TRENTON, N.J. — Superstorm Sandy met its match in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
From his frequent, televised updates to residents as the storm’s winds whipped the state’s beaches in October to his criticism last week of fellow Republican John Boehner’s decision to delay a vote on federal storm aid, his deft handling of his native state’s worst natural disaster may one day be considered the defining moment in the political career of the potential 2016 presidential candidate.
The governor, who has rocketed to Republican Party stardom during his first term, talked about the storm in an interview last week with The Associated Press and about mistakes he made during earlier storms that helped shape his decision-making during Sandy. The timing of the storm — days before a presidential election — ultimately helped define his role in it as well.
“I’m not a subtle personality, obviously, and I like to take charge of things,” the governor offered, when asked to explain his post-storm popularity bounce. “This is one of those circumstances where that type of personality is particularly well-suited to this type of problem.”
Christie has been viewed as a nonpartisan advocate for federal aid since the Oct. 29 storm slammed the state. He embraced President Barack Obama’s visit to the Jersey Shore six days before the election, inciting catcalls from conservatives, and last week he smacked down House Speaker Boehner, a powerful member of his own party, for delaying a vote on a $60.4 billion storm aid package. Christie said he tried to call Boehner four times that night, but none of the calls was returned. The governor’s office received 800 emails in the hours following Christie’s Boehner press conference, mostly positive.
“I believed at the moment that I did (those things) they were the right thing to do, given the responsibilities I have in this job,” Christie said. “It never struck me that what I should do is calibrate my language in order to be more political. My view was the (president) was helping us and I wanted to tell people. He deserved that credit. With Boehner, I would have reacted differently if the speaker had picked up my phone calls Tuesday night and explained what he was doing. The fact that 66 days had already gone by with no assistance, all that stuff conspired to create the reaction that I gave.”
Christie has received almost universal praise for his handling of the superstorm. A late November Quinnipiac University poll showed 95 percent of those surveyed thought he did an “excellent” or “good” job managing the storm. The poll also found he’d won over a majority of women and minority voters, two constituencies that had not supported him previously.
In 2010, Christie underestimated the first major storm of his administration by flying to Disney World hours before snow crippled the state, then overplayed tropical storm Irene with the now-infamous order, “Get the hell off the beach.” But he struck the right balance with Sandy — he was hands-on and in charge but empathetic to the myriad needs of his state.
“I had a sense from the beginning that this one was going to be really bad,” Christie, 50, said. “With Irene, I went back and forth because the forecasts were going back and forth. When the National Weather Service says it’s going to be a wipeout of the Shore then they start backing off of that, it’s very difficult to set the right tone and, candidly, make the right decisions. I might have been firmer in Sandy if it hadn’t been for the experience of Irene when I got everybody off the beach and nothing really awful happened there.”
People think of Christie as a guy who calls it like he sees it, said political strategist Tom Wilson, former chairman of New Jersey’s Republican State Committee.
“He’s a Jersey guy,” Wilson said. “It’s the quality that will carry him through the rest of his political career.”