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.
Kanter’s question was the latest to put Christie on the defensive.
In recent weeks the Republican governor has found himself defending his administration’s use of Superstorm Sandy aid and explaining why protesters have attended his town hall events — he blames the Communications Workers of America, the largest union representing public employees.
Thursday’s event came as the Attorney General’s Office confirmed it was investigating why a state police officer had taken photographs of protesters at Christie’s South River event on Tuesday, something that was first reported by PolitickerNJ.com. On Wednesday, acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman ordered state police to stop taking photographs of the demonstrators at the public events.
The state police have also increased security at the events, using wands to scan attendees and checking their bags before they can enter. A state police spokesman said it was unrelated to the protests and something that had been long planned, as hundreds of people attend the events.
There were demonstrators there Thursday, but unlike events in Mount Laurel and South River, where protesters shouted out questions at the governor, they took a different approach.
Eleven people sitting in a row, each wearing homemade T-shirts that together spelled out “Bridgegate?” stood up quietly raising their hands each time Christie called on members of the audience to ask him a question. The governor never called on any one from the group, all members of New Jersey Citizen Action, a liberal advocacy organization.
Ann Vardeman, who was wearing one of the shirts, said the group had hoped to ask the governor whether there had ever been a traffic study performed by the Port Authority — the reason Christie’s appointees at the agency had given for the lane closures last year.
“We followed the rules, we didn’t disrupt anything, we were really trying to be respectful and get our question asked,” she said. “This is a question that a lot of people have and the citizens of New Jersey and every single person on that bridge deserves an answer.”
When asked if the group was intimidated by the increased security measures, Vardeman said, “We don’t have anything to hide, we don’t have anything to be scared of. We’re not doing anything wrong.” She added that Citizen Action was “appalled” at the state police for photographing protesters at the last event.
Christie had a number of supporters in the event, and many said they didn’t mind the increased security.
“I think with the most recent town hall meetings with the people coming in and causing trouble they’ve increased it, and I had no problem being wanded, and I think if you have a problem being wanded then you shouldn’t be here,” said Barbara Moritz of Flemington.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr