Sandy: Christie's biggest challenge -- and his late mother's name

NJ Governor Chris Christie

My one-on-one interview with Gov. Christie ran in Sunday's paper, here and below, and I asked him one question that didn't make it into the story. Christie regularly talks about his mother, Sandy, whose tough and straightforward personality helped to shape the governor her son would become.

In the interview, Christie said the storm, Sandy, was the biggest challenge of his life -- and would dominate the next year and beyond. So was it odd to him that the storm and his late mother have the same name? Did he sense some sort of cosmic intervention?

No, he said. Although he said his brother, Todd, believes that might be the case -- and he often brings it up.

"All it really does do, because of the constant rescitation of the name, just brings my mother's memory even more present into my every day,” Christie said. “If that was possible.”


Here's the full story:

TRENTON - Sandy ravaged his coastline. It prompted him to shame fellow Republicans over $60 billion in aid. And it added a wallop of new fame - and controversy - to his already high-profile first term in office.

"The biggest challenge of my life up to now," Gov. Christie called the Oct. 29 storm in a 30-minute interview Thursday as Bruce Springsteen's vocals from a Sandy benefit wailed from his office speakers.

This challenge will "dominate my life well into 2014," - assuming he's reelected in November, he said. He plans to discuss Sandy-related initiatives in his State of the State speech Tuesday, and he will unveil regulations to guide rebuilding in the coming months.

The governor's focus on the storm also will remind voters of the Christie straight talk - praising President Obama, eviscerating congressional Republicans who delayed aid - that plays well in the Democratic-leaning state.

Inadvertently, the storm might help Christie with perhaps his biggest problem as an incumbent: the state's economy, which continues to struggle following the recession.

"As unfortunate as it is, the rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy is going to create economic activity in the state," Christie said, citing job creation and more sales, business, and income taxes.

Attacked on the economy

The lone major Democrat so far planning to run against Christie, State Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex County, wouldn't criticize him on Sandy: "The governor was correct to embrace the president; our state was devastated."

But she picked apart his economic policies, noting that the state's 9.6 percent unemployment rate is higher than the national average, property taxes have increased, and the tax revenue that Christie forecast for this budget year has not been realized.

A nonpartisan budget expert told the Legislature on Thursday that the state was running a deficit of more than $700 million on its current $31.7 billion budget and could be $2 billion in the hole by June 30.

"It's almost delusional to suggest that the governor's fiscal policies are defensible, let alone salable," Buono said.

Christie did not mention by name his potential challenger, who was a leader in the Democratic-controlled Legislature when Christie came into office. But he said: "The people who created the $2.2 billion budget gap that I had to clean up now [are] somehow saying they can manage the state better?"

Christie touted other numbers: 75,000 more private-sector jobs than when he took office, $2.5 billion in lower corporate business taxes, and polls showing New Jerseyans feel more positive about the state.

And "no sane argument" can be made, he said, that the state is not "viewed significantly better" around the country because of his leadership.

Faulting Camden police

Yet Christie acknowledged that midyear budget cuts might be necessary, and he did not seem to think his heavily touted plan to cut income taxes was going anywhere. "It is dead because the Legislature wants it to be dead," he said.

Democrats opposed the cut by arguing that the state could not afford it - and by showing how much it would benefit the rich.

To the backdrop of Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball," Christie talked about New Jersey's poorest city, Camden, and last year's record-breaking 67 homicides.

He attributed the high number in part to the "controversy" over the plan to lay off the entire Police Department and create a county force that will patrol the city in what officials promise to be a more efficient manner.

But how does that controversy lead to violence? "There's been a number of instances where police haven't shown up for work, where unions have played games. . . . I think that's an element of that," Christie said.

John Williamson, president of the Camden police officers' union, which is fighting the layoffs, disputed Christie's allegation: "You can tell the governor flat out under no circumstance would I ever put any citizen's life at risk by authoring, condoning, or supporting any type of action. That's an absolute insult and slap in the face. Not only that, it's illegal."

Christie said he would contribute state dollars to the creation of the county force. And he said he hoped that the statewide higher-education bond issue, which voters approved by referendum in November, would lead to construction in the university area downtown and create tax-generating property so the city could become self-sufficient.

"All of this is a very long-term proposition with Camden, and I think anyone who thinks they're going to fix it overnight isn't watching what's going on there," he said.

Before Springsteen's set ended and the benefit recording turned to Pink Floyd, Christie touched on the struggles of Atlantic City, where he has invested political capital and tax breaks for the floundering Revel Casino.

Sandy, he said, created a unique problem for the resort town: Although its tourist assets are mostly intact, the national perception is that the entire Jersey Shore was destroyed. So he wants the state and casinos to pay for an ad campaign to let the nation know that "Atlantic City is open for business" and make it "an almost patriotic call to people to come to Atlantic City [and] support New Jersey.

He also wants to increase convention business, but he says he envisions no further government help.

"I don't think South Jersey has had a governor in my memory that has invested more time, energy, and resources into helping South Jersey," he said. "But the fact of the matter is, the government has a limit."

A more mellow governor?

In a similar interview last January, Christie said he planned to be more careful in his public communication in 2012. His vow came after he famously told reporters to "take a bat out" on a female lawmaker, and after a Christmas when his wife, Mary Pat, advised: "You don't want to become a caricature of yourself. It is who you are, I get that, but you've never had this kind of exposure to your personality before, so I think you need to be conscious about that."

Yet in 2012, Christie ended up calling one lawmaker "numb nuts" and another an "arrogant S.O.B." He used "idiot" for both a Navy SEAL who interrupted him and a reporter who asked an off-topic question.

Christie nonetheless said he thought his tone improved over 2011, especially for someone in the spotlight so much. "What I've done this year is I've been more judicious in the times when I've rolled" out the Jersey attitude.

Besides, he said, reporters care more about his colorful remarks than do New Jerseyans, who "understand that when the moment is necessary for someone to be tough and not to mince words, they have the right governor to do that."

By Election Day, he said, voters will ask: "Have I been the kind of governor they thought I was going to be? Have I been honest with them? Have I fought for them? If they answer those questions 'yes,' I don't think they'll even consider who the alternative is, and I'll win."

But voters also may wonder whether he will serve all four years - especially with his name topping GOP wish lists for the presidency in 2016.

"I have every intention" to serve out the term, he said. "I don't have any plans to run for president. So I'm running for four more years to serve four more years. I have no reason to think I won't."