Protesters discuss their questions to Christie

Posted: March 16, 2014

Police had surrounded a yowling Kailee Whiting by the time the governor turned to address the crowd in Mount Laurel.

Visibly infuriated that students were disrupting his town-hall meeting Thursday, Gov. Christie condemned the boisterous heckling from Whiting and five of her friends as a "coordinated, partisan effort" to stifle honest debate in the state.

"When people are going to stand up and yell and scream . . . it shuts down debate and discussion," he said.

But the Rowan University students in question - all escorted out of Thursday's meeting by police - say the effort was barely organized, let alone partisan.

"This is the first [political] action I've ever organized," said Whiting, a sophomore communications and sociology major at Rowan. "I was running around on Wednesday night with my head cut off trying to plan everything. We left at 7:45 Thursday morning, and that was that."

Christie spoke briefly before opening the floor for questions, boasting that state property tax rates rose 1.7 percent in 2013 compared with an average yearly growth rate of 7 percent in the 10 years preceding his administration. He cited the 2 percent cap on property tax increases, passed in 2010, as the reason for the slowdown.

After Christie had fielded a few queries from the audience - and took a few shots at the state Supreme Court - Michael Brein, 20, rose and began to shout at the governor. As Brein attempted to ask the governor about his management of the Hurricane Sandy relief effort, his voice was engulfed in boos from the crowd.

"Either sit down and keep quiet or get out," Christie said through his microphone, eliciting cheers from the audience of about 500 spectators.

Instead, five of Brein's associates - all members of the Glassboro Student Union at Rowan - took turns standing and shouting until police asked them to leave the YMCA gymnasium.

"We wanted to hold the governor accountable for his actions," said Brein, of Bellmawr. "He holds these meetings in Republican towns at times when working-class people can't attend. None of these people are asking about Bridgegate or Sandy at all."

Thursday's was the 113th town-hall meeting the governor had held since taking office.

Though she said she has always been politically aware, Whiting, 19, had never participated in a public protest until Tuesday morning, when a friend invited her to a similar protest at the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton.

It was there that Giancarlo Tello, a student organizer with the union-backed political action group New Jersey Working Families Alliance, approached Whiting and fellow Christie heckler Patrick Oehme, asking whether they would be interested in attending the Mount Laurel meeting.

The students said Tello merely provided support, suggesting questions to ask Christie and providing legal advice without mandating an agenda. Only one of the students, Brein, is officially affiliated with the alliance.

"We just wanted to show that the governor is not willing to tell the truth when confronted," Tello, 24, said.

The alliance - backed by the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the United Food and Communications Workers union, among others - previously sent protesters to Christie's 2014 town-hall meetings in Port Monmouth and Toms River.

After returning from Trenton, Whiting and Oehme spent the next two nights, mostly on Facebook and e-mail, trying to recruit students "interested in promoting justice," Oehme said. After adding four students to their roster - "Everyone else all had midterms," he explained - the group members spent Wednesday evening ironing out what they planned to ask, in tandem with advice from Tello.

"We even tried to dress like young Republicans, just to get in the door," Whiting said.

She and Oehme scoffed at being labeled a "partisan" group. Whiting, of Mount Holly, said she voted for Christie last fall, before souring on him after the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal.

Oehme, 18, said he disagrees with President Obama's policies and does not align himself with a party.

"If there was a Democrat out there closing bridges and preventing ambulances from getting across, I'd be protesting him, too," he said.

Oehme said he felt motivated to rally against the governor after witnessing the devastation that Sandy wreaked across his hometown of Brick. Fourth to speak, after Brein, Whiting, and Leah Ly, Oehme attempted to confront the governor about his budget for the "Stronger Than the Storm" advertising campaigns that ran after Sandy.

"There was extreme devastation," he said. "Houses were swept away; a lot still have mold damage. Then it turns out a lot of the Sandy money might have been going to ad campaigns or to build a senior center in Belleville."

Ly, a senior communications and sociology major at Rowan, said that while growing up in North Jersey, she was surrounded by political discourse.

"My mom lived in Greenwich Village, New York, in the late '70s," she said. "She was a big ally for the queer community there. She's very proud that I stood up for my beliefs."

Ly said her mother often commutes to work in New York City from their home in Pompton Lakes, Passaic County, and - though neither mother nor daughter was personally affected by Sandy or Bridgegate - she sees it as her duty to help fight for the less fortunate around her.

"I asked the governor that if his wife or children were stuck on that bridge, how quickly he'd get results. I'm not satisfied with the answers that have been given. My mother is not satisfied."

Contact Jerry Iannelli at 856-778-3882

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