At town hall meeting, Christie hears more about Sandy aid

At a town hall meeting, Gov. Christie hears more concerns on Sandy.
At a town hall meeting, Gov. Christie hears more concerns on Sandy. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 22, 2014

PORT MONMOUTH, N.J. - If people were expecting the bridge scandal or other controversies consuming Gov. Christie's second term to be the focus of his first town hall since June, that was not what faced Christie inside a VFW hall Thursday in a town roughed up by Sandy.

Instead, Christie was inundated by questions from people consumed by their own difficult and personal problems - most of them Sandy victims, deep in the weeds of a protracted rebuilding process, many with lost or damaged homes.

"I could care less abut Bridgegate," said Michelle Wallbank of Keansburg, out of her home since before the storm, out of money to rebuild, placed on waiting lists for various grants, out of answers.

If in New Jersey, politics has been lately focused not just on the local, but on the local lanes of the George Washington Bridge, Christie's return to the town-hall ring that made his reputation pre-scandal was marked by pleas from people afraid for their own futures.

Not one person asked about the bridge.

"I'm Debbie from Brick, and I just want to go home," said the first questioner, Debbie Fortier, wearing a "homeless for one year" T-shirt.

Christie leaned into the canvas tape separating him from the crowd and told her, "Debbie, I'm Chris, the governor, and I want to help you." But he offered no solution to her problems, except patience.

"I can't wait," she said.

"I don't want to wait either," he said. "I can't wave a magic wand to make this happen."

Fortier was one of several Sandy victims to present complicated rebuilding issues to the governor, befuddled by red tape for which Christie mostly blamed the federal government, not the state's criticized administering of grant programs.

All in all, it was a crowd of several hundred that, despite protesters outside and one questioner asking about a fired Sandy contractor, mostly wanted answers and solutions.

Two single mothers asked about reforming divorce law in the state, a third asked about institutions for developmentally disabled children. One person advocated for jughandle beautification. A second homeowner despaired at being cut off from grant money.

Some reporters nestled among the dozen and a half cameras rustled in impatience as Christie spent long minutes talking about the legal issues confronting newly divorced mothers in New Jersey.

The town hall was open to anyone who showed up. Christie picked questioners from raised hands.

It was a fairly low-key return by Christie to the town-hall format, once a place of swagger and show-me-what-you've-got give and take. This was his 110th time doing it, but the first since scandals erupted over his staff's role in directing lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as alleged retribution toward the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie.

Among the protesters at the entrance, a few said they had been barred by the governor's staff from bringing in or displaying their signs. George Kasimos said Christie's staff threatened to arrest him if he brought in his "Stop FEMA Now" signs. Isabel Newson held up a "Resign Christie" sign from her seat at the end.

"Stronger Than the Subpoena," read one sign. Exaggerated coughing seemed intended to signal skepticism at some of his answers, and there was a shouted "Answer the question!" but little outright confrontation. A woman who was cut off at Christie's previous appearance in nearby Keansburg - "I'm definitely not answering questions," he told her - said he had in fact called her later that night.

Regarding the signs, Christie spokesman Colin Reed said: "We have a long-standing policy of not allowing any signs, either for or against the administration, at town-hall meetings."

He said no one was asked to leave by anyone on the governor's staff.

For his part, Christie continued blaming the federal government for cumbersome post-Katrina rules. He said the state had asked several times for a waiver of a federal requirement that stops people from rebuilding while awaiting the outcome of grant applications. He said the state would end up spending "as much money in auditing as we will on victims."

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency - which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, which victims say has drastically underpaid them for their damage - has refused to join a state mediation and arbitration program for insurance disputes.

"There's a new F-word," he said. "FEMA."

He said the state was unable to regulate the federal government's administration of the flood insurance program as it can private companies. "They are the greedy corporations taking your money and not paying," he said.

He defended the initial hiring of a contractor to administer housing recovery grants and said the alternative of the state's hiring employees itself would have been unacceptable. He did not say why the contractor was fired.

And he contended that New York state is further behind in doling out its rebuilding money.

Traffic problems did rear their head at the meeting - but the discussion was about jughandle beautification, not subpoenas and allegations of abuse of power at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

And here, apparently, was a traffic problem Christie could dispense with quickly. He set up a meeting between jughandle agitator Daniel Nothstein and his transportation commissioner.

If it was a Christie minus the swagger, it was nonetheless a forum where the governor seemed able to connect, show some empathy, and, once again, as he mentioned at the start, deal with "lots of crying adults."

By the end, he was trading friendly expletives with one man, accepting a compliment about his weight loss, and considering a suggestion that he throw out his Springsteen CDs. He took a question from a 3-year-old, who said "my house is broken," but did not ask her, à la Springsteen, to sing "Waiting on a Sunny Day."

In tears, Conni Freestone told the governor her mother had passed away in a temporary rental home awaiting Sandy funding, but added, the woman had "really liked you."

"Your mother would have said, 'Help my daughter,' " he replied.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.inquirer.com/

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