Against a backdrop of school budget cuts and state layoffs, Gov. Chris Christie faced mounting criticism Wednesday for to travel to his son's baseball game in Bergen County.
Christie landed on a sports field at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale in the $12 million chopper Tuesday afternoon, minutes before his son was about to take the field as the catcher for the Delbarton School in their playoff game against St. Joe's. He and his wife, Mary Pat, left in the helicopter after the 5th inning.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) blasted Christie, saying she "fully expects" the governor to reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of the ride.
"If this was for an official reason, that would have been one thing, but he used a state helicopter to fly to his child's baseball game," Weinberg said. "I have a real problem with this as a taxpayer and I fully expect that he will reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of this ride, which I'm assuming runs into the thousands of dollars," she said.
Weinberg said politicians should use their own vehicles and pay for their own gas while on personal trips.
"I've gone in my lifetime to plenty of school games, dance recitals, you name it, and like any other parent or grandparent, I sat in traffic and I paid for it myself," Weinberg said, adding that she sat in traffic for four hours last week on her way to Vineland for a hearing. She paid her own gas and tolls, she said.
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, (D-Englewood) said he questioned Christie's judgment.
"I understand there are family events you might want to get to, but to use a helicopter, which is extremely expensive to fly, when it comes to fuel and labor costs, is just not appropriate," Johnson said.
The governor's office has not spoken at length about the helicopter ride, issuing a statement that read simply, "It is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands. This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use."
A Christie spokesman did not respond to an email asking for additional comment.
In defending the governor's trip, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said the flight hours would have been accumulated anyway on the aircraft, as pilots become accustomed to the new helicopters. The state police oversees security for the governor.
"Governor Christie is on duty every hour of every day," Fuentes said in a release. "His transportation, safety and security are my responsibility, and he therefore travels with the State Police Executive Protection Unit, whether on state or personal business. As part of our long-standing security protocol, the EPU provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the Governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the Governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel.
"To date, Governor Christie has been aboard State Police helicopters 35 times since taking office, including aerial surveys of flood and storm damage. It is important to understand that State Police helicopters fly daily homeland security missions, and use flight time for training purposes, more so lately as we acclimate our pilots to the new aircraft. These are flight hours that would be logged in any event. Therefore, there is no additional cost to taxpayers or the State Police budget, nor is there any interference with our daily mission by adding the state’s chief executive to any of these trips. Any flights transporting the Governor would be subordinated to priority needs for our aircraft including rescue and emergent law enforcement missions."
Bergen County Republican Organization Chair Robert Yudin said he wholeheartedly agreed with Fuentes' statement, adding that the governor should be able to use whatever form of transportation he wants - whenever he wants it.
"There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about the chief executive of the state of New Jersey - who is on duty 24/7 - using the helicopter to catch some of his son's baseball game," said Yudin, who likened the situation to a volunteer fire chief using a department vehicle to go to the grocery store. "If there's a fire, the chief can get there right away, as opposed to going home and getting his chief's car. ... If there was an emergency when the governor was being transported, the emergency would take precedence," he said.
Yudin, who was nominated by Christie for an appointment with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, accused Democrats of politicizing a non-issue.
"This is just the Democrats politicizing, showing that they have nothing they can say about the governor," Yudin said. "As far as I'm concerned, he can use any form of transportation he wants."
Peter Woolley, Fairleigh Dickinson University's polling director and a political science professor, said the incident is unlikely to have lasting political implications for the governor.
“Generally people have short memories,” Woolley said. “I think that it’s going to blow over, but I’m sure his critics will try to remind people.”
Woolley said other governors have used the privileges of the office in ways that raised questions. Corzine sped to stay on schedule, a move that led to his near fatal car crash.
“In many instances there seemed to be no reason for that kind of excess,” Woolley said.
Negative reaction to Christie’s helicopter flight is unlikely to damage the Republican party, Woolley said. Christie has been floated as a possible presidential candidate, but said he has no intention of running.
“I’m not sure it’s going to hurt the Republican brand,” Woolley said. “They’ve been pretty diligently hurting themselves.”
Jeff Tittel, the president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, estimated that the helicopter used by Christie averages between 2.25 to 2.5 miles per gallon, compared to a large SUV that gets 16 miles per gallon on a highway.
"There is a bigger environmental impact from using a helicopter. Anyone who says otherwise is just spinning it," Tittel said, who added that he's not against using helicopters for official business, but criticized the use for personal flights.
"God help us if there was ever an emergency when the helicopter is in use by the governor to take him to his son's baseball game," U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) said in remarks Wednesday to a rally of state union workers in Newark's Military Park.
Patch users debated the issue with fervor on Tuesday and Wednesday. Comments were about 3-to-1 in favor of people who said they felt that Christie had abused his access to the state police helicopter. Some pointed to his son's enrollment in a private high school, while at the same time he battles with the state teachers' union. Still others questioned the use of the helicopter to return Christie from the game to the Governor's Mansion in Princeton, where he met with an Iowa group that is trying to pursuade him to run for president.
A minority of commenters, however, said that Christie's use of the helicopter was acceptable. They contrasted Christie's one-time personal use with Air Force One shuttling President Obama around the country for vacation, though federal law requires the president to travel via Air Force One or its helicopter cousin, Marine One.
For a governor who many would classify as divisive and unapologetic, the discussion mirrored the man.
“What is wrong with that picture?,” wrote Alice Cole of Wyckoff. “A State emergency? I could see that. A ballgame? No.”
Cole said that the governor travelling by helicopter didn’t sit well with her while New Jersey’s citizens are struggling at the pump.
Commenter Frank wrote that "just because people think he should run for president, doesn't mean he should act like one. Kudos for attending his kid's game, a thumbs down for using a copter that clearly looks like it suppose to be for emergency use."
Christie has pledged to cut state funding in various “wasteful” institutions, in what he says is a necessary but painful attempt to combat some of the nation’s highest taxes. While some suggested the governor’s five-inning PR fiasco was little more than partisanship and opportunistic grabs by those on the other side of the aisle, others chimed in to say they thought the flight represented hypocrisy on the Christie’s part.
“It's a story because my governor rails against public spending and says he's a fiscal conservative, then spends thousands of dollars to fly to a ball game,” commenter Scott Goldman wrote. Commenters BSquared and Jerzgirl101 took a different perspective, with Jerzgirl101 -- who claimed to be a single mom with three kids -- writing that there’s nothing more important than cheering on your children.
“Seeing them see me at the end of the game is ... priceless,” she wrote.
“He wanted to go to his son's state playoff game and is the governor of this state that has access to a helicopter. No big deal,” BSquared wrote.
Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh, of Ridgewood, drew on the Obama parallel, writing in the comments that a recent trip to Cresskill raised $1 million for the Democratic National Committee.
“I suppose those of you who object to Christie using a form of government transportation, also object to Pres. Obama using Air force one for a date night in NYC, or Pelosi using Air force jets to shuttle her back and forth from Wash, to Ca.,” wrote Jeanette. “The Gov. is a busy man, perhaps the only way he could make his sons game was by using a helicopter. I commend him on trying to serve the people of NJ and while trying to fulfill his job as a parent.”
Commenter Margie wrote Wednesday that the helicopter ride had actually hurt her positive view of Christie.
“I was thinking that Christie was a good guy and I gave him a lot of credit for the job he is doing to straighten things out in the crook ridden state of NJ,” Margie wrote late Wednesday morning. “I ignored all the political commercials and rhetoric, but I have to tell you Governor, this doesn't look good. A huge waste of taxpayer money. With times such as they are, this was definitely a lapse in judgment.”
Christie is not the first governor to draw ire for using state helicopters, with criticism for personal flights spanning Democratic and Republican administrations.
Former Governor James McGreevey, a Democrat, had the Democratic State Committee repay $18,200 for personal flights on state-owned helicopters, the New York Times reported at the time. McGreevey’s office said he had done nothing wrong.
Personal use of state helicopters became a campaign issue in 1993 when then-gubernatorial candidate Christine Whitman pointed to use of the helicopters by Governor Jim Florio as a sign of government waste. As governor, Whitman was criticized for using a state helicopter in 1997 to fly to a Devils game.
A state panel said it would be safer for governors to use helicopters after Governor Jon Corzine, Christie’s Democratic predecessor, was nearly killed in a crash on the Garden State Parkway while riding in an official SUV. Corzine, a multimillionaire, used rented helicopters for personal business and reimbursed the state for personal flights, NJ.com reported.