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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

By Melissa Hayes and Karen Sudol, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

HACKENSACK, NJ — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is back to the town hall events that helped create his image as a straight-talking, tough-walking politician not afraid to mix it up with the people who elected him.

But now, nearly three months into the biggest scandal of Christie’s political career, these carefully staged and tightly controlled events have been marked by protests and tainted by claims of police intimidation.

And on Thursday in Flemington, Christie faced a first: a direct question from the audience about the George Washington Bridge controversy itself.

Fred Kanter of Mountain Lakes took the microphone and after a few jokes with Christie asked the governor to explain himself about why he fired the aide who wrote that “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email at the heart of the scandal.

Kanter, a Democrat, took issue with Christie’s January statement that Bridget Anne Kelly was fired because she lied to him. Kanter, facing Christie in a room full of about 400 people, called that “a very self-centered reason for firing somebody” and said Kelly should have been let go for her involvement in the lane closures.

It was a question that provoked Christie’s longest statement on Kelly’s behavior since he fired her, and it came after the governor had boasted that residents were not concerned about the closures because they weren’t raising the issue with him at events.

“Let me be really clear — and I thought I was really clear that day — that what happened in that circumstance is unacceptable, not approved by me, would never be approved by me and the folks who were involved in that absolutely would have lost their jobs, whether they told the truth or lied about it,” Christie said.

But the governor wouldn’t go as far as to say Kelly, of Ramsey, had broken any laws, noting that prosecutors are looking into the matter so it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

Christie was matter-of-fact in his response. He was animated, talking with his hands as he often does, but he didn’t raise his voice as he’s done when confronted by critics. The governor called the access lane closures, which tied up traffic in Fort Lee for four days, “wrong and abusive and unacceptable.” A state legislative panel and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating the closures.

After the event Kanter said he didn’t think Christie sufficiently answered his question.

“I think he’s very, very skillful — of course, that’s why he’s governor — and he danced around the question I asked,” Kanter said.