Casino workers confront Christie at town meeting

Posted: August 16, 2014

OCEAN CITY - Unrest spurred by a spate of upcoming casino closures in Atlantic City confronted Gov. Christie on Thursday at the Shore, as workers showed up at a town-hall-style event and demanded that Christie take action.

Christie, meanwhile, told the crowd in Ocean City that there was a limit to what he could do.

"The government can't order private businesses to do things," Christie told those gathered for the event at the Ocean City Music Pier. "And you don't want to live in a world where we do."

At the same time, Christie said his administration was working to find jobs for the soon-to-swell ranks of the unemployed in Atlantic City, where the number of casinos that have closed or are slated to close grew to four this week.

On Tuesday, the $2.4 billion Revel Casino Hotel - the latest addition to the resort town, which the state helped push to completion in 2012 - announced that it would close in September, leaving an additional 3,200 workers without jobs.

The Revel announcement followed the closure of the Atlantic Club earlier this year, and news that Showboat and Trump Plaza will also close.

A number of casino workers came Thursday to Ocean City, where they heralded Christie's arrival with chants of "Save our jobs!" and "Five-year promise!" - apparently a reference to Christie's five-year revitalization plan for Atlantic City, unveiled in 2011.

Rina Rimska, a cocktail waitress for 13 years at the slated-to-close Showboat, said as she waited for Christie's arrival that workers "feel outraged. Because he hasn't done anything."

After Christie was "so eager" to promote Revel, Rimska said, "why wouldn't he speak up? At least speak up."

Christie announced Wednesday that he would convene political leaders and casino industry officials for a summit to be held Sept. 8 on the future of Atlantic City.

To some in Ocean City on Thursday, that wasn't soon enough. "If we wait two weeks, Showboat will be closed," Cindy Pemberton, who has worked at the casino for 27 years, told Christie.

Christie said state officials were working "literally every day" with private employers in Atlantic City. But "what you're asking me to do is become the CEO of Showboat," he said. "I don't want to run Showboat. I don't want to run Borgata. I don't want to run Revel. . . . I don't want to run any of them."

The administration is "trying to come up with a solution that could help you and others save your jobs," Christie told Pemberton. "That's what our goal is."

Earlier, he had told the crowd: "I'm as committed today to Atlantic City and this region of this state as I've been the last five years. For all of you who are here and concerned . . . I am plugged in. I am listening."

Thursday's event marked the latest stop on Christie's summer tour at the Shore, where the governor has been making a push for still-unspecified changes to the state pension system.

Christie, who recently announced a commission to recommend changes to the system, continued to argue that the state's pension costs, which have been growing to compensate for years of skipped payments into the system, are unsustainable.

The governor, who had agreed to make escalating payments as part of a pension-reform deal reached during his first term, backtracked on the schedule earlier this year, cutting the state's payments to fill a revenue shortfall.

On Thursday when Christie's entrance was greeted by a few shouts about pensions, he said: "If they want to yell at folks to fund their pensions, they should yell at all the governors who came before me . . . who put nothing into [the pension system]. I'm cleaning up their mess. But a mess it is."

Christie singled out health benefit costs as a problem, noting a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that said the average premium for a public worker in New Jersey - $1,334 - was 39 percent higher than the national average.

As he called for a need to curb the state's costs, Christie said he wasn't attacking public workers.

"What I am saying is, we can't afford the excess," he said.

Christie again acknowledged Thursday that he is weighing a bid for president - a topic he broached after a woman in the crowd encouraged him to run, drawing applause as she told Christie, "I just want to say we need you."

"Third question in - you people are slow," he said.

Christie, who has been traveling the country as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he would likely decide on a run by the end of this year or the beginning of next. He called it "an enormous decision" and said "the hardest part" is weighing the effect on his four children.

"If I really believe it's right for me, my family, and our country, I'll do it," he said. "If I don't, I won't."

In response to a woman who asked a broad question on national issues, Christie issued several criticisms of President Obama, saying the president had thrown the health-care system "into complete chaos."

Christie voiced support for "significant" tax reform on the national level, saying too-high tax rates are to blame for companies shifting their headquarters outside the United States.

And he again faulted Obama in light of the recent influx of unaccompanied children trying to enter the United States from Mexico, saying the president "hasn't done his job" in securing the border and because "we don't have an immigration system that works."


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

www.inquirer.com/christiechronicles

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