TOMS RIVER, New Jersey — At the latest in a series of town halls, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie heard Tuesday from people who are still kept from their homes 16 months after being driven out by Superstorm Sandy and others frustrated with the pace and expense of storm recovery.
What the Republican governor didn't hear in this GOP-controlled area were gripes about how his administration distributed Sandy relief funds or complaints from commuters stuck in massive traffic jams manufactured by Christie aides.
Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, has been carefully controlling his public appearances since a political payback scandal erupted weeks ago with revelations that his aides blocked traffic near the George Washington Bridge as an act of retaliation, causing massive delays for emergency vehicles, school buses and commuters. Federal authorities are investigating related allegations that two members of Christie's Cabinet threatened to withhold storm recovery funds from heavily flooded Hoboken if the city's mayor didn't approve a favored redevelopment.
The people who attended the Republican governor's 112th town hall, near Seaside Heights, brought up more personal concerns, such as when they might see home rebuilding grants or why their homeowner's insurance premiums have more than tripled since the storm.
Carol Davis of Toms River is typical of the dozen or so residents who asked questions. The self-labeled "Sandy survivor," who lives on a block where less than one-third of the residents have returned, asked that the state be more efficient in disseminating grant-related information to displaced homeowners.
"We're learning about this stuff as we go along, and we're getting better at it," Christie explained.
A Bayville man who said he was rescued with his children during Sandy complained that his homeowner's insurance jumped from $650 per year before the storm to $2,300 now, with less coverage.
He was told he could probably do better by shopping the market; the commissioner of Banking and Insurance was on hand, Christie said, to help him find a lower rate.
This was a glimpse of a humbled and more empathetic Christie, a governor who spoke softly, comforted the crowd with a balm of sympathy and humor, and lovingly mentioned his four children and wife, whom he married 28 years ago this Saturday.
Christie, 51, saved any harsh words for a common enemy — the federal flood insurance program, which he said has done a lousy job at reimbursing residents for flood losses. His remark drew applause.
The loudest ovation came when Christie was asked what seniors should do about the President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
"Elect a new president — that's what you do," said Christie, as half the audience jumped to its feet.
The U.S. attorney's office and legislative investigators continue to investigate the traffic jam and Sandy aid allegations, all of which the administration has denied.