Christie has emotional ties to twice-stricken Seaside

Pete Bachella shows Christie his New Jersey map tattoo during the governor's visit to the area Saturday.
Pete Bachella shows Christie his New Jersey map tattoo during the governor's visit to the area Saturday. (JULIO CORTEZ / Associated Press)
Posted: September 16, 2013

For Gov. Christie, the Jersey Shore towns where the boardwalk fire raged last week are not just another couple of municipalities in his state.

Seaside - Seaside Park, where the fire began, and Seaside Heights, where it ended - is more closely associated with the governor, and more emblematic of his time in office, than perhaps any other place in New Jersey.

This is home to that iconic image from Sandy's wrath, the Jet Star roller coaster in the Atlantic Ocean, which Christie and President Obama surveyed from Marine One during their controversial post-storm, preelection tour of the Jersey Shore. Down the boardwalk are the historic Kohr's Frozen Custard, where the fire started, and the Funtown Pier, which collapsed Thursday - both backdrops for the last of Christie's legendary fleece-wearing post-Sandy news conferences.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Seaside was where the Christie family vacationed once a week at a bungalow owned by his mother's cousin. In the fall of 1980, Seaside was where Christie and 11 other brand-new Livingston High School graduates partied. In the summer of 2012, Seaside was where a TMZ camera caught Christie berating a heckler, ice cream cone in hand.

And in spring 2013, when Britain's Prince Harry said he wanted to see the damage from Sandy, Seaside is where Christie hosted him. The royal son was given a Christie fleece with his name on it.

"I know we have lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens," Christie said Friday, having canceled a trip to Florida for his wife's 50th birthday to oversee the emergency efforts. "We will rebuild. We will make new memories for our families. Because that's what we do."

The tone and the language were all too familiar to Seaside, which felt the full force of Sandy in October 2012, only to watch its repaired boardwalk burn on Thursday.

As he had after Sandy, Christie stood near the Atlantic, mourning loss and preaching resilience in front of a national television audience.

As he had after Sandy, Christie hugged distraught residents, held women's faces in his hands, talked close.

And as he had after Sandy, Christie promised that the boardwalk institutions would be rebuilt - but it would be different.

"No question we will rebuild it," Christie said of the Seaside boardwalk after Sandy. "But for those of us who are my age, it will never be the same."

In both instances, he name-dropped local institutions. An outpost of 3 Brothers Pizza, which he had frequented, was destroyed in the fire, he told reporters.

Likewise, after his first aerial tour of the Jersey Shore one day after Sandy, he opened his news conference with what he had seen in Seaside: "The stand in the middle of the boardwalk that sells sausage and peppers and lemonade is gone. . . . I looked for it today. And the entire structure is gone. . . . It was an overwhelming afternoon for me, emotionally."

There have been other fires in New Jersey, far more destructive fires, in which people were killed. But the governor did not show up at those fire scenes.

Christie seemed to take this one more personally.

The Christie family connection to Seaside goes back nearly half a century, his younger brother, Todd, said Friday. The only vacations the family took - and the only times the children would get to spend full days in a row with their working father - were weekly summer trips to Seaside.

The vacations involved hanging on the beach, playing mini-golf at Barnacle Bill's, spinning the wheels at the boardwalk arcades for a chance to win a prize.

"And sausage and peppers and waffles and ice cream were staples," Todd Christie wrote in an e-mail.

So seeing the destruction of a favorite childhood haunt - not once, but twice in less than a year - has seemed to stir something in the governor.

"He is a very loyal guy and has a lot of emotion," Todd said. "There are a lot of memories of relatives (passed away and alive), and fun that we had there. Remember, we didn't have a lot of money and thus rarely went away. So these small trips to Seaside were everything."

By the time Christie became governor, new visitors were showing up in Seaside: the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore. In speeches, Christie relentlessly and repeatedly hammered Snooki and the gang as being embarrassments to the state and inauthentic New Jerseyans (most were from New York).

His remarks, as his takedowns often do, went viral, stirring a virtual rumble on the Seaside boardwalk between Snooki and Christie. That further propelled Christie's fame - and his association with Seaside.

The Friday before the unofficial start of the summer, Memorial Day weekend, Christie finally met a few of the Jersey Shore cast members in Seaside for a brief, cordial, awkward exchange. Christie had just made a lengthy appearance on NBC's Today, which was broadcasting live from Seaside. On air, Christie cut a five-mile-long ribbon to symbolize the reopening of the boardwalk - and, therefore, the recovery of the entire Shore.

"The Jersey Shore is in your heart," he said at the time.

Christie's leadership in those months after Sandy was widely praised by his constituents, and his poll numbers skyrocketed. So as the Republican governor runs for reelection in November against Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie has used Sandy imagery in his campaign.

His new TV ad released Thursday, the morning of the fire, ends with a shot of Christie looking at Seaside's now-destroyed Funtown Pier. The narrator's words: "When tragedy struck, he was there every step of the way."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com. Read his "Christie Chronicles" blog at inquirer.com/ChristieChronicles.

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