Christie repeats disapproval of bridge lane closures

FILE - Gov. Christie holds a town hall meeting at the Holiday City Retirement Community in Toms River earlier this month. Christie spoke Thursday at his 115th town hall. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )

FLEMINGTON, N.J. - Gov. Christie said Thursday he strongly disapproved of his former aide's involvement in the George Washington Bridge lane closures and implored residents not to feel sorry for him as prosecutors investigate the alleged payback scheme and his poll numbers continue to fall.

At Christie's 115th town hall, at a packed church in Hunterdon County, Cathy Cordes of Raritan Township told the governor: "People are getting the impression that you're guilty before you're proven innocent.

"I feel very sorry for you and this whole situation," she said. "I don't think enough people are defending you."

Christie said he appreciated those remarks but declared he wouldn't throw himself a "pity party."

"When you're in public life, you have to come to grips with the fact that you aren't always treated fairly," he said. He later added: "Don't feel sorry for me. I have the best job I could ever have in my life."

Before Thursday, Christie hadn't addressed the bridge scandal at town-hall meetings since firing his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, in January. Kelly, author of the infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" e-mail, is fighting a legislative subpoena in court.

Christie has said an apparent lack of interest about the scandal at his town halls indicated a broader indifference to it.

Fred Kanter of Mountain Lakes, however, told Christie on Thursday he should have fired Kelly for her "involvement in an illegal act," not simply because she lied to the governor.

Christie said he made abundantly clear at his January news conference that he disapproved of Kelly's actions. He said he needed to be able to trust his staff but added he would have fired Kelly anyway had she told him the truth of her involvement in the lane closures.

"I don't approve of what happened," Christie said. "I didn't approve of what happened, and I'm doing everything I can right now to make sure that something like that never happens again."

Kanter told reporters after the town hall that Christie danced around his question and said the public was incensed about the bridge flap.

A group of protesters also appeared in Flemington, wearing white T-shirts that spelled out Bridgegate? But they did not shout out questions or otherwise disrupt the town hall, unlike protesters at past town halls.

One, Ann Vardeman of New Jersey Citizen Action, said it was crazy for the governor to suggest the public wasn't interested in the lane closures.

"His approval rating is in the 40s," she told reporters. "People obviously have questions about these things, and we want our questions asked."

A March 11 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed only 23 percent of New Jersey registered voters who responded thought "trustworthy" was a trait that applied very well to Christie - an all-time low and down 20 points from October.

Cordes said she told Christie she felt sorry for him because "he's cleaned up everything" in Trenton.

"The press shouldn't be saying that he's ruining his chances of being president, because they didn't complete the investigation," Cordes told reporters. "They're saying that based on what? Their opinions. I'm very upset about that."

The governor used the town-hall appearance to urge the Legislature to make permanent a 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards. The cap - which limits raises for police and firefighter unions that enter arbitration - expires at the end of the month.

Christie said the cap had helped slow the growth of property taxes, which grew an average of 1.7 percent last year. In the 10 years before he took office, Christie said, that figure was 7 percent.

"We inherited a train that was going 100 miles an hour. We slowed that train down to about 20 miles per hour," he said.

But he accused Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, of bowing to interest groups like public-sector unions that oppose the cap and that spent millions of dollars in November trying to defeat Christie.

"Special interests have descended upon Trenton," Christie said. "They have said, 'We want bigger raises.' "

He noted that the Senate passed the original arbitration bill unanimously in 2010, while there was only one dissenting vote in the Assembly.

"I'm from New Jersey. So every once in a while, a cynical thought passes through my mind," Christie said. "Public-sector unions donated lots of money to keep Democrats in charge. Let me just say, I was not a recipient."

Democrats have mostly stayed mum on the topic.

Christie also fielded questions about medical marijuana, college affordability, Sandy recovery, and even the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (Why isn't NASA involved? "I don't have any idea.")

And he praised former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - who, like Christie, is considered a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 - for education reform there.

Asked again about the state Motor Vehicle Commission's decision last week to block electric car-manufacturer Tesla from bypassing dealers and selling vehicles directly to customers, Christie said the move was required by law.

"I'm not a king, and I'm not a dictator," he said. He suggested the Legislature send him a bill changing the law.

On Thursday afternoon, Christie appeared with Buddy Valastro of reality show Cake Boss fame for the grand opening of a new Carlo's Bakery in Morristown.

Access to the event was limited.