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Chris Christie's Sandy Problem

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is facing criticism over what was once a source of his political strength — his handling of Superstorm Sandy.

While national attention focuses on accusations that the governor's top aides created traffic jams to punish political adversaries, back home it's the slow storm recovery from Sandy that's causing him new headaches.

Sandy crashed into the Jersey Shore eight days before the 2012 presidential election. Republican Christie had been campaigning hard for Mitt Romney, and trashing President Obama.

But when Obama fast-tracked assistance to his storm-ravaged state, Christie adopted a post-partisan stance. He repeatedly praised the president, and he reacted this way when a Fox News host asked him if Romney would come to tour the damage before Election Day: "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 that I give a damn about presidential politics then you don't know me," Christie said.

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.

Tearful residents hugged Christie, and he took the stage outside town hall.

"You're among the toughest, grittiest people that this state has to offer. I love Sayreville. We'll see you again soon," he said.

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.

With untold thousands still displaced from their homes, victims say lots of questions are going unanswered these days. They complain of long wait lists for aid, lost and mistakenly rejected applications, uncaring bureaucrats, and insufficient assistance to the poor and minorities.

Christie said the federal government monitors the 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.

"What happens when you deal with the federal government is the red tape is, ya know, immeasurable," Christie said.

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 in the ordering of traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge.

The controversies are taking their toll. Christie is no longer the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Just 4 in 10 New Jerseyans give him good grades for Sandy recovery, a poll this week showed.

Christie could still regain New Jersey's confidence. He is back on the town hall circuit, where he can connect with those displaced from their homes — like 3-year-old Nicole Mariano, who is spending the winter in an RV with her parents and two dogs.

"My house is still broken. Your house is still broken?" she said.

Christie knelt down and made a promise: "And we'll see if we can get your house fixed, OK, Nicole, come here. Thank you."

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.

Matt Katz covers Gov. Chris Christie for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio.

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Matt Katz
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