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Christie tries to move on from 'Bridgegate' with Sandy speech

Hoping to get back to business as usual, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie met with victims of Hurricane Sandy on Thursday morning to talk about rebuilding efforts, pledging that “nothing will distract me from getting that job done.”

The speech at a fire station in the coastal community of Manahawkin had originally been scheduled for last week, but the governor canceled that appearance after news broke that a top staffer had sent emails ordering access lane closures in September on the George Washington Bridge. Part of Thursday morning's speech was carried on national channels such as CNN and MSNBC, something that likely would not have happened before the "Bridgegate" scandal, which Christie acknowledged in his speech.

“I suspect there are a few more cameras here today than we might have originally thought for a Sandy event in Manahawkin, New Jersey, but I hope all these people with cameras will frequent the local businesses,” he said, to applause.

The formal purpose of the speech was to announce that $817 million of federal Sandy funds — about 70% of those awarded to the state — had been dispersed to people in need, but the event was also a chance for Christie to attempt to talk about something that was not scandal-related.

READ: Controversial Christie staffer emails

In the last week, he has fired a top staffer and an advisor, hosted a two-hour press conference about the scandal and learned that the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was investigating how the state spent $25 million in Sandy relief funds. On Tuesday, Christie began his State of the State address with an apology for the scandal.

It was a rough week for a governor who had won widespread praise for his handling of Hurricane Sandy, as he tried to remind voters Thursday.

“The folks in my government are going to continue to be focused on getting the job done for all of you. That’s what you pay me for, that’s what you reelected me to do,” he said. “I am as focused on completing this mission as I was when I woke up on the morning of Oct. 30, 2012.”

About 340,000 New Jersey homes were destroyed or damaged during Sandy, and the storm caused about $37 billion worth of damage in the state. Christie said he holds a weekly meeting with the staffers working on Sandy recovery efforts.

"If we remember the devastation, we know that things like this don't happen overnight," he said. "Except for folks in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina, no one's ever done this before on this scale." 

Christie’s office also announced Thursday morning that it had hired a law firm to assist with an internal review of his administration, a day after the New Jersey General Assembly announced it had hired a lawyer to advise a committee that will look into Bridgegate. That lawyer, Reid Schar, was the lead prosecutor in the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“This administration is committed to ensuring that what happened here never happens again,” Christie’s office said in a release.

PHOTOS: Scenes from “Bridgegate”

The Assembly on Thursday is expected to establish the Select Committee on Investigation to look into the scandal. The committee, which will have subpoena power, will then meet to discuss how to proceed; it will probably issue some subpoenas later in the day.

Going forward, Christie seems tempted to portray himself as a New Jersey underdog who will fight for the state while others try to distract him. That’s at least how he concluded his speech in Manahawkin.

“There’s all kinds of challenges, as you know, that come every day, out of nowhere, to test you,” he said. “But I want to assure the people of New Jersey of one thing — I was born here, I was raised here, I’m raising my family here, and this is where I intend to spend the rest of my life. And whatever tests they put in front of me I will meet those tests, because I’m doing it on your behalf.” 

Christie will be inaugurated for his second term on Tuesday. 

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlanaSemuels

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