Christie finds himself at home in Haddon Heights

Ricardo Rivera of Oaklyn is booted from the town-hall meeting after heckling Gov. Christie.
Ricardo Rivera of Oaklyn is booted from the town-hall meeting after heckling Gov. Christie. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2014

To retired banker Peter R. Hill, Gov. Christie "may be the last best hope" for less government spending, lower taxes, and fewer public employee pension benefits. He hopes to see a President Christie in the White House someday.

So at the end of Wednesday's town hall-style event at a Haddon Heights elementary school, Hill pronounced himself pleased.

"He pretty much said what I thought he was going to say," said Hill, a longtime resident who shook candidate Christie's hand during a 2009 campaign stop in Haddon Heights. "He couldn't cover everything, but he said what I came to hear."

A half-dozen issues did come up during the low-key event, which attracted a well-dressed audience of about 300 and featured a "Welcome Governor Christie" banner with a rainbow of handprints made by local schoolkids.

A noticeably slimmer and somewhat subdued Christie deftly juggled - and occasionally parried - questions about alimony reform, bank fraud, environmental regulations, estate taxes, pensions, Sandy relief, and state aid to public schools.

Except for a heckler whom security briskly escorted away without incident, the audience in the Atlantic Avenue School gymnasium was as polite as the governor.

A handful of mild-mannered protesters stayed outside, displaying hand-lettered signs about medical marijuana and preserving pension benefits for public employees.

Inside, no one asked about Bridgegate or the related unpleasantries that have dominated headlines in recent months. But the snap, crackle, and sass of other Christie events I've attended were in little evidence.

"One of the governor's staff said to me that it was more issue-driven than other town halls," Heights Mayor Ed Forte said. "I thought it was a fantastic event."

Christie was earnest and entertaining rather than explosive, solicitous rather than combative - allowing folks with the mike to ask multiple follow-up questions.

"He wasn't bullying me or demeaning me," said Judi Diepold, 61, who asked the governor a series of questions about pensions. The Oaklyn resident retired in 2010 after 38 years as a confidential secretary in the Appellate Division of Superior Court.

Diepold asked whether her benefits were secure. Christie told her, in essence, not to worry.

"I walked away satisfied," Diepold said. "He was forthright."

While he kept his answers congenial, Christie did have a few choice words for the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which he characterized as busy concocting tax-increase measures that will never become law on his watch.

"I will veto it," Christie said of the so-called millionaire's tax, which he referred to as the "$400,000-aires" tax.

"It's easy to say, 'Raise taxes on somebody else,' " the governor said. "But that has an impact on everybody. The more we [tax] New Jersey, the less people will want to live here."

The governor also got in a few digs about reporters and the state Supreme Court, before finishing with a paean to the "extraordinary honor" of working in "the second-oldest-operating statehouse" in America.

And when he sees his name on the door, Christie said, "I wonder, 'How the hell did this happen?' "

It was a setup for a good line: That his legislative opponents were wondering "the same thing."

The audience roared.

Leaving, Hill said, "Haddon Heights is a microcosm of America."

Christie should be so lucky.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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