Town halls become hallmark of NJ gov's tenure
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Like a performer waiting to take the stage, Chris Christie stands quietly alone behind the curtains and takes a moment to himself, and a few deep breaths.
Cue the video. (A highlights reel of tough-talking Christie sound bites plays over Chariots-of-Fire-esque inspirational music.)
Cue the announcer. (Advance staffer Jim Gilroy, who hung the banners and checked the mics, turns one on and channels his inner-professional wrestling announcer voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, the governor of the state of New Jersey, Chris Christie!")
The applause starts, and the show begins.
Part stump speech, part quiz show, part comedy hour, Chris Christie's town halls are probably not what Norman Rockwell envisioned in his famous 1943 painting of an assembly where people come to air their grievances and an elected official listens patiently.
Yet the time-old tradition of the town hall has become the hallmark of Christie's administration and helped make him a rising Republican star. It has also helped him at home in New Jersey, a state that leans Democratic in almost every way. The confrontations and touching moments — but mostly the confrontations — have become the stuff of YouTube legend, and not accidently; his staff posts the videos.
Since taking office in January 2010, Christie has held town halls at a clip of more than two a month, in all but one of the state's 21 counties. He's held them in halls, he's held one in a mall. He's held them in a church, in an airport hangar, on a military base. Mostly, he holds them in community centers.
While other politicians shy away from shouting matches with constituents, Christie has made it his trademark.
"I'll call on hostile people intentionally," he said. "I don't want people to think I'm only calling on people with the big smiles and Christie lapel pins."
As a result, a few "rules of engagement" had to be established:
—Raise your hand to be called on. "I want everyone to hear you."
—State your name and hometown. "I don't want to have to say, 'Hey, you, in the red sweater ..."
—Fight the urge to make a long speech. "When you get this microphone, there will become an indescribable but undeniable desire to make a speech. Take my word for it."
—Remember, this is Jersey. "If you decide that today is the day that you want to show off for your friends, if today is the day you decide you want to take the governor of New Jersey for a walk, just understand the rules of engagement before you start: We are all from New Jersey. And I think you know what that means."
Still, Christie often recalls a piece of advice he was given years ago: "It's hard to hate up close." The events allow him to energize his base but also reach out to his critics and let them get to know him as a person, not just a politician whose policies they dislike.
So before he starts, he takes a moment to remember that.
"I need to take a deep breath and whatever I'm thinking, feeling at the moment, I gotta get rid of it. Because when I go out there, this will be the one time for many people that they will get to see me in person, and they are going to leave with an impression," he said in a recent interview. "I want people to walk away really knowing me."
A few months after taking office, his statehouse office started to feel like a "sarcophagus," Christie said, and the isolation of seeing the same circle of people set in.
So when his staff suggested in May 2010 that he use town halls to drum up support for his proposal for an annual cap on property tax increases — a topic that infuriates New Jersey homeowners, who have the highest property taxes in the nation — he jumped at the chance.
There was some risk. His predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, tried out something similar in support of his plan to privatize the New Jersey Turnpike. Corzine planned to hold 21 town halls, one in every county, but stopped at 13 at the insistence of aides who watched his poll numbers drop with each PowerPoint presentation he gave. By the end, aides recall, his audiences were so hostile that state police required those attending to walk through metal detectors.
But for Christie, there was a potentially big payoff: "Trying to figure out a way to force the press to write a little bit about what I actually wanted to talk about."
In the early days, Christie's staff filmed the events with a crude flip camera so he could review it later the way a football team looks at game-day footage of their quarterback. So when Christie told a teacher complaining about his suggestion to freeze her wages for a year that she doesn't have to do the job if she doesn't like the money, the spat was caught on camera. His team of 20-something new media guys posted it on YouTube, and watched as clicks added up.
"It was probably the moment after that experience where I figured out that I could do that," Christie said. "Everyone is like, 'How do you talk to your constituents that way? Well, I tried it once. It worked."
He did make adjustments. Even when he wasn't snapping back, it seemed he was always looking down at the audience.
"It's like you're talking down to them because you are literally talking down to them," Christie recalled his communications chief, Maria Comella, saying in suggesting that he needed to physically be on the same level as his listeners. "She said, 'I think you are going to have to take some chances."
They moved him down, roped him off and let the audience surround him, a security concern that required additional state troopers from the Executive Protection Unit to attend. They also started passing the microphone around to audience members instead of having them line up. The effect was an event that felt more like a talk show than a political speech, with Christie as the provocative host.
Now, the town halls draw an average of 500 people and scores more turned away by order of fire marshals. Residents arrive hours beforehand to ensure that they find a seat.
It starts with the video. He greets the crowd, and explains that he's there because being governor is isolating. "You travel in a bubble. I never walk through a front door to any place anymore," he says.
"I walk through more kitchens than you'll ever walk through in your life. And that's not good for me to be walking through that many kitchens," he adds, as the crowd chuckles, acknowledging the fat joke at his own expense.
Next comes the stump speech, or rant, depending on his mood. Sometimes it's about why the public should support whatever plan he has just unveiled. Sometimes he uses the speech to rebut criticism, or to single out Democrats and Republicans who refuse to fall in line.
Sprinkled in between are stories of his childhood, stories from the road and people he's met, and stories about this home life: picking up dry cleaning, getting in trouble with the wife, whatever cute thing his four children said or did that week.
Then come the rules. And then, like a fighter taking off his robe, Christie removes his suit jacket for the Q&A session, and the crowd takes notice with a chorus of "uh-ohs."
"It happened because I was hot as hell one day," he said. But the crowd reacted, so he keeps doing it.
He's fought with teachers, with cops, several feisty blue-hairs, and recently a former Navy Seal, whom Christie called an idiot because he wouldn't stop interrupting him.
But it's not all belligerence. He was asked for campaign advice from a boy running for sixth-grade student council, invited a fifth grader from a town hall to the Giants' Super Bowl celebration with him, and was once told by a woman that he was "hot and sexy." And after a mother from Newark, Cassandra Dock, asked him if he was really bothered by the high number of murders in New Jersey's largest city, he held a few private meetings with her to talk about it.
She was an invited guest at his State of the State address when he unveiled his bail reform and drug offender treatment plans.
Christie points to this as a town hall interaction that has influenced his policy decisions.
Dock came to the town hall to confront him. She has come to several more since — but now it is as his cheerleader.
Democrats say he stacks the deck.
"Invitations are sent out to the faithful long before other people get it. He's guaranteed a friendly audience," said Democratic State Party chairman John S. Wisniewski, who likened the events to infomercials. "They have become theatrical performances rather than town halls. Now they are really Hollywood productions."
Christie doesn't deny that invitations are sent early to Republican-friendly groups, but notes that the events are seated on a first-come basis and advertised in weekly newspapers. He said that audience plants have never been part of events, but he hopes that an entertainment factor is: "Sure, I want to be entertaining. People are there and you want to keep them interested," said Christie, whose style of delivery straddles a line between Dennis Miller and Chris Rock, if either one were a portly white guy from Jersey.
Not all Democrats scoff at the format. A few weeks ago New Jersey Democratic state Sen. President Steve Sweeney held his own town hall with another lawmaker, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, to talk about his contrasting plan to cut taxes.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, a frequent Christie critic, has held more than 20 since taking office in January 2011. Asked if the Malloy administration was influenced by Christie, Malloy senior adviser Roy Occhiogrosso said, emphatically, no: "It had nothing to do with him. We pretty much heard he (Christie) was going around yelling at people, which is not what this governor wanted to do."
Most people at the events say they go just out of curiosity.
"I just wanted to see him up close in person — his personality," said Donna Papariello, 63, a retired nurse living in Manchester in Ocean County who came to a recent event. "I think he does want to be close to the people. I felt that."
The governor ends each town hall the same way, with a story about his dying mother. Christie was still the U.S. Attorney when she was dying of cancer and he flew home from a conference in California to say his goodbyes.
When he arrived, his mother asked him what day of the week it was — a Friday — and then promptly told him to go to work.
"It's where you belong," he recalls her saying. "There's nothing left unsaid between us."
That, the governor explains, is why he does so many town halls.
"At the end of my times as governor, you are not going to have to wonder who I am or what I think. There is not going to be anything left unsaid between us."
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh in Connecticut contributed to this report.