The Chris Christie public-relations machine rolled into Ocean City on Wednesday, and the New Jersey governor met a mostly fawning crowd in a Republican town at the Republican tip of the state.
Christie is in the middle of his "Endless Summer Tax Relief Tour," a public flogging of Democrats over a stalled tax cut or, as he calls it, an effort to "kick their rear ends from one end of the state to the other."
The Republican governor spoke at a 3 p.m. public "town hall" meeting (the 91st in his two-and-a-half years as governor) on the Ocean City Music Pier. A crowd of more than 200 people—including a who's who of city and business leaders—cheered Christie's proposals and his call for state legislators to "get the hell off the beach and go back to Trenton."
State Democrats have agreed to a compromise bill that would allow New Jersey residents to claim up to 10 percent of property taxes as a credit on state income taxes. But they want wait until Jan. 1 to see if the state can afford the tax cut, which is based on revenue projections that the nonpartisan state budget officer calls unrealistic (Christie projects a 7.2 percent increase in collection of taxes and fees.). Christie wants to see the bill passed immediately.
Christie's whistle-stop tour illustrates the rapid change of the political landscape under the new governor—with the debate taking place not on the floor and back rooms of the Statehouse but in carefully orchestrated public appearances and in the resulting YouTube videos posted by the Governor's Office.
The videos cultivate an image of the tough-talking renegade who is not afraid to offend his critics and detractors. And based on the large crowds that have gathered see him in other towns, it's clear that Christie has become an increasingly polarizing figure.
But in Ocean City, Christie found a friendly audience, and he seemed to win over even a few detractors with his straight talk and self-deprecation.
"It is much harder to hate up close," said Tia McLaughlin of Allentown, NJ, repeating a line that Christie had used a few moments earlier.
McLaughlin, a school child study team member, had come with a prepared question about the betrayal she felt after Christie failed to make good on promises about protecting teacher pensions. Christie had made the promise in an open letter to teachers during his successful 2009 campaign for governor.
"I had no idea the pension system was about to go bankrupt," Christie said.
He said he understands the anger and betrayal, but he doesn't understand why public employees are "angry at the first guy that's telling you the truth."
Teachers pay more in pension contributions, yet the state has not fully met its own obligations in pension funding.
Christie's appearance on the Music Pier included none of the confrontations with critics that he seems so proud of—"My message to you is, 'Don't be afraid,' " Christie said as he called for questions from the audience.
Fielding a wide range of questions, Christie:
- Said he fully supports Mitt Romney for president: "I will tell you respectfully, I think he's the right guy."
- Listed ways the state can help lower local property taxes: continue to provide school aid, maintain the 2 percent cap on local tax levies, encourage shared services and redistribute school aid from the 31 urban "Abbott" districts that take almost two-thirds of it.
- Waffled on future presidential aspirations — "I've got a job to do in New Jersey. I made a deal with all of you," he said, before adding, "If there's an opening, I'll think about it."
- Said he supports term limits for state legislators, though he doesn't see much enthusiasm for the issue among the existing legislature.
Christie is scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL, in late August, and some have suggested he's pushing for the immediate tax cut to provide fodder for his address.