MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — The movie-set spectacle of many past town hall meetings, with their slickly produced promotional videos and slogans on hanging banners, was nowhere to be seen on Thursday at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s town hall in this seaside hamlet. The combative exchanges and made-for-YouTube moments that launched Christie into national prominence in recent years were also absent.
Instead, Christie’s first lengthy engagement with voters since a bridge-closing scandal engulfed his administration was a deliberately low-key affair.
Christie’s stagecraft was simple, with just a stool and a few flags, as was his message. The embattled Republican focused almost exclusively on his efforts to distribute federal recovery funds to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that ravaged New Jersey’s coastline.
“I still spend every week, about 40 percent of my personal time, on Sandy,” he said. “I am here because we have not forgotten.”
Rather than making a fist-pumping entrance, as he has done in the past, he stepped out from behind a curtain minutes after Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” played in the packed veterans hall. He smiled tightly, shook a couple of outstretched hands, and then opened a bulky folder of notes, which were laid on a music stand.
“I’m glad to get out here and start doing this stuff again,” Christie began, as he paced inside a roped-off circle, a wireless microphone in his hand. “These town hall meetings are less about me than they are about you.”
From the outset, it was clear that the more than 500 attendees were far more interested in how Christie could help them with rebuilding their homes and securing federal dollars than talking about the bridge episode. Over the course of more than 90 minutes, not one question was asked about last year’s days-long lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, an apparent act of political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.
In a brief interview after the event, Christie said he was not surprised by the absence of questions about the scandal, which has become a burden for the governor as he navigates the national political scene. “No,” he said before ducking into a waiting car. “People care about real problems.”
Christie’s associates said the governor has recently worked to tone down his outsized persona, wary of creating more political headaches as state and federal investigations continue and many of his advisers deal with a flurry of subpoenas. Beyond Thursday’s town hall, Christie’s public appearances have been carefully managed and scripted. News conferences are infrequent, as are his trademark quips.
“He’s keeping his head down,” said former New Jersey governor Tom Kean Sr. “He is being more disciplined than usual because he knows he has some difficult things on the horizon, from his budget presentation next week to all of these investigations.”
Added Anthony Carbonetti, a Republican political consultant and one of Christie’s longtime friends: “I think he may feel a little stung by what has happened. He’s going to get back to what got him to where he is, and if he’s more cautious, that’s okay, as long as he doesn’t change his whole style.”
Conni Freestone, who lost her family’s home during Sandy, began to tear up as she told Christie about her troubles, including the death of her mother last week. “She’s not even buried yet,” she said, trembling as she spoke from the rafters. “She really liked you; we both did.”
“My condolences on her passing,” Christie replied. “I suspect if she were here she would say to me, “Take care of my daughter.’ ”
Another moment of Christie’s softer side came later, when Nicole Brier, a 3-year-old attendee, told the governor that her “house is still broken.”
“I understand your frustration,” Christie said. “I feel it myself. I hope you see that today.”
The one time Christie almost became testy was when he was asked about his administration’s move to end a $68 million contract with Hammerman & Gainer, a Sandy aid contractor. “Answer the question!” a few people shouted. Christie didn’t flinch and defended his administration’s decision.
When he wasn’t nodding along to emotional testimonies about Sandy or sharing information about the federal grant process, Christie was mostly at ease but downbeat, taking off his jacket and leaning forward, his face solemn, as he listened to questioners. He did, however, occasionally, offer humorous asides, including banter about his weight loss — “Rome wasn’t un-built in a day” — and Bruce Springsteen, a hero from his adolescence.
“When you go home tonight, would you please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs? He is not a friend of yours, Governor,” Joe Williams, a local military veteran, said near the end of the meeting.
Christie chuckled but said that he will still listen to the Garden State rocker, who in late January participated in a late-night television parody about the bridge closures alongside NBC’s Jimmy Fallon. “Well, the CDs could be destroyed. I have it all on my iPhone now,” he said. “But listen: I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. This is it for me, okay? That’s all I’ve got.”
The friendly crowd laughed appreciatively at a site carefully selected by aides in one of this blue state’s rare conservative bastions. A top Christie ally, GOP state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, represents the township in the state legislature.
Yet in spite of the cordial audience and the lack of scandal questions, things weren’t entirely smooth. At one point, Isabel Newson, a Christie critic, held up a “Resign Christie” sign as the governor spoke, drawing the ire of his advance team, who quickly approached her, as did a police officer.
“They tried to kick me out!” Newson told reporters after Christie left. “Then I invoked the First Amendment and they backed off fast.”
Dozens of protestors also lined up outside the venue hours before the 11 a.m. start. Cars beeped their horns as they zoomed past. One sign referenced Christie’s presidential ambitions: “Time for some caucus problems in Iowa.”
Early on in the meeting, Christie seemed prepared for questions from those protesters and others angered by the bridge scandal. He playfully warned that anyone who thought she would be taking “the governor of New Jersey out for a walk” would be “getting it right back.”
But those hostile questions never came, and Christie left as he entered, shaking hands and patting backs. Playing on the sound system as Christie mingled: Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”
“Oh, this is well orchestrated, all of this stuff,” said Robert Superti, a retired Korean War veteran and a Democrat. “They decided to do this town hall at a safe place; I get that. His problems, though, aren’t going away.”