she stood before a house gutted by the storm and owned by two teachers who say they have yet to receive rebuilding funds from the state.

She seized on a weekend report in the Asbury Park Press indicating that Christie picked a high bidder for a federally funded, post-Sandy tourism advertising campaign.

Another advertising agency would have cost $2 million less - but that agency didn't plan to make Christie the star of its TV commercials, according to the report. Buono wants Christie to take $2 million of his campaign money and direct it to victims of the storm.

The ad campaign is paid for with $25 million earmarked for tourism marketing from the more than $20 billion in New Jersey Sandy aid approved by Congress and the Obama administration.

The ads contain a catchy - to some, annoying - jingle, and all end with shots of Christie, his wife, and children on the beach together declaring how strong New Jerseyans have been since the storm.

Alleging that these are clearly Christie campaign ads, Buono said he should repay the difference between the winning $4.7 million bid from the firm MWW and the lower bid from Sigma Group.

Two other bids came in even higher, but those proposals did not make it into a final round of review by a Christie-appointed panel, according to the Press.

"Nothing short of outrage should be shown because he is putting his ego and ambitions over the victims," Buono said.

The ads run in states beyond New Jersey. Buono has long alleged that Christie plans to leave office and run for president if he wins a second term in November.

A spokesman for the governor, Michael Drewniak, said Buono was "willfully abusing the truth." He attributed the cost differential to "MWW's much more aggressive, labor-intensive work in producing and supporting a large number of localized events, coordination with businesses, municipalities, and local and regional tourism organizations."

The "Stronger Than the Storm" campaign has produced nine promotional events at the Shore, Drewniak said. He said Christie's role in the ads had nothing to do with the selection of the agency.

John Lambert, 57, and his wife, Lee Ann Newland, 49, both music teachers, don't see the point of the ad campaign, considering their circumstances. They said they evacuated their Monmouth County home when storm surge overran their neighborhood next to an inlet.

"Our house was just completely turned upside down," Lambert said at Wednesday's news conference. Most of the first floor is missing, and the place reeks of mold. The grass outside is overgrown.

While contractors say the house needs to be demolished and rebuilt, the insurance company disagrees and won't pay to rebuild, they said. They've run out of money paying the mortgage and taxes on a house they don't live in, and have put it up for sale.

Although the couple were approved for a $10,000 state grant to stay in the county for three years, they said they cannot put that money toward construction and were denied a second grant of up to $150,000 from the state's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program. The program, they were told, ran out of money.

"I don't feel like we're part of a 'strong Jersey,' " Lambert said. "I feel like we're part of what's being left out. And to hear funds are being used for political campaigning, it just doesn't seem right."

The couple have been staying in a nearby apartment funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which distributes the aid, confirmed that federal funds for the program have run out, but said it is hoping for more money in the next round of aid to be distributed by the federal government.

Between 3,500 and 4,000 homeowners received the kind of grant that Lambert and Newland applied for; 5,700 are on a waiting list.

Sounds of reconstruction echo in the couple's neighborhood, and "Jersey Strong" bumper stickers abound.

But "in our house," Newland said, " 'Jersey Strong' is 'Jersey Wrong.' "

They don't support Christie - and said they didn't before Sandy, either.

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

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