04/09/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Serving Up a Christie Town Hall: Never Hand-Picked, But Always 'Curated'

You don't get the charisma of Reagan, or the tearful warmth of a visit with Oprah or Ellen. None of that witty, soft stuff ever mattered with Gov. Chris Christie, the working class hero's governor, anyway.

For the man who wears his belt high, his shirt somewhat rumpled when it's tucked into his pants, the words -- and how they're delivered -- always mattered more.

When he hovers in the center of some aging gymnasium, the words are always provided in a forceful, unmerciful way that Joe Six-Pack often finds honest, even disarming and refreshing.

But in his many town halls that have popped up almost randomly throughout New Jersey lately, it's what's not said, and not delivered from the Republican governor's perch in the center of the room that, for many, matters the most.

For those who have attended these "town halls," and haven't necessarily bought into the unconventional Christie charm, there seems to be a profound lack of sincerity, a manufactured atmosphere of unbridled support that runs contrary to the image of a politician embroiled in scandal and growing disapproval.

Any attempt to alter that image sometimes compels the most powerful governor in America to provide an abrupt dose of churlishness, not charm, toward a waiting target.

"I really want to just be here to let him see what we feel," said Isabel Newson of Keansburg, a Hurricane Sandy survivor who appeared at a recent town hall in Middletown and, as NJTV was filming, had her "Resign Christie" sign confiscated. No signs were allowed at the meeting.

"If my only [problem] is a sign, then I will put up a sign to let him know how I feel," she said.

A set of guidelines for attendees to follow

The rules for these town halls have never really changed -- not even since Christie's administration became embroiled in the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal three months ago.

If anything, Christie has used the town halls as a way to appear undaunted after the revelation of the political payback scheme from last fall, and the closing of George Washington Bridge lanes that caused unyielding traffic jams for several days. The scandal has led to the resignation of a top aide, the issuance of numerous subpoenas from a legislative committee and the convening of a grand jury.

The rules weren't likely change on Wednesday, April 9, either, when Christie was to travel to the Winston Churchill Elementary School in Fairfield, NJ to host his 118th town hall meeting.

Indeed, at every one of these events, the rules are routinely announced by the governor himself. Everybody will get a chance to raise their hand to ask a question, he says, as long as they're not the usual protests from members of the Communications Workers of America.

Everybody has a chance of getting in, he suggests, and to talk freely about Christie as you would talk about him at the kitchen table.

Everybody has a chance to "give it." But if you give it, the governor says, "you're getting it back."

"Those of us from New Jersey know exactly what that means," he said during a recent town hall. "Today is the day you want to show off a little bit, yell and scream at the governor of New Jersey. That's OK. I understand that. Everybody's got the right to do what they want to do."

The only real change since Bridgegate is that these carefully staged forums, each of them projecting the governor as the hard-at-work, roll-up-your-sleeves guy, have very nearly become the governor's only mode of public communication since the scandal broke.

Each of them has the look and feel of a sincere effort to provide outreach. But every one always has the same result: Christie, moving about the basketball gym or community center, surrounded mostly by a friendly crowd of people who applaud, even cheer his answers.

The response gets particularly loud, almost boisterous and deliriously enthusiastic every time the governor gets a chance to rip Obamacare, allowing him to focus more on the national landscape and keep whatever hopes he has of ascending to the presidency alive.

Nearly every question -- sometimes pointed, but rarely impolite -- elicits answers from Christie that the governor seems prepared for, as though he already had a press release printed for it.

Indeed, there are even press releases emailed to reporters almost immediately after these events, capturing the sound-bites of the governor's seemingly candid town hall speech that are turned into headlines.

The real -- or perceived -- rules

But the real -- or perceived -- rules, the ones you'll never hear from the governor's lips, became immediately clear for those of us who dared to arrive at the South River town hall last month with about 20 minutes to spare, and wait in the security checkpoint line.

  • Don't be fashionably late.
  • In fact, don't be reasonably early, either.
  • In fact, if you ever hope to gain even a moment's access to these carefully guarded events, do what you did when you were young and hungry, scraping for every chance to grab a pair of concert tickets that seemed impossible to get.
  • In other words: Skip work, get somebody to drop off the kids at school, and be prepared to carve out at least two hours of your day - in the middle of the day, when most people are at work.
  • Even with all that, just know this: You still may be turned away. Unless you're a friendly politician. Then you'll likely get a seat in the front row.

"I think they're good sessions," said Republican Brian D. Levine, the mayor of Franklin Township, who managed to gain access to the South River meeting while many others were left at the security checkpoint, unable to immediately gain entry, about 25 minutes before the town hall started. "There really are good exchanges."

When Levine arrived, about 30 people were still creeping slowly through a security checkpoint that was erected at the gymnasium entrance at St. Mary Coptic School - so slowly that some complained that they could move faster if they sat down.

At about 10:40 a.m., the announcement came. The gym had "reached capacity." That group -- which included this reporter -- were told that they could enter on a "one-in, one-out" basis.

Just before the announcement came, Levine arrived, and appeared ready to wait in the sluggish line of mostly middle-aged, or older, people who seemed eager to move.

Then Levine disappeared. About 10 minutes later, he was sitting in the front row, gleaming at the governor who stood merely a few feet away from him in the center of the aging gymnasium floor, separated only by a thin black rope band.

Seating was first-come, first serve, the organizers said beforehand. But, among that group of latecomers who weren't really late, only Levine appeared to have a seat waiting for him.

Inside, at least three rows of these chairs surrounded the governor at the center of basketball court floor, many of them filled with people wearing nattily clad suits, or the headwear of the VFW or American Legion.

Along the wall, the bleachers were almost entirely full -- much of it occupied by local school children from Saint Bartholomew School, where at least one student got to get the Republican governor to address a Republican-friendly topic: school vouchers, and the affordability of private school.

The pattern continues

A week later, the pattern continued in Belmar, where Christie was greeted warmly by Mayor Matt Doherty, a Democrat whose support has been trumpeted as an example of the governor's broad-based popularity that led to his resounding re-election victory last year.

More than a month ago, it was in Berkeley, a town ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the storm that, because of Christie's much-heralded response, elevated the governor to almost legendary status two years ago and helped seal his re-election bid.

Only Christie didn't hold it in the township neighborhoods like Glen Cove that remain crippled by the storm's devastating effects. He held it in the landlocked Holiday City section of Berkeley, where maybe the worst effects of the storm were fallen trees.

Indeed, in a recent Patch reader poll, only 24 percent of 671 people polled believed the location was fine. Many more people -- 38.3 percent -- believed a clubhouse in Holiday City was not the right place for the town hall "because other waterfront areas of Berkeley were damaged."

Another 37 percent said it didn't matter where he held it: What he says doesn't matter.

"Regardless of party lines. I've told CC directly," wrote Chuck Cumella, one commenter on the poll story. "In an email. That I am a Republican and I originally fell for the BS that he and our so-called president were going to cut the red tape and actually do something positive.

"I then went on to tell him that HE FAILED US," Cumella wrote.

Some say it's ironic, maybe even hypocritical for a governor who prides himself for his shoot-from-the-hip to now rely on this controlled method as his main form of communication.

But for all his bluster and Bulworth-like appeal, Christie does what many other Washington "Beltway" and Trenton politicians have always done:

He sticks to the script; he controls the message; and, most importantly, he shields himself from scrutiny.

If you are the brave soul willing to break through that wall, and get there two hours early for an 11 a.m. showdown with Christie -- as one protestor did at the governor's South River event -- you'll likely get a chance to talk.

But, most likely, you'll have to do it from the back row, close to the door, and not close enough to compete with the governor's force of personality.

Indeed, at least three people who attended the South River town hall told Patch they arrived by 9:30 a.m. to get a seat.

"I would go to every one if I didn't have to work," said Jacqui Klein of Middletown, a parent of a Rutgers University student who has spearheaded an effort to address crime in the New Brunswick area, and asked Christie at the town hall to address the situation.

Klein actually got results, she believes. Communication between Rutgers, New Brunswick and the community has improved in recent weeks, she says. New Brunswick and Rutgers also have formed a new "Neighborhood Police Team" designed to improve safety and keep the local residents and students better informed.

Town halls are not new

This phenomenon began nationally, primarily with the town halls held by former President George W. Bush. President Obama does it, too, as do many Democrats who oppose what Christie stands for as a Republican.

Indeed, such a controlled atmosphere has become much more commonplace since the Sept. 11 attacks, serving as one more way to ward off the threats to all of the nation's leaders.

But to a reporter who's covered New Jersey politics for 25 years, few politicians like Christie have added so many layers of isolated protectiveness to ward off threats to their image.

For decades. Republicans and Democrats alike -- both Christine Todd Whitman and Jonn Corzine -- were apt to allow time to talk with reporters about the issues of the day, typically after a public event where they'd walk through the same door everybody else used.

There, they'd meet the reporters -- sometimes looking like they were dreading it, but still ready to take whatever they got.

For Christie, there have been few, if any of those impromptu moments of candor. For him, it's just been one consistent theme that's also unwritten:

Say you're available, but only on his terms.

This story originally appeared on Patch.