It was as if the circus had come to New Brunswick late Wednesday afternoon as Gov. Chris Christie held his first extended press conference of 2015. Dozens of reporters, a bank of TV cameras, and angry protesters were all on hand — quite a turnout to watch the governor sign the latest anti-addiction bills, important but hardly landmark legislation.
The protesters, who were there chiefly to challenge the governor’s decision to send state troopers to Baltimore, kept up a steady backbeat of chants, cheers, and jeers. And a neighborhood ice cream truck chimed in on occasion.
All the hype and hoopla, however, likely offered a good glimpse at the immediate future of New Jersey politics, as Christie gears up to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Reporters were also on high alert following a Bloomberg News report posted just before the start of the news conference claiming that former Port Authority official and Christie schoolmate David Wildstein was set to plead guilty today in federal court in Newark for his role in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
The story was later changed to say Wildstein was scheduled to be in court Friday. But that didn’t stop reporters from pressing Christie to explain his reaction to the latest development in the 2013 scandal that helped knock him from the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls.
“I’ll react when I have an opportunity to react. But again, I don’t think that has anything much to do with me,” Christie said.
Later, he said the investigation will “take its natural course and will be dictated by the folks who are investigating it, and I don’t have anything to do with that so I certainly can’t allow it to affect me.”
Christie also explained why he asked about 150 troopers and other personnel to go to Baltimore in the wake of protests that have enveloped the city following the funeral earlier this week of an African-American man who died while in police custody.
His comments came as protesters were chanting “get the state troopers out of Baltimore” and “send them to Newark and Camden.”
“I sent troopers to Baltimore for the same reason that states all around sent troopers here and other officials when we had Hurricane Sandy,” he said, referring to the devastating 2012 storm. “When there’s an emergency in another area in our region and folks reach out for help we’re going to reach out and give that help.”
The fact that Maryland’s new governor is a Republican who Christie helped get elected last year as chair of the Republican Governors Association played no role, Christie said.
The protesters, holding signs that read “Black Lives > White Tears” and “Why Are NJ State Troopers in Maryland,” were kept out of the outdoor news conference by a large closed gate.
One of them, Tormel Pittman of New Brunswick, said that was a “reflection of how our government is.”
“Most of the people on this side of the fence have never been in this community before,” he said, pointing to where the press and government officials were gathered.
“That’s a reflection of our government,” Pittman said. “He had the opportunity to let me stay. He didn’t ask me.”
Another protester, Rutgers University sophomore Aidan Lorch-Liebel, said she’s from Baltimore and was looking to do something to “protest the culture of police brutality.”
“Gov. Chris Christie is supporting the culture of police brutality,” she said.
There were also questions about the growing uncertainty over the next state budget as Christie and public-employee unions remain locked in a court battle over $1.6 billion in funding for the public-employee pension system. And Christie was asked about his presidential aspirations and fundraising efforts as other potential Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, jockey for some of the same supporters.
Adding to the noise were frequent passing trains on the busy Northeast corridor line, and at one point, the looping jingle of a neighborhood ice-cream truck.
Eventually a microphone was brought in to make sure Christie could hear reporters’ questions, and one of them asked if the governor could do something to make sure the audio from the event was crisp enough for broadcast television.
“Why don’t you go do it? I’m not going to do your dirty work for you,” Christie joked. “I get in enough trouble on my own without doing it for you.”
Christie has spent much of the first part of the year taking trips to places like Iowa and New Hampshire as he explores a 2016 presidential run. Though he’s fielded questions from reporters while traveling in other states and while in England earlier this year, the governor only took a few from New Jersey press in January during a news conference held in Newark as the state was preparing for a winter storm and after a major apartment fire in Edgewater.
On Tuesday, while Christie was attending a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said those absences are starting to have an impact on pressing issues back in New Jersey, including discussions about growing the state economy and work on the new budget, which must be in place on July 1.
“He actually needs to be back here meeting with the legislative leadership,” Sweeney said during a news conference. “He needs to be back here with a plan on what we are going to do to fix this place because you can’t fix it when you’re not here.”
He also said Christie’s economic policies haven’t worked and as a result Democrats are going to introduce a bill to raise the income tax rate on earnings over $1 million to bring in more revenue to help live up to a promise Christie and lawmakers made to increase payments into the chronically underfunded pension system. Christie’s decision to instead cut payments brought on the unions’ court challenge, with the latest arguments scheduled for May 6 in the state Supreme Court.
Asked for a response yesterday, Christie said he’s been “very involved in the budget process.”
“I’m here and I’m available to talk any time they want to talk,” Christie said.
And he said it’s been Sweeney who’s blocked tax cuts and other reforms that he’s proposed that would have helped the state economy, which is still struggling to recover after the last recession.
“I wish my economic policies could be put into effect. We would have cut taxes in New Jersey, which Sen. Sweeney opposed,” Christie said. “We would have lowered property taxes by putting in reforms that he opposed because he’s in bed with the public-sector unions.”
Asked to respond, a spokesman for Sweeney pointed instead to the comments he made the day before.