Republican Gov. Chris Christie touted his admittedly blunt approach to governing while promising to lower taxes and work with "right-minded Democrats" to complete the "Jersey Comeback" in a town hall meeting Thursday.
Several hundred residents packed an auditorium at the New Jersey Maneuverable Assets Training Equipment Site in Manchester for Christie's 13th town hall meeting of 2012. The crowd showered the governor with frequent applause as the conversation veered from local concerns to national issues.
"We are going to cut your taxes this year," the governor said. "We are cutting taxes because I promised you I would when I ran, and I keep my promises."
Christie said his chief priority this year is a 10 percent income tax cut, which he proposed as part of his $32.1 billion 2013 budget package. The cut, which has been criticized by some as benefiting the wealthy over the poor, has been promised for every New Jersey worker but Christie said Thursday he and Senate President Steve Sweeney still have to determine whether an across-the-board reduction is workable.
But he said his actions to restrain government since 2009 has put the state in a position to afford such a cut.
"Two years of tough action... has put us in the position where we can cut income taxes," Christie said. "In New Jersey, no one should pay higher taxes."
Christie repeatedly praised Sweeney, a Democrat, for his willingness to "put New Jersey first" in a bipartisan manner while slamming Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who he labeled a "partisan hack.
"I will not make any apologies for working with right-minded Democrats," Christie said.
Bipartisanship is essential when working with a Democratic-controlled Legislature, Christie said. Although he would "never compromise my principles," he's willing to work with Democrats even though he knows "I'll never get everything I want."
Christie, a former Morris County freeholder, said he doesn't mind if people simply don't like him. "No one in this job should worry about being loved," he said, adding that he aims to be respected.
But almost all speakers Thursday in heavily Republican Ocean County showed respect and affection, with one calling him a "breath of fresh air" while another urged him to run for president.
Christie, who flirted with a presidential bid last year, waded into national politics when a speaker questioned what could be done to temper a contentious Republican presidential primary race.
The governor, who has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said it's "pretty clear" Romney will be the GOP choice and urged former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to bow out of the race.
"It's too important an election to fight amongst ourselves," Christie said.
Other speakers' questions were squarely local.
Point Pleasant Beach resident Marilyn Burke briefed the governor on the municipality's proposal to based on occupancy and the amount of time they want to stay open past midnight, which is up for adoption April 3. Burke, who is a frequent attendee at Point Beach meetings, labeled the proposal "extortion."
Christie wouldn't take a position on the proposal but said he "gets concerned about people who try to go beyond the (state-mandated 2 percent) tax cap by imposing other fees." He promised to instruct Richard Constable, the acting commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, to "go down there and interview the powers that be."
A Lakewood resident pleaded for "some attention to the roadways" after criticizing congestion on Route 9 as a "huge problem." Christie agreed and said he'll instruct James Simpson, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, to work on alleviating congestion on Route 9 in particular, a complaint the governor said he's heard from municipal and Ocean County elected officials, as well.
Christie's aides were repeatedly instructed to take speakers' contact information so he can get them answers directly from state officials such as Constable, Simpson and Bob Martin, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. The governor said his office has directly answered 359,000 of 366,000 letters and emails received since he was in office.
A Whiting resident questioned why seniors, who made up the bulk of the assembled crowd, still have to pay taxes to fund public education. Christie sympathized but said any alternative to property taxes would not be easily implemented, requiring the state to "have a conversation" about how to otherwise fund schools and municipalities.
Manchester Mayor Michael Fressola praised Christie after the meeting, calling the town hall meeting "phenomenal.
"He did an outstanding job," Fressola said. "He answered the questions that were asked."
Christie said his direct style of governing earns him critics, especially among the news media, who want to "put him on the couch." But the former U.S. Attorney said he will not change his approach, which he said includes appointing and hiring staffers who are incorruptible.
"We are leading by example. You can be proud to live in New Jersey again, not embarrassed."