If Governor Chris Christie’s presidential prospects have been damaged by the Bridgegate scandal and associated investigations, you wouldn’t know it by the amount of television cameras at the Town Hall Meeting in Port Monmouth this morning. Middletown officials estimate the crowd was about 500 people. There was easily 50 members of the media including reporters, photographers and videographers.
There was no swagger from the Governor today. No fist pumps, no snazzy introductory video, no in your face insults to hostile questioners. Christie dodged the only hostile question he heard. The Youtube moment came not from an idiot or thin skinned reporter, but from a three year old girl who said her house is still broken.
Bridgegate, the controversy over the September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that has spurred investigations by the U.S. Attorney and a Special Legislative Committee never came up. The people who came to today’s meeting would gladly trade places with the Bergen County residents who were inconvenienced by traffic jams for four days. They been without their homes for 16 months.
The man who stood up on November 5th in Asbury Park and said, “I did not seek a second term to do small things. I sought a second term to finish the job. NOW WATCH ME DO IT,” and declared that job to be “a sacred mission to make sure that everyone, everyone in New Jersey was effected by Sandy to return to normalcy in their lives,” brought empathy, frustration and excuses to Port Monmouth today. As he did in Keansburg earlier this month, Christie delivered the message that New Jersey will come up short between $15-22 billion in the amount of funds needed to rebuild from Superstorm Sandy.
“I will not let anyone, anything, any governmental entity or any force get in between me and the completion of my mission,” Christie declared in his November 5th victory speech in Asbury Park. Today he placed the blame for the delays in the promised aid to Sandy victims with the federal government. From Congress who did not pass an aid package till months after Sandy, to HUD regulations that prevent homeowners from rebuilding while their aid applications are being processed, to the bureaucracy and red tape of the process itself.
Christie said that after Katrina, Congress authorized aid within 10 days and that the government rushed to get money to victims as quickly as possible, resulting in massive fraud. The pendulum of control has swung too far the other way as a result of “unscrupulous people who stole that money.”
The answers to most of the Sandy relief related questions was a frustrated and empathetic excuse with blame placed upon the red tape and bureaucracy of the federal government , with some good Republican anti-big government jargon thrown in. “The new F-word is FEMA,” Christie said while bemoaning the fact that the federal government is the only flood insurance company in the country and that they won’t submit to arbitration.
Tom Largey of Sea Bright had attempted to question Christie about RREM grants two weeks ago in Keansburg. Today Christie called on Largey who asked the question every state house reporter in New Jersey has wanted an answer to for weeks. “Why did you fire HGI?” HGI, Hammerman & Gainer, Inc., a Lousiana-based firm, had a $68 million contract to administer RREM applications. The Christie administration quietly terminated the contract with an over $10 million buyout last year with no explanation.
The Governor’s Office and the Department of Community Affairs has been avoiding the subject ever since. Christie simply said “We have a new company in place to run the program going forward. I’m not going to hesitate to make a change is there is a better option.” Christie did not name the new company. No one asked.
Largey also asked why the Chrisite administration privatized the administration of the RREM program for $100 million dollars. “What would you have me do instead, hire more government employees for what is by definition a temporary program?” Christie asked and rattled off the cost of government employees…pensions and benefits, without addressing the $100 million cost. Largey said that money could go to rebuild hundreds of homes.
Assuming the cost to administer the applications and supervise construction is $100,000 million, which might could be a low assumption considering the $68 million HGI contract and published reports of a cancellation of a $20 million contract of one of three construction supervisors, and assuming there will be 8000 properties granted the $150,000 RREM grants, 5000 in the first round and 3000 in the second round, the cost to administer the RREM program is $12,500 per grant. Someone is making a great deal of money administering and supervising this program. Christie is not being transparent about this. He should be.
Despite the lack of answers, the overall mood of the Town Hall was respectful and caring. There was a sense of relief on the part of Christie supporters and staffers that the meeting did not devolve into a “combination and the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows, as was predicted by one local official and feared by many others.