PORT MONMOUTH - If anyone was expecting Gov. Christie’s first town hall since June to be focused on Bridgegate and other controversies consuming his second term, they would have seriously misjudged how deeply personal the issues are consuming the people who lost their homes in Sandy and showed up at a local VFW hall to face the governor.
“I could care less abut Bridgegate,” said Michelle Wallbank of Keansburg, out of her home since before the storm, out of money to rebuild, on waiting lists for various grants, out of answers.
If in Jersey, politics has been lately focused not just on the local, but local lanes, Christie's return to the town hall ring that made his reputation pre-scandal was marked by deeply personal concerns.
"I'm Debbie from Brick, and I just want to go home," said the first questioner, Debbie Fortier, wearing a "homeless for one year" t-shirt. She was one of several Sandy victims to present their issues to the governor.
Christie leaned into the canvas tape separating him from the crowd and told her, "Debbie, I'm Chris, the governor, and I want to help you." But he offered no solution to her problems, except patience.
"I can't wait," she said.
"I don't want to wait either," he said. "I can't wave a magic wand to make this happen."
In all, it was a fairly low key return to the Town Hall format for Christie, once a place of swagger and show-me-what-you've-got give and take. This was his 110th time doing it, but the first since scandals over his staff directing lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as retribution toward the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who declined to endorse Christie.
There were some unhappy protesters, barred by the governor's staff from bringing in their signs -
"Stronger than the Subpoena" said one - and some loud exagerrated coughing to signal skepticism at some of his answers, but little outright confrontation.
Traffic reared its head at the meeting - but the discussion was about jughandle beautifcation, not subpoenas and allegations of abuse of power at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.
Here was a traffic problem Christie could solve: he set up a meeting between Daniel Nothstein and his transportation commissioner to discuss it.
Regarding Sandy, and the slow pace of rebuilding and grant funding, Christie continued his administration's latest defense: blaming the federal government for cumbersome rules and for not being willing to waive a rule that keeps people from rebuilding while awaiting the outcome of the applications.
He desribed FEMA as "the new F word" in the state and said the federal government refuses to participate in a mediation program for the flood insurance program they administer. "They are the greedy corporations taking your money and not paying," he said.
And contrary to asserations by housing advocates in recent weeks, he said New York is further behind in doling out its rebuilding money than New Jersey.
All in all, it was a crowd that, despite protesters outside and one quesioner asking abou a fired Sandy contractor, mostly wanted answers and solutions to their own problems.
Two people asked about divorce law in the state, another asked about institutions for developmentally disabled children. The national media rustled in impatience as he spent long minutes talking about the legal issues confronting newly divorced mothers in New Jersy. Another said her mother had just passed away in a rental home awaiting Sandy funding, but that her mother "really liked you."
If it was a Christie minus the swagger, it was a forum where he was able to show some empathy, and, once again, as he did post-Sandy, to console crying adults. "Your mother would have said, 'help my daughter,' " he told the woman who's mother had just passed away.