MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is facing criticism over what was once a source of his political strength - his handling of Superstorm Sandy. Christie has been under scrutiny for weeks now with accusations that his top aides created traffic jams to punish political adversaries. And now, the slow recovery from Sandy is causing him new headaches. Matt Katz of member station WNYC reports.
MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Sandy crashed into the Jersey Shore eight days before the 2012 presidential election. Republican Governor Christie had been campaigning hard for Mitt Romney and thrashing President Obama. But when Obama fast-tracked assistance to the storm-ravaged New Jersey, Christie adopted a post-partisan stance. He repeatedly praised the president, and he reacted this way when a FOX News host asked him if candidate Romney would come to tour the damage before Election Day.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I've got 2.4 million people out of power. I've got devastation on the shore. I've got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don't know me.
KATZ: In blue New Jersey, Christie was rewarded with enthusiastic appreciation in storm-battered communities. When Christie visited Sayreville with a native son, Jon Bon Jovi, the rocker's song "Who Says You Can't Go Home" rained down on the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO SAYS YOU CAN'T GO HOME")
BON JOVI: (Singing) Who says you can't go back, been all around the world and as a matter of fact...
KATZ: Tearful residents hugged Christie, and he took the stage outside town hall.
CHRISTIE: You're among the toughest, grittiest people that this state has to offer. I love Sayreville. We'll see you again soon.
KATZ: Christie won a landslide re-election last November based in large part on his image as the savior of Sandy. But when he returned to a town near Sayreville last week for a town hall meeting, things were different. He was greeted with sign-waving protesters outside and some hostility inside. One man wanted to know why he fired a private contractor in charge of distributing Sandy housing grants.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why was HGI fired? Why did you pay him $50 million? And why did you privatize most - why did you privatize most of the grant program? You didn't have to do that.
CHRISTIE: I just disagree with you, OK? So you said not to privatize it. The alternative is...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Answer the question. Answer the question.
CHRISTIE: I'm answering the question.
KATZ: But he didn't. With untold thousands still displaced from their homes, victims say lots of questions are going unanswered these days. They complain of long waitlists for aid, lost and mistakenly rejected applications, uncaring bureaucrats, and insufficient assistance to the poor and minorities. Christie said the federal government monitors their distribution of aid, which is equitable. But he says, New Jersey hasn't gotten its fair share of the money. And he blamed post-Katrina federal regulations for its slow distribution.
CHRISTIE: What happens when you deal with the federal government is the red tape is, you know, immeasurable.
KATZ: Accusations that Christie was bungling the recovery effort had surfaced before. But Christie had built up such goodwill in the months after the storm that criticism was mostly dismissed as partisanship. Then, Bridgegate. Christie's aides were implicated ordering traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge.
The controversies are taking their toll. Christie is no longer the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Just four in 10 New Jerseyans give him good grades for Sandy recovery. Christie could still regain New Jersey's confidence. He's back on the town hall circuit, where he can connect with those displaced from their homes - like three-year-old Nicole Mariano, who is spending the winter in an RV with her parents and two dogs.
NICOLE MARIANO: My house is still broken.
CHRISTIE: Your house is still broken?
KATZ: Christie kneeled down and made a promise.
CHRISTIE: Then we'll see if we can get your house fixed, OK? All right. Nicole, come here. Thank you. All right.
KATZ: It was a taste of the Christie magic from just after Sandy hit. Moments later, he left, and Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own" replaced his voice on the speakers. For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.
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