At least his son's team won the game.When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took off in a State Police helicopter Tuesday, leaving his son's baseball game and heading to a dinner with backers, he landed himself in one of the bigger political controversies of his tenure.
Democrats called it another example of the cost-cutting Republican governor's hypocrisy. Under the heading "Come Fly with Me," the New Jersey Sierra Club said helicopters could make environmental sense—but only if used for important, official business.
On Wednesday, photos of Mr. Christie exiting the yellow, blue and white helicopter were being flashed on CNN, where commentator Jack Cafferty said all politicians disappoint if you wait around long enough.
It was rough stuff for a man who has been wooed to jump into the presidential contest next year and on the night of the flight was having dinner with a group of donors from Iowa who want him to run.
Mr. Christie and his press staff hunkered down until late Wednesday, as Mr. Christie was pummeled on prime-time cable news. Previous governors of both parties have reimbursed the state for the cost of such trips. A spokesman said Wednesday that Mr. Christie won't reimburse the state, however.
"The governor does not reimburse for security and travel," spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement. "The use of air travel has been extremely limited and appropriate."The State Police superintendent, who is a member of the governor's cabinet, released a statement saying the one-hour-long flight didn't cost taxpayers anything extra, because pilots would be training in the new, $12.5 million aircraft anyway.
"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," Superintendent Rick Fuentes said. "These are flight hours that would be logged in any event."
But Mr. Christie is merely the latest in a line of New Jersey governors stretching back decades to come under fire for their use of a state chopper. One of Mr. Christie's closest political allies, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a Republican, in 2002 criticized then-Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, for his use of a helicopter, saying the Democrat was "abusing taxpayer dollars during a state budget crisis."
Compared with past governors, Mr. Christie is practically afraid of flying. He has taken 35 flights in his first year and a half in office, the State Police said.
Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican (and Mr. Christie's teenage political idol), used a helicopter more than 1,000 times in a four-year term, while Democratic Gov. Jim Florio racked up more than 2,300 flights in a term, according to the Star-Ledger of Newark. Mr. Florio was criticized by candidate Christie Whitman, who defeated him in 1993. Soon enough, she found her own chopper trouble when the Star-Ledger reported she took a state helicopter to a Devils-Rangers playoff game. One of the reporters on the story, Mr. Drewniak, is now Mr. Christie's spokesman.
On Tuesday night, the governor held court for four hours with donors from Iowa, who were pleading with him to run for president. The country needs him and now is his time, they said, despite his unwavering refusals since last summer. There was no talk of the helicopter that had brought Mr. Christie close to the governor's mansion in Princeton, according to someone who attended the dinner.
The question of whether Mr. Christie has an obligation to reimburse the state isn't the point, said Richard Lee, who was deputy communications director for Mr. McGreevey. "The perception part is what's going to stick with him," he said. "You can see how it can easily become a campaign ad."
Mr. Christie's foes were quick to seize the issue. They likened it to his trip to Disney World during a blizzard in December, one of the other times in his year-and-a-half in office when he was painted as out-of-touch. They returned to themes from the 2009 gubernatorial campaign, when they accused Mr. Christie of being a hypocrite and playing by a different set of rules.
Democratic State Chairman John Wisniewski, who said he drives himself to his daughter's soccer games, said he didn't begrudge the governor family time—just how he got there."This is a man who has made a career of pouncing upon anybody who he deems worthy of pouncing upon for abusing the public trust," he said. "That's exactly what the governor did here. He could have gone the old-fashioned way, in a car."