VERNON TOWNSHIP, NJ - The line that formed outside of Vernon Township High School on Friday June 28, was minimally 500 people strong by about 10 a.m., as residents from Sussex County and beyond gathered for one of Governor Chris Christie's signature Town Hall meetings, the 109th in Christie's career to be exact.
As the crowd milled into the school's gymnasium, there was ample seating available, with about 1,000 folding chairs on the floor, as well as bleacher seating, which ended up mostly filled before the start of the event. Volunteers also handed out bottles of cold water to attendees as they were filing in, to help them beat the heat.
The audience ended up gathering into the space at about 1,400 strong, including citizens, members of local government bodies, and county and state government officials.
The crowd was so plentiful, parking at the school was maxed out, and shuttle buses transported attendees from lots at two other township schools nearby.
The Governor's visit followed the regular Town Hall protocols: a short video of Christie, 20 minutes of remarks, and then the opportunity for those picked by the Governor to engage in a question and answer session with him. Audience members were reminded by one of Christie's aides to keep the questions brief.
The Governor himself later prefaced the ground rules of the Q and A, which included all participants must raise their hands, and there would be no calling out, or shouting out questions or comments.
"I'll call on you, and someone will give you a microphone," Christie explained.
Christie said for those who speak respectfully, they would receive a respectful response in return.
He clarified how those who decide to "take the Governor of New Jersey out for a walk," would be dealt with.
"For the purpose of this rule, we are all from New Jersey," Christie said. "If you give it, you're getting right back."
Governor Takes The Stage
The spacious gymnasium exploded into cheers following Christie's video, and as he entered, taking center stage, literally, at the center of the gym, at the Viking emblem.
"Thanks for having me up to Sussex County, I'm happy to be back," Christie said.
He relayed how he often explains the beauty of New Jersey, and described the example of it, with his drive from his home in Mendham to Vernon Township.
He focused on some key items during his commentary, and the budget was one of those, indicating how fewer dollars have been spent than in the Corzine administration, how monies to the tune of $1.7 billion, are being paid into the pension system, and about state aid to the schools.
Christie told the crowd he strives to make government smaller and smaller, and how it already has been reduced since he has been in office.
"Government had gotten too big and bloated," Christie said. "I had to choke off the money source to grow it."
He said what has been accomplished over the last four years, has been accomplished in a bipartisan way, and does not want to allow New Jersey's government to turn into Washington, D.C.
"We can yell and scream as much as we want, but we've got to get things done," Christie added. "You didn't hire me to win a debate. My main job is getting things done."
With the recent budget process underway, and being prepared for his signing, Christie said it has not been everything he has wanted.
"The legislature messed me up yesterday, there was a lot of fighting," he said.
On Thursday, Christie said he juggled a funeral, his daughter Bridget's tenth birthday, and the drama in Trenton.
"At the statehouse," he joked, "there is no adult supervision."
"If I had to choose between the legislature, or being with Bridget on her birthday, I'm with Bridget on her birthday," Christie said, and the audience broke into applauds.
He said after eight or nine calls during the celebration, Bridget turned to him and asked, "Dad, what are they doing down there?"
He quipped, "Bridget, I ask that myself that every day."
Christie said Bridget, who has only seen her father as a public figure during her lifetime, replied, "Dad, if you have to leave to go to Trenton to take care of that, it's OK."
One item Christie said he has not been able to accomplish yet is to cut income taxes, and said partisan pushback is one of the reasons.
"They don't want to cut taxes," Christie said. "They believe they can spend your money better than you can."
Christie also would like to change the Supreme Court, and funding to schools. He finds it unfair how justices do not have to answer to certain actions, and asked audience members to imagine running into a justice at the A&P, and make a statement about spending $500 million tax dollars, and the reply would most likely be the justice "can't talk about it." Christie suggested the same scenario, except running into Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, Assemblyman Parker Space, or Senator Steve Oroho (R-24) and what the public response could be if one of them answered in the same manner.
"You will throw their rear ends out to the curb at the next election," Christie stated.
Christie said changes in the Supreme Court could lower property taxes, and also said school funding must be distributed more equitably, than it has been.
Creation of more private sector jobs is also on the agenda.
"I'm not satisfied yet, we need to get people back to work," Christie said.
New Jerseyans Get Their Turns at the Mic
After his remarks, the Governor led his question and answer session. Hands anxiously flew up throughout the gymnasium, as Christie made his first pick.
The woman he chose, Arlene Willis, introduced herself as from Toms River.
"Toms River, are you lost Arlene?" he joked.
She explained she was visiting family in Vernon. Willis inquired about the RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation) program following Hurricane Sandy.
Christie said there are grants up to $150,000 available, and the grants would be portioned out directly to the contractors for modular rebuilds. He explained with the RREM program in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, once many residents received their checks, they beat feet for other cities.
"The idea was to rebuild New Orleans," he said.
Another person the Governor chose introduced herself only as "Renee" from Highland Lakes, and thanked the Governor for approving medical marijuana for dispensation. She asked how it can continue, however, with the federal government shutting down dispensaries.
Christie explained Corzine signed the bill just before leaving office, and there are New Jersey dispensaries, including in Montclair, and Little Egg Harbor.
"It's not as in demand as people said it could be," Christie also said, explaining the screening process a patient must go through to obtain it.
On a separate note, Renee thanked the Governor for "everything you did for us during Sandy."
"I'm a Democrat, you've changed my mind," she concluded as the audience cheered.
Another resident named Nick Deluiso, asked about economic development in the Highlands Region. Christie said if a new bill for the Highlands area comes across his desk, without economic development already built in, he will veto it.
A small difference of opinion took place between Hope Raymond, another person he chose at random, and Christie, regarding his stance on gay marriage, suggesting 14,000 more jobs could be created if it was allowed.
"I think the institution of marriage should be one man and one woman," Christie said, as the audience cheered. "I have said to folks who disagree with me, put it on the ballot."
He said if it was voted for on the ballot as an amendment in the constitution, he would uphold it.
Until then, Christie said, "I don't have to compromise my principles, and someone else doesn't have to change theirs. It's a 2,000 year old tradition. I'm not for political expediency going to change my mind."
Christie said in 2009, the status quo had the opportunity to change it, and refused to do so.
"You and I have a fundamental disagreement on this," Christie told Raymond, as she volleyed back on the issue. "This effects everybody in the state."
He said the Democratic side will go around him on other things, but not on this.
"They will say, 'the people of New Jersey want it,' and I say 'prove it,'" Christie explained.
Bill Gettler of Wantage was the next Christie chose. Gettler told the Governor he sent letters in about corruption in Wantage Township and Sussex County, to both the Governor's and Attorney General's Offices. Gettler asked how to have the investigation executed about the corruption he contacted those state offices about.
Christie said he will seek out Gettler's letter and forward on to the Attorney General's office. Christie talked about his past record in going after corruption as he had when an attorney, but now, "that's not my job anymore, I try to stay away from the prosecution stuff. You get politicians involved in prosecution, it's a bad thing in my view."
Christie said it can take time for prosecutors to respond to an investigation, yet they are working on it, and they "work quietly."
Susan Williams, a Democratic Candidate for Assembly (D-24), was Christie's next pick, and she said she was also chosen to ask a question in Milford.
Williams' question was about taxes and, she first said, "I'm a Democrat, and I don't want to have my taxes go up either."
Williams said she read that New Jersey is in second place behind New Hampshire in terms of property taxes, and that New Jersey uses its property taxes to run the government, while other states use sales taxes.
Christie replied New Jersey's property taxes are for public education. From income tax funds, about $9 billion was spent on school aid, and property taxes about $30 billion. He said income taxes this year will generate about $11 billion, with sales tax "significantly less than that." In order to use another source, he said the state would have to raise another $30 billion, and the state has one of the highest income tax rates already. Christie said what Williams was suggesting would generate enormous sales and income tax rate increases. He said New Jersey's 7 percent sales tax rate is already one of the highest in the country. He said last year property taxes increased 1.7 percent, and last year 1.4 percent.
Christie said if it needed to be raised, New Jersey would become the highest sales tax state in the country, and instead need to spend less at all levels.
"In retrospect, I wish I had made the cap, zero," said Christie.
He said New Jerseyans are surviving well on two percent.
Williams continued that her concern is how much is society willing to cut.
Christie said he did not want to debate Williams because he is not running against her, and responded to her comment about making cuts, "We haven't cut anything yet. We've restrained the growth to two percent a year."
Christie said he does not believe the government should pump more money into into the system inequitably, and would do that by allocating more from income taxes. In Newark already, Christie said the state pays $24,000 a year per pupil with a 23 percent graduation rate, and in Asbury Park, it is $30,000 per pupil per year, and last year less than 50 percent of the district's graduating class read at an eighth grade level.
"This isn't just about being a hard-headed accountant, where I'm sitting here pounding numbers, this is about, 'I am paying for failure,'" Christie stated. "And I'm tired of paying for failure, and so are you."
Coincidentally, Christie pointed across the gymnasium, and next chose Williams' running mate, Bill Weightman, who asked about building an infrastructure for tourism in Sussex County.
"You're asking for a casino," the Governor replied, and then said a casino should not be referred to as "infrastructure," like highways and other types of infrastructure.
Christie said he had a five-year commitment in Atlantic City to see if there would be a comeback, and every region of the state benefitted from the progress.
Weightman said there was a $1.6 billion loss from the Revel Hotel.
Christie reminded Weightman that was a private investment, not a loss for the state, which the investors would get tax credit when they make money, and, they have not made money.
Sally Rinker, former Mayor of Vernon and President of the Vernon Taxpayer Association, spoke next, and thanked Christie for working so well with President Obama, despite their differences, after Hurricane Sandy.
Christie said the President reached out to help, and said he responded, joking that as a Mitt Romney supporter, he could have said, "I don't want you to come."
Christie pointed out that 22 of 23 boardwalks have been rebuilt since the storm.
Rinker talked with him about his stance on ethics reform and campaign financing.
"I'm willing to have campaign financing rules that apply to everybody," Christie said.
Christie was prompted by his staff to take the final question. He ended up choosing Mickey Clifford, who identified himself as working at Crystal Springs, and thanked the Governor for standing up for economic development of the Highlands Region.
Christie joked that the person with the last question should make it a good question.
"If it's a stupid question, everyone will say you've wasted the last question," Christie said, and the crowd laughed.
Clifford asked the question on many minds; if Christie will run for President.
After the cheers, Christie thoughtfully answered the question, reflected about his mother, and family, with his father, Irish, and his mother, Sicilian.
He describes his father, who is often at town hall meetings, as gregarious, and his mother, he said she was a tough woman.
"In the automobile of life, my Dad was merely a passenger, Mom was the driver," he said.
"My mom passed away nine years ago, and if she were here right now and she heard that question, aside from being very proud of that and the reaction, she would look at me now and say, 'first things first Christopher. Do the job you have right now the best that you can, and the future will take care of itself.'"
Christie said his mother knew he was ambitious as a young man.
“I hear her ringing in my ears all the time when people ask me questions like that,” he continued. “I asked for this job four years ago, and I love every day of it, I mean every day. There’s not a day that I’m Governor, that I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘man, I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I’m the Governor of the state where I was born, and raised.”
“I’m incredibly lucky, right?” he asked the audience, as they applauded.
“So, I’m asking to keep that job, and I’m going to work on that job as hard as I can, for as long as I can, to make sure I get it right,” Christie added. “And, a few years from now, I’m going to need a new job, so who knows? I’m not going to preclude anything in my future at all, because I’ve got a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a little girl who, as you know, just turned 10 yesterday.”
“That means,” Christie quipped to the laughs of the audience, “I’m working forever, forever, it’s never going to stop, right?”
“So I am thrilled that people think of me, that there are some folks that think of me, that think of me in that way, that I would be up for that kind of task,” he said. “As a kid from New Jersey, it’s kind of an awesome overwhelming thing to think about, that people would actually view you in that way, but from where I come from, and the way I was raised by my mom and dad, it’s like, ‘keep your eye on the ball, brother. Do the job that you’ve got. Do it as well as you can, and your future will be whatever it will be, based upon the quality of the work you do, and the quality of the person people believe you to be.”
Christie concluded with a personal story about his mother, and how when she died in 2004, she saw his life as a U.S. Attorney, and did not see his term as Governor, became ill on Valentine’s Day of 2004, and Christie was the first the doctor called. He told Christie his mother had lung cancer, which had metastasized to her brain. The doctor needed to deliver the news to her, and asked Christie to be there. By the first week of May she was gravely ill, and Christie’s brother called him to tell him that his mother had taken a turn for the worse, and if he ever wanted to see her again, Christie, who was at an attorney’s conference in San Diego, needed to come right away. And Christie did, heading home on the red eye flight, heading right away to St. Barnabas Hospital.
His mother, who was then on morphine, and came to.
“Typical to my mother, she didn’t say ‘hello’ or anything she said, ‘what day is it?’” Christie recalled. “I said, ‘it’s Friday.’”
His mother asked, “What time is it?”
Christie said he replied, “It’s 9:30 in the morning.”
“Go to work,” his mother retorted.
Christie told his mother he took the day off to spend with her, and she replied, “Christopher, it’s a work day, you go to work.”
When he replied that he would make the time up, Christie said she told him, “Christopher go to work, it’s where you belong, there’s nothing unsaid between us.”
Christie was candid about his mother’s honesty, something he said he learned from her.
“I don’t know if America is ready for that, I don’t know, New Jersey is,” Christie concluded.
As he ended his speech, a woman in the audience began chanting, “No more fracking,” as she left the building.
Christie said that is one of the reasons he loves New Jersey, is that people do take the stand, like that she did, and go tell it to their Governor.
Christie spent the conclusion of the program making his way to audience members, waiting in the sidelines to shake his hand.
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