Are the 'Stronger Than The Storm' ads political?

NEPTUNE -- New Jersey may be stronger than the storm, as the jingle in the advertisement goes, but Gov. Christie isn't better than the victims of the storm.

That's the message Christie's Democratic challenger, Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), sought to send Wednesday at a news conference staged in front of a home gutted by Sandy and owned by two school teachers who said they've been denied rebuilding funds from the state.

In her most direct attack yet on the Republican governor's chief political strength -- his shepherding of the state after Sandy -- Buono seized on a report last weekend from the Asbury Park Press indicating that Christie picked a high bidder for a federally-funded, post-Sandy tourism advertising campaign. Another advertising agency would have cost $2 million less -- except that agency didn't plan to include Christie in its commercials.

The ad campaign, with its Stronger Than The Storm moniker, is part of $25 million earmarked for tourism marketing from the more than $20 billion in New Jersey Sandy aid approved by Congress and the Obama administration. The ads contain a catchy -- and perhaps annoying -- jingle, and most end with shots of Christie, his wife and children on the beach together declaring how strong they are after the storm.

This is purely a Christie campaign ad, Buono alleges. And she wants the Christie campaign to refund the $2 million difference between the winning $4.7 million bid from the firm MWW and that of another agency, Sigma Group. Two other bids came in higher than both companies but their proposals didn't make it into a final round of review by a Christie-appointed panel.

"Nothing short of outrage should be shown because he is putting his ego and ambitions over the victims," Buono said. The ads run in other states beyond New Jersey, and Buono has long alleged that Christie plans to leave office and run for president if he wins a second term in November.

A spokesman for the governor, Michael Drewniak, said Buono is "willfully abusing the truth." He attributed the $2 million cost differential to "MWW’s much more aggressive, labor-intensive work in producing and supporting a large number of localized events, coordination with businesses, municipalities, and local and regional tourism organizations."

He added: "The MWW campaign offered a wider platform of events and media strategies, was a far better value overall, and let people know that the Jersey Shore was ready and open for business this summer." The Stronger Than The Storm campaign has so far produced nine promotional events at the Shore, and supported several more community events.

John Lambert, 57, and his wife, Lee Ann Newland, 49, both music teachers, don't see the point of the campaign, considering their circumstances. They said they evacuated after Sandy when storm surge carrying boats overran their neighborhood next to an inlet in Monmouth County. 

"Our house was just completely turned upside down," Lambert said. Most of the floor in the first floor is missing, and it reeks of mold. The grass outside is overgrown.

But while contractors say the house needs to be demolished, the insurance company disagrees and won't pay to rebuild, they said. They've run out of money paying the mortgage and taxes on a house they don't live in, and have put the house up for sale.

Although they were approved for a $10,000 grant from the state to stay in the county for three years, they said they cannot put that money toward construction and were denied for a second grant of up to $150,000 from the state's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program. The program, they were told, ran out of money.

"I don't feel like we're part of 'Strong Jersey,'" Lambert said. "I feel like we're being left out. To hear funds are being used for political campaigns doesn't seem right to me."

The sounds of construction echo in their neighborhood, and "Jersey Strong" bumper stickers are on many bumper stickers.

But "in our house," Newland said, "'Jersey Strong' is 'Jersey Wrong.'" 

The couple has been staying in a nearby apartment funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They don't support Christie -- and said they didn't support him before Sandy, either.