MAPLEWOOD N.J. (Reuters) - Chris Christie insists they are terms of endearment, but some New Jerseyans say his jokes about Garden State residents being dishonest, argumentative “idiots” are far from funny.
It’s a complaint that some political experts say could affect the governor’s potential 2016 U.S. presidential run.
Campaigning last month for fellow Republicans, Christie told Pennsylvanians that his Philadelphia-area in-laws would vote for embattled Governor Tom Corbett and, “If they were from New Jersey, they’d vote for him twice.”
Asked by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart why he called a Navy SEAL veteran an “idiot” during a 2012 New Jersey town hall meeting for arguing with him over the state’s plans for its public universities, Christie retorted, “You grew up in New Jersey. How many idiots are there?”
And in an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” after Superstorm Sandy two years ago, Christie joked about a gasoline shortage that triggered long lines at the pumps.
“Screaming at people at gas stations is a New Jersey tradition,” he said at the time.
Christie’s fans say his brash style is refreshing in an age of scripted politics and polished talking points.
Critics, however, say they are offended that he excuses his demeanor as “Jersey-style.” They say he is perpetuating ugly stereotypes about the state.
“People are starting to get this idea that we’re this storm-ravaged place where everybody yells at each other. You would never know that there are so many golf courses and gardens and farms and trees,” said Marie Hollinger Short, 42, a New Jersey native who twice voted against Christie.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak dismissed the notion that the jokes have become a serious issue, calling the governor “the cheerleader-in-chief for New Jersey, its people, its businesses, its tourism attributes and just about anything else about our state.”
Christie has not said whether he will run for president in 2016. If he does, one critical question is whether his confrontational approach works in Midwestern states like Iowa, where voters are not accustomed to his style, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Closer to home, Christie last month saw his favorability drop to its lowest level when a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of 842 New Jersey residents showed 42 percent of registered voters with a favorable view of Christie, and 45 percent unfavorable.
“He needs to be doubly careful right now to really nurture support in his state so that if he runs, the polls show people like him,” said Julian Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University.
New Jerseyans rubbed raw by Christie’s comments are those who don’t like him in general, experts said, while those who like him find his remarks exhilarating.
Choreographer and musician Jay T. Jenkins, 56, said when he introduces himself on business travel as being from New Jersey, he is often asked about Christie’s portrayal of New Jerseyans.
“They say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re like this, this is your style.’ And I’m like, ‘No. That’s not me,’” said Jenkins, a Democrat from the suburb of West Orange who has never voted for Christie.
Among those who appreciate Christie’s style is Scott Lahey, 49, of nearby Maplewood, a Democrat who twice voted for Christie, who he said has boosted state pride.
“He knows how Jersey is,” Lahey said.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Douglas Royalty