SEA BRIGHT, N.J. — Sandy Booket came to the town-hall meeting intending to ask Gov. Chris Christie a serious question — about rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy. But then Christie called on her and, in that instant, she changed her mind.
She wanted to make him mad.
“I heard that Bruce asked that none of his music was played at your events, because he didn’t believe in your politics,” Booket said. She meant Bruce Springsteen, Christie’s personal idol. That was good bait.
But Christie didn’t take it at first.
“I saw Bruce about a week and a half ago. And he had every opportunity to tell me not to. He didn’t,” Christie said.
Booket needled him again: “I’m pretty sure that I heard . . . ”
And that did it.
“Don’t put it in Mr. Springsteen’s mouth. Put it in yours. If you have an objection to it, then you object,” Christie said, obviously peeved. He turned to look offstage. “. . . Maybe, guys, just, when I leave, just so we can have this lady be a little calmer, um, let’s play Bon Jovi on the way out.”
That exchange, back in August, was tame by Christie’s volcanic standards. But it nevertheless became part of the Republican governor’s lore — another clip banging around the Internet, showing the most famous temper in American politics.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, that was easy,’ ” Booket said later. “You know what I mean? It was just too easy.”
Since his first year in office, in 2010, Christie has engaged in at least 14 raised-voice confrontations with regular people, often at town halls. These moments, played and replayed on YouTube, have become a defining characteristic of the governor — as proof that he’s either a tough, no-nonsense leader or a swaggering bully.
Now, as Christie considers whether to run for president, he is increasingly facing questions about whether his hard-nosed act will play among voters who may not be quite so hard-nosed as those in New Jersey. Christie will also have to contend with those, like Booket, who just want to goad him into a candidacy-killing moment.
Christie makes no apologies for his approach and thinks the rest of America can take it just fine.
“ ‘Be direct.’ ‘Give ’em hell.’ Those are the things people say to me, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m in Iowa or Alabama or Illinois or Arizona,” Christie said on CNN last month. “. . . So I think this country’s a lot more the same than it is different.”
Spokesmen for Christie declined to make him available for an interview for this article.
Among those who know best — the voters who have been on the business end of Christie’s temper — the reaction has been mixed. Some still feel bullied, years later. Others credit Christie for shouting them into a new life, awakening them to their own power to provoke.
And many, especially more recently, said that Christie did exactly what they wanted him to do.
These people said they stood up at Christie’s events trying to set him off, with a sign or a shout or an irritating question. That’s because, to them, the governor’s tough-guy temper is not a strength but a vulnerability. They wanted to maneuver Christie into an outburst, so they could turn the spotlight onto themselves.
“From a campaign standpoint, we could not have gotten a better response from the governor,” said Jim Keady, whom Christie berated in late October.
Keady had wanted to draw attention to homes that have still not been rebuilt after Sandy, despite a massive state-run aid program. So he challenged Christie at a public event in Belmar. And the governor did the job for him.
Christie launched into an angry tirade that ended with him telling Keady to “sit down and shut up!” By that night, pundits were wondering whether Christie could control his temper and Keady was live on MSNBC.
Christie has said these exchanges happen, in part, because he puts himself in front of voters so often. Since taking office, aides said, he’s held 127 town-hall meetings across the state — and also because, as a New Jerseyan, he views confrontation as a louder form of love.
“Some days I sit and listen and take it and give a reasonable answer in response. And if I’m in a cranky mood, some days I yell back at them,” Christie said at a town-hall meeting interrupted by hecklers in March. “. . . So, understand: I have no problem. I grew up in a household with an Irish father and a Sicilian mother, which means that I have been raised on conflict, okay?”
The two exchanges that launched Christie’s reputation took place in 2010, his first year as governor. At the time, Christie was battling the state’s teachers union over his proposal to fill a budget hole by cutting overall school funding and making teachers contribute more toward their health benefits.
In those early days, the confrontations actually began with somebody waiting their turn at a town-hall meeting. In Rutherford, teacher Rita Wilson got to the microphone and said teachers weren’t paid enough for the work they do.
“Well, you know what, then?” Christie said. “You don’t have to do it.”
In Flemington, teacher Marie Corfield said Christie had been lambasting the state’s public schools in general. Then she scoffed aloud when Christie said he wasn’t. “If what you want to do is put on a show, and giggle every time I talk, well then, I have no interest in answering your question,” Christie said.
For the teachers, those brief arguments reshaped their lives — although in entirely opposite ways.
“Google my name. Did you Google me? Okay, well, take a peek-see at all the nasty threats and you’ll get an idea,” Wilson said in a recent interview. “You’ll get more than an idea. It’s a plethora of nasty-isms.” She got hate mail by the bundle.
Wilson offers this advice for people thinking about challenging Christie: “Back down. Because the aftermath is terrible.”
Corfield, by contrast, felt transformed. She didn’t know she could challenge a governor until she did.
“It’s like the lioness comes out,” she said.
Since then, Corfield has run for the state legislature (and lost) three times and taken a leadership position in the teachers union. “It opened doors in me, to parts of me that I didn’t know existed before,” Corfield said. “I don’t have to sit back and be a good girl, a nice respectable woman who doesn’t make waves.”
Even in those early days, there were signs that Christie’s temper could give his adversaries a platform. In September 2010, he was campaigning with California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) in Los Angeles when activist Ed Buck started to heckle Whitman from the crowd.
“I said, ‘Meg, you’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress!’ ” Buck recalled. “Granted, that was maybe over the line.”
He said he meant that Whitman wasn’t taking questions, which reminded him of then-Gov. Schwarzenegger. Christie got up and — even though it wasn’t his event, his campaign or even his state — confronted the heckler himself. “You want to yell, yell at me! But don’t give her a hard time!” Christie said.
“You sexist pig!” Buck, who is an animal welfare advocate in West Hollywood, recalled thinking. He suspects other people had the same thought when they saw the clip replayed. “If I were opposition research, I would be looking very closely at what Ed Buck did to Chris Christie. And I would be baiting him. Yes. It will be his Waterloo.”
In the past two years, activists have taken the more direct route to a Christie confrontation: Instead of waiting to be called on, they simply stand up and shout at Christie first.
“It was time for me to address him,” said Donna Jackson, an advocate for New Jersey parents. She stood up and shouted at Christie during a town-hall meeting in July. Jackson knew the police would come to escort her out, so she decided to escort herself out instead, walking toward the door while still shouting.
“I didn’t really want to make a scene scene,” she said. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful.”
What followed was a typical Christie town-hall tirade, which can be divided into three parts. The first is a reflection of the way Christie’s fights start now: a staccato burst of words, designed to seize control of the moment back from the heckler.
“Now listen. Now listen. Now listen. You and I, you and I have had plenty of — ” Christie said as Jackson continued to shout. “You and I have had, you and I have had plenty of private conversations. Don’t make a . . . don’t make a scene here.”
The “don’t make a scene” bit is the second part of Christie’s routine. He accuses his adversaries of doing exactly what the adversaries are trying to do, which is to use Christie’s stage for their own purposes.
The last part of the tirade is the kiss-off, a pithy parting shot. Like, “Sit down and shut up!” Or, an even pithier moment: “Idiot!”
In this case, Jackson made it harder to do, since she was still heckling him.
“You. You. By the way, I’ve earned. By the way, I’ve earned,” Christie said. Finally, he got it out: “I’ve earned better from you, and you deserve to give us better.”
Christie’s advisers say that his tough-guy approach also helps him de-escalate tense situations. Sometimes.
“Hey, listen, sir. I’m not asking you to leave. Guess what. Guess who’s running the show. Me, not them. I don’t want you to leave. You want to yell and scream, you yell and scream,” Christie said in March when a parent named Mike Henry interrupted a town-hall meeting in Paterson by repeatedly yelling, “Fix the public schools!”
That gesture won the respect of Henry, an ex-offender and church deacon who now mentors parolees in Paterson. “They were trying to throw me out, the police. They were coming to get me. And he told them to leave me alone,” he said in an interview later.
Christie’s gesture made him happy. But it didn’t make him quiet.
“I yelled it out several times after that,” he said.