Party's over for Christie! Gets lambasted in town hall over bridge flap for first time

Chris Christie evaded questions about his traffic scandal during several town halls. His luck finally just ran out

Published March 21, 2014 12:50PM (EDT)

Chris Christie addresses a gathering at a town hall-style meeting, Thursday, March 20, 2014, Flemington, N.J.                               (AP/Matt Rourke)
Chris Christie addresses a gathering at a town hall-style meeting, Thursday, March 20, 2014, Flemington, N.J. (AP/Matt Rourke)

FLEMINGTON, N.J. -- For several weeks, since it went national, Gov. Christie has dismissed "Bridgegate" as a story driven by partisan enemies and the media. To support that claim Christie rightly noted that in his town halls since January not one of the dozens of voters he engaged directly asked him about it.

His luck ran out Thursday in Hunterdon County, a Republican stronghold that gave him almost 74 percent of the vote last November, a higher percentage than he got from Morris County where Christie and his family have lived for years.

Fred Kanter, 69, from Mountainside zeroed in on Gov. Christie's remarks back in January when he told reporters he had fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly for lying to him about her role in last September's GWB lane closures that gave Fort Lee a four-day traffic coronary.

"You said you fired her because she lied to you," Kanter said. "I think that is a very self-centered reason for firing somebody."

"You made the firing contingent on the lie, at least that's what you said at the press conference," Kanter said. "The firing should be contingent on involvement in an illegal act."

Kanter, who owns an international business that supplies new parts for antique cars, got a round of applause.

"First off there were lots of reasons for the firing," Christie responded. "What I said was I can't have somebody work for me who lies to me because that stuff can extend to a whole variety of subjects that are much broader than the one you talked about."

Kanter followed up with the former U.S. attorney. "Today you told us all that you're open and you tell it like it is and I think something needed to be said there (like), 'I fired her because she was involved in an illegal act.' You understand that?" said Kanter.

"Again you're saying something that I am not willing to say at this point because I am not willing to prejudge what a prosecutor is going to do and it is inappropriate for me to do that," Christie countered.

"You as a citizen can clearly come to that conclusion that it was an illegal act," Christie conceded but noted that as the governor he did not have "the luxury" to do the same because of the pending legislative and criminal probes.

Based on the level of applause, Christie carried that round with the largely Republican St. Magdalen de Pazzi Parish Center crowd.

Afterward Kanter said he was "flabbergasted" when he learned from reporters he had asked the first town hall question on "Bridgegate." Currently U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is leading a criminal probe while the state Legislature conducts its own investigation.

So far Kelly, former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and ex-Port Authority exec David Wildstein have all invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Since January federal prosecutors have widened their focus to include Port Authority chair David Samson, who is a close Christie ally and led his transition team.

As for Christie's response, Kanter said the governor "danced around" his  question. "The point is she was involved in something that came from within his administration" and Christie wanted to distance himself from it without getting to the bottom of it.

When Kanter was asked if he was a Democrat, Republican or independent voter, he quipped he was an "intelligent" voter.

Throughout the town hall national and local reporters had their eye on a dozen protesters from the Working Families Alliance that has committed to shadow Christie at his town halls. Members of the WFA have disrupted the last two Christie town halls with protest chants about Bridgegate and Christie's Sandy response.

WFA adopted a different strategy this time out, with a dozen protesters standing together with their arms extended looking to be called on by the governor, who proceeded to ignore them.

After published reports that members of the New Jersey State Police took pictures of  protesters at Tuesday's town hall acting State Attorney General John Hoffman ordered the NJSP to end the practice.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly