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Unhappy Hurricane Sandy Survivors Confront Gov. Christie ... in Iowa

Storm victims are intent on raising issue in a likely campaign, but will it stick?

Joe Mangino
Joe Mangino stands in front of his house in Beach Haven West, NJ. The house remains vacant more than two years after Sandy.

Frustrated Sandy survivors, unhappy with Gov. Chris Christie’s handling of the storm recovery, are beginning to dog him on the presidential campaign trail. After raising money through crowdfunding, several New Jerseyans followed him to an agricultural summit in Iowa over the weekend to bring attention to what they see as the poor job the state has done in solving the crisis.

Not even halfway through the governor’s remarks, Joe Mangino -- who’s still displaced from his home in Beach Haven West -- interrupted Christie from the crowd.

“Governor. I live in New Jersey also,” he said, imploring Christie to “finish the job” of the Sandy recovery.

Meanwhile, fellow storm victim Amanda Devecka-Rinear stood next to him holding a sign that read, “Thousands of families are still homeless!”

“Come back home!” she shouted.

“I’m glad to see that New Jersey has come to Iowa,” Christie responded with a chuckle from the stage. “My people follow me everywhere. It’s fabulous! I’m magnetic,” he joked to the event’s moderator. “They can’t stay away from me!”

Earlier this year, after the governor failed to mention the widespread frustrations with New Jersey’s ongoing Sandy recovery in his State of the State address, the Star-Ledger editorial board suggested that “Maybe the Sandy victims should send a delegation to Iowa and New Hampshire to spread the word.” Now some of those still struggling to rebuild their lives seem to have taken that suggestion to heart, but it’s unclear how much of an impact their protests will have, beyond serving as an annoyance and an embarrassment to the governor.

Pollsters say Christie’s favorability ratings have already dropped considerably, fueled by a variety of factors, including -- among Republicans -- more desirable candidates who appear poised to enter the race. People for the most part seem more concerned about other issues, so discontent with the state’s handling of the Sandy recovery is unlikely to become a leading indicator of discontent with Christie. Rather, it’s one of a number of issues that critics say bode poorly for his chances of successfully running on his record of leading New Jersey over the past five years.

Joe Mangino says he’s not a political person, so he never thought he’d end up chasing the governor halfway across the country.

“I don’t want to be the guy that is always talking about Sandy. I want it to go away!” he said in an interview last week. “We talk to friends, and sometimes I realize I’m saying that, and I’m like, ‘Oh, just shut up already with the Sandy stuff!’ You know? I just want to sit on my couch on a Friday night and do nothing and fall asleep at 8:00. I just want to get back to normal life.”

That dream remains a distant reality, though. He’s completed repairs on his home, but he can’t move back in because he’s still waiting on contractors to come elevate it. In the meantime, it sits dark and vacant. The utilities have been disconnected, and a thermostat on the wall reads 40 degrees.

“I don’t see an end in sight,” he said.

Mangino gave high marks to Christie in the immediate aftermath of the storm. But like many Sandy victims still out of their homes, he grew increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress, so a few months ago, he got together with others and formed a group called the New Jersey Organizing Project.

They held meetings to answer questions from other storm victims about the recovery process. They discussed their concerns with various lawmakers including Sen. Menendez’s office. They also tried to arrange a meeting with the governor, but were told he was too busy, so last month, Mangino turned to a crowd-funding site on the Internet to raise $300 to cover his airfare to Iowa. Given how much time Christie has spent out of state recently, Mangino figured he’d have more of a chance to speak with the governor somewhere else.

In under two weeks, more than $1,300 came pouring in, some of it in the form of $50 donations from fellow Sandy victims. It was a sign, he said, that people were rooting for him.

“I just want to be able to say, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the programs: We need leadership; we need transparency; we need to streamline a few different things. We need to get these people home so we can move on,’ he said, adding that Christie had broken a promise he made in his 2014 State of the State address.

“He wasn’t going to rest until everybody was back home, and he sort of bailed on us,” Mangino added. “I don’t want to stop him from whatever his aspirations or goals are, but really that’s not my concern. My concern is me and my family.”

While most Sandy victims tell pollsters they feel that Christie has turned his back on them, views of the recovery are more favorable among the general population, said Patrick Murray with the Monmouth University Polling Institute. His latest survey found more than half of respondents are satisfied with the progress so far.

“For most of the people of New Jersey,” he said, “the Sandy recovery is the beaches and boardwalks, because that’s what they go to visit over the summer. They’re seeing the vast majority of those back up and running. And they’re really not sure about what’s happening with the people whose houses were demolished, and are out of their homes. So that doesn’t help the people who are still victims because it’s hard for them to leverage their own moral outrage with their neighbors when their neighbors don’t really know what’s going on.”

Considering how much damage Sandy caused to New Jersey, Murray thinks it’s surprising that the speed bumps the recovery has encountered -- including delays in aid, lost applicant paperwork, and problems with government contractors -- haven’t been more of an issue.

“The fact that the stories have been able to be swept under the carpet for the most part, and most of New Jersey isn’t aware of this or doesn’t want to be aware of this is actually giving the governor a bit of a pass on needing to deal with this situation,” he said.

Storm survivors and critics have confronted Christie before about the problems with the recovery. Administration officials have responded that they’ve made a number of improvements, including new procedures to get aid money out the door faster.

For his part, Christie has vigorously defended his record, such as when protester Jim Keady confronted him last October in Belmar.

“Somebody like you doesn’t know a damn thing about what you’re talking about, except to stand up and show off when the cameras are here,” the governor sneered. “I’ve been here when the cameras weren’t here and did the work!”

Being on the defensive is quite a change for Christie, whose approval ratings were in the 70-percentile range immediately after the storm. But while his overall popularity has dropped, both locally and nationally, it’s mostly because of other issues like Bridgegate and New Jersey’s eight credit downgrades that took place under his watch.

At this point, Sandy is viewed by many as ancient history. And if it’s not causing outrages in New Jersey, Patrick Murrary said, it’s ultimately unlikely to gain much traction in New Hampshire or Iowa. But to the extent it does, amid the various other reasons people have found to dislike Christie, it certainly won’t help.

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