UPDATE: Full story in Friday's paper, here. And video below.
FLORENCE — Gov. Christie told a Rutgers-Camden law student Thursday that his school will definitely merge with Rowan University, sparking a yelling match that led the governor to dismiss him as an “idiot.”
At a town hall meeting in front of hundreds of people at the Roebling firehouse, Christie said current Rutgers-Camden students would be able to graduate with Rutgers degrees. But that did not placate William Brown, 34, a former Navy SEAL and second-year Rutgers-Camden law student, who asked about the future.
“What about my son? What about my neighbors? What about my friends?” Brown asked.
Christie tried to explain why he was going to make sure the merger happened despite what has become an increasingly mobilized and vocal opposition. But Brown repeatedly interrupted the Republican governor.
“Listen, pal, I sat here and listened to your story and your position...and if you decide what you want to do is put on a show today, let me tell you something, I can go back and forth with you as much as you want,” Christie said.
Christie said not everyone at Rutgers is against the merger, and he was “providing opportunities for a bigger and better university.”
Brown yelled: “Nobody at Rutgers wants it, nobody in South Jersey!”
Then Christie stopped trying to explain his position, and called for the next question.
“And let me tell you something,” Christie said, his voice rising. “If after you graduate from law school you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end’s going to be thrown in jail, idiot.”
Brown, who was wearing a Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America t-shirt, was then removed from the firehouse by Florence police officers and spoken to outside by a plain-clothed police officer for several minutes.
“It’s freedom of expression,” he told the officers. “This is America.”
Brown gave the officers his contact information and was not arrested.
A Democrat, Brown is a former candidate for state Assembly who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, he said after the encounter. He worries that veterans and other non-traditional students won’t get the same kind of educational opportunities once the merger goes through.
And he added that he thought both Christie’s response and the police reaction was “inappropriate.”
“I think he’s a bully sometimes,” Brown said of Christie. “I was disappointed the governor couldn’t have a debate.”
Like the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden and the vocal majority of the student population, Brown opposes the plan. Christie and South Jersey Democratic officials disagree — they say folding the Rutgers campus into Glassboro’s Rowan University will lead to a more robust research institution.
Although students have asked for some sort of compromise in which Rutgers would keep its name and identity, Christie has said he is not considering any compromises.
It is unclear how Christie will enact his plan — through legislation, for example, or executive order — or when it will go into effect.
At the end of the town hall meeting, Christie was reflective. He brought up the incident, and acknowledged getting heated.
“Now it’s going to be on YouTube somewhere with me calling him an idiot,” he said.
Then he referenced Glenn Paulsen, former powerful chairman of the Burlington County Republicans, who was sitting near the governor.
“I was going to turn there and say to Glenn Paulsen: ‘Damn, Glenn, were we that arrogant in our second year in law school?”
He added: “I cannot imagine standing up in the back of the room saying, 'Shut up, Gov. [Tom] Kean!’”
Christie said the audience might have wondered after witnessing the confrontation: “Where’s this come from?”
And from there, he launched into the story that ends all of his town halls, about visiting his mother — a fiery, tell-it-like-it-is Sicilian — on her death bed.
“We’re all products of our parents,” he said.