MIDDLETOWN, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie, appearing at his first town hall-style meeting since a political payback plot engulfed his administration, heard complaints from residents still displaced by last year's Superstorm Sandy but no gripes from commuters stuck in massive traffic jams manufactured by his aides.
The Republican returned to GOP-controlled Monmouth County for the meeting Thursday, six weeks after private emails revealed his associates ordered traffic lanes closed near the George Washington Bridge, creating gridlock in nearby Fort Lee, possibly to punish the town's Democratic mayor. The involvement of close Christie aides has overshadowed the start of his second term and threatened to derail any ambitions to run for president in 2016.
The 500 or so constituents who attended Thursday's town hall — held about 45 miles from where the traffic jams occurred — had Sandy recovery on their minds. The topic gave Christie a little breathing room to court the crowd in the kind of forum that helped cement his first-term popularity. In past forums, Christie connected with constituents by relying on a mix of straight talk and humor that many found refreshing.
Christie began by blaming Congress for being too slow to approve a multibillion-dollar aid package after New Jersey suffered the worst natural disaster in its history in October 2012.
When a resident complained about a paltry flood-insurance reimbursement, he had harsh words for the federal program.
When a woman told him her mother died Saturday while still in a rental house, he said the deceased woman would want him to take care of the survivors.
And when he called on a 3-year-old who told him, "my house is still broken," he called her closer and promised that someone from his administration would see about helping her mom. Then they high-fived.
Christie was seen as a leader after the storm, and his popularity soared as the state began recovering from the disaster that caused an estimated $37 billion in damages to the state.
But recently, residents and public advocates have become openly critical of the slow pace and confusing way it is distributing the first $1.8 billion in aid. The administration fired one private contractor managing storm aid distribution, and the Democrat-led Legislature has demanded more transparency in the distribution of aid and more help for still-struggling storm victims.
Thursday's meeting also had some adversarial moments, a rare occurrence in the 109 prior town hall sessions he has held since being elected governor in 2009.
When asked why the administration quietly ended a $68 million contract with its Sandy aid contractor, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., Christie was heckled with calls of "answer the question." He then defended the decision to put the administration of storm recovery programs in private hands, but he did not say what led to the Louisiana firm's termination.
"I just disagree with you," he told the resident who argued that existing government employees should be administering the program.
Maxine Rescorl and Cathy Morello, who live in the region and were in the audience, said any discussion about the bridge scandal would have been inappropriate and irrelevant to people who are trying to rebuild homes and businesses here.
Outside, there was a smattering of protesters. One, Democrat Marilyn Tuohy, waved a hand-written sign proclaiming that Christie cared only about himself, not storm victims.
At the state capital, an Assembly panel advanced a bill Thursday aimed at fixing perceived problems with the way aid is being distributed to storm victims. The Housing and Community Development Committee approved a bill placing numerous requirements on state officials tasked with handing out storm aid.
Associated Press reporter Wayne Parry contributed reporting from Trenton.