The late April sun beat down on the little cadre of restless reporters and, for the first time in 2015, I felt the light tingle of subtle sunburn spread across my face. Some of us were pressed up against the bars of the fence surrounding the New Brunswick Counseling Center, hurriedly scribbling notes as we interviewed the handful of protesters that had been pushed out and gated off moments earlier. The large frame of the well-dressed man who had turned them away cast a shadow across our news cameras and the crowd of raucous demonstrators.
“Can I get your name,” I asked a protester after he agreed to be interviewed.
“Voiceless Black Man,” he answered, hanging on the wrought-iron fence as if it were the bars of a prison cell. His group had gathered to protest Governor Chris Christie’s decision to send some 150 N.J. State Troopers to help quell the unrest in Baltimore, which was set off by the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died in police custody after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury. (The next day, Christie extended the State Troopers detail beyond the original 72-hour period.)
“So, what brings you out here,” I asked. I was genuinely interested, but it wasn’t the reason I had come. Christie would soon be stepping out of the addiction treatment center, a depository of Methadone and Suboxone, to sign two bills regarding opioid-based painkiller addiction.
In truth, it seemed like the governor’s decision to send police to Maryland was just an excuse to reignite the Black Lives Matter protests in New Brunswick and keep the pressure on. Why not? After all, the marches that had been seen months earlier had resurged since the latest high profile killings, including one in South Jersey. The protester began his response calmly:
“The first part is holding the people who have the power to make change accountable for their power,” he said, giving a thoughtful glance downward before he continued. “Not doing anything is the same as doing something.”
He gained steam as he addressed an issue I wrote about last December (In Defense of Mass Demonstrations) following the lack of an indictment in Eric Garner’s death. The “Voiceless Black Man” exploded into a riff about the global economy and poverty’s role in perpetuating violence, first decrying inequality in America and then the U.S. economy’s role in the larger world.
“The problems we’re going through, the problems we see our grandparents going through … those are the things you should be focusing on because you are elected by the people – you are elected for us. We want you to start holding people accountable, to hold multinational corporations accountable, to hold billionaire’s accountable. We already know that the way the money works in the world creates haves and have nots. It creates a hegemonic structure that puts Americans at the top, and black Americans are at the bottom of that American scale; but, then, there are people around the world that are enslaved by us just as Americans. We know that these commodities and resources and products that we purchase, we know that they’re produced off the backs of working people. We know that these things are happening, but we feed it and we continue to let it happen. And that one percent, who have enough wealth to end world hunger, who have enough influence to change these things, we let them have their billions of dollars and not do a thing about it. Let them accumulate wealth and ensure their futures at the expense of the rest of the human race.”
I spoke with him a bit more before the legislators began to shuffle toward the stage and it became apparent that Christie would be coming out shortly. The protesters’ numbers had grown slightly to about 15 or 20. They were holding signs like “Black Lives > White Tears” and “White Silence = White Violence.” I’ve never been very good at math, but their point was clear. Two or three police SUVs arrived across the street, their passengers stepping out and forming a line to watch the protesters from afar.
I returned to my seat, in the front row directly across from the podium where Christie would speak. Prime real estate, especially for some kid who had shown up of his own volition with nothing more than his press pass and a memo pad. Veteran journalists scrambled around, a few of them remotely working on stories about a report that David Wildstein, would plead guilty in a probe relating to Bridgegate the following day. The Christie ally was Director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority during the Bridegate fiasco. The word was that he was cooperating with prosecutors and more indictments were coming, and this news came moments before Christie’s first open press conference in months.
Journalists deprived of a Q & A with the governor for ages? Check.
Blood was in the water. Jeers from beyond the fence welcomed the governor as he made his way to the podium. The anticipation was palpable. A train blared its horn and sped by on the Northeast Corridor directly behind our small gathering. As he sat at a desk to the right of the podium the protesters’ heckling and taunts directed at the Governor throughout the signing of the bills seemed only to amuse him. Somebody kept yelling, ”Governor Christie to the rescue!”
I’m pretty sure it was the Voiceless Black Man.
After completing the signing ceremony and a short introduction by the executive director of the counseling center, Christie took the podium. He delivered a brief statement about the bills, which expanded the state’s “Project Medicine Drop” and something about an Attorney General’s task force to coordinate drug enforcement efforts. Let’s be honest, that’s not why we were there. But the shuttering of cameras and the scribbling of two dozen Bic pens certainly was.
Chants of “Black Lives Matter” and the sound of NJ Transit trains drowned out Christie’s statement as the journalists readied themselves for the flurry of questions that would follow. As he concluded, the race to ask the first question was won by the woman sitting next to me, Ronica Cleary from Chasing News.
“It’s been reported that David Wildstein will plead guilty tomorrow. The charges are not specific but it’s in reference to Bridegate,” she said, referring to the GWB lane closures that took place last year, allegedly as political retribution. “Do you feel that this is the beginning of the end of this for you or a new beginning of your name getting dragged through that?”
The governor was calm and responded nonchalantly. “Well, listen, I don’t know exactly what’s going to be done. I just was told about the report you’re referring to on my way downstairs,” Christie said. “And again, I don’t think that has anything to do with me.”
The protesters continued screaming through all of this, and ocassionally a train would zip past, making it even more difficult to hear. The next reporter asked the governor if he would consider decriminalizing marijuana. His response was a curt “no.”
After a few more questions, he called on me. In the spirit of the event and my own personal interest, I had come with a marijuana-related question as well. Given that weed could be prescribed as a non-addictive and effective alternative to opioid-based painkillers, I asked, what information would cause Christie to expand the existing medicinal marijuana program. Under that program, there are only three active dispensaries and three pending operations. His response was that he would continue to consult with medical professionals involved with the state’s existing program.
I felt too easily side stepped, but shit, I’m a local weekly guy and I’m asking questions of the governor from about two feet away. Let’s not get so carried away all at once.
Charlie Kratovil, the editor of the local independent news outlet New Brunswick Today, asked about $4.8 million of federal Sandy aid that went to a luxury condo on Easton Avenue. Christie responded that he didn’t recall that particular award, that the administration “built a lot of things,” and that he was “sure it was justified.”
Another slick dodge. Bob and weave. Stay in the pocket.
Then, probably influenced by the protesters, somebody asked about the order to dispatch State Troopers to Maryland.
“I sent Troopers to Baltimore for the same reason that states from all around sent troopers [and other officials] here when we had Hurricane Sandy,” Christie said. “When folks need help, we’re going to reach out and give that help.”
Now, after deflecting a few awkward flurries out of the gate, Christie was hitting his stride. Like Floyd Mayweather, just when you think you’ve got him on the ropes, he’s back on the offensive. Here was a politician that was ready for prime time. Let’s face it, the guy is good at what he does.
A few more Wildstein questions cropped up and each answer was shorter than the last: “I’m not worried. I know what the truth is.” He accused the press of overemphasizing their past relationship. “It has nothing to do with me.”
Then things turned to partisan politics. A few reporters tried to get a rise out of Christie by asking him to respond to criticism levied against him by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3), who is expected to run for governor when Christie leaves office.
“I wish my economic policies could be put into effect. We would have cut taxes in New Jersey, which Senator Sweeney opposed, we would have lowered property taxes by putting in reforms that he opposed, but he’s in bed with the public sector unions,” Christie said casually. Red meat served up just how people like it – with a side of rhetoric and platitudes.
The Governor also brushed off a challenging question about the difficulties facing the state’s troubled budget, from massive pension problems to an under-funded Transportation Trust Fund, stating that he isn’t concerned. “Nothing gets done until June. Relax.” His confidence almost causes one to forget about the series of credit downgrades the state has experienced, which, to be fair, are not wholly Christie’s doing. (Read: state raped and pillaged for decades.)
As the conference came to an end and the legislators packed it in, the protesters continued their chants until finally dispersing as well. I was left with two impressions after seeing the governor speak in person for the second time (though, the first time I was so far off I would have had a better view on television). My first impression was that this man is ready for the primary despite his baggage. He can handle the tough questions with the coolness of a pro and the bravado he has become so well known for.
The second came from a far subtler moment of the press conference. I’m not sure anyone else even noticed, but it happened about midway through. Somebody had begun carrying a microphone to the reporters as they were called on because of the noise. It was an immense help. At one point, when the assistant extended the microphone to journalist, Christie’s demeanor shifted and his tone became vicious. “No! It’s Heather,” he demanded, pointing at who I presume was Heather. “Heather,” he repeated to the plainly nervous aide. Then his tone was promptly back to the flippant, confident one that was on display for the rest of the conference. “We can’t let Cruz dominate this thing,” he said referring to another reporter.
His agitation was plain, as if to say, “God dammit you incompetent neophyte! How dare you misinterpret my will? Don’t you know who I am?!”
A flash of Nixon’s late night drinking binges was in those eyes for a split second. I thought I felt the ephemeral presence of Dick Cheney; he was pleased. The kid sheepishly found the right reporter, and Christie cracked the joke about Cruz to settle the mood; still, I felt a collective reaction.
It was a small moment, but it revealed to me something about Christie’s character. I don’t want to jump to conclusions because much of my image of the man is shaped by imperfect accounts, but in that moment his impatience and his anger were clear. The man is clearly ready for the slugfest of national politics, and a person with his temperament could probably even thrive there. It would be premature and probably misinformed to presume Christie could actually win the nomination, but make no mistake; running for president is just as much about the consolation prizes. Politically, Christie would run one hell of a campaign, but for me that moment will forever raise the question: “who is Chris Christie, really, when the cameras turn off?”
My bet: just another short-tempered, power hungry rich man.