Against a backdrop of school budget cuts and state layoffs, Gov. Chris Christie faced mounting criticism Wednesday for to travel to his son's baseball game in Bergen County.
Christie landed on a sports field at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale in the $12 million chopper Tuesday afternoon, minutes before his son was about to take the field as the catcher for the Delbarton School in their playoff game against St. Joe's. He and his wife, Mary Pat, left in the helicopter after the 5th inning.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) blasted Christie, saying she "fully expects" the governor to reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of the ride.
"If this was for an official reason, that would have been one thing, but he used a state helicopter to fly to his child's baseball game," Weinberg said. "I have a real problem with this as a taxpayer and I fully expect that he will reimburse the state of New Jersey for the cost of this ride, which I'm assuming runs into the thousands of dollars," she said.
Weinberg said politicians should use their own vehicles and pay for their own gas while on personal trips.
"I've gone in my lifetime to plenty of school games, dance recitals, you name it, and like any other parent or grandparent, I sat in traffic and I paid for it myself," Weinberg said, adding that she sat in traffic for four hours last week on her way to Vineland for a hearing. She paid her own gas and tolls, she said.
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, (D-Englewood) said he questioned Christie's judgment.
"I understand there are family events you might want to get to, but to use a helicopter, which is extremely expensive to fly, when it comes to fuel and labor costs, is just not appropriate," Johnson said.
Republican officials, however, remained tightlipped about whether they thought the trip to Bergen County was an appropriate use of the aircraft.
The governor's office has not spoken at length about the helicopter ride, issuing a statement that read simply, "It is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands. This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use."
A Christie spokesman did not respond to an email asking for additional comment.
In defending the governor's trip, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said the flight hours would have been accumulated anyway on the aircraft, as pilots become accustomed to the new helicopters. The state police oversees security for the governor.
"Governor Christie is on duty every hour of every day," Fuentes said in a release. "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. As part of our long-standing security protocol, the EPU provides secure, protected travel by vehicle in the overwhelming majority of the Governor’s business and personal travel, except in those rare instances when the Governor’s schedule warrants use of air travel.
"To date, Governor Christie has been aboard State Police helicopters 35 times since taking office, including aerial surveys of flood and storm damage. It is important to understand that State Police helicopters fly daily homeland security missions, and use flight time for training purposes, more so lately as we acclimate our pilots to the new aircraft. These are flight hours that would be logged in any event. Therefore, there is no additional cost to taxpayers or the State Police budget, nor is there any interference with our daily mission by adding the state’s chief executive to any of these trips. Any flights transporting the Governor would be subordinated to priority needs for our aircraft including rescue and emergent law enforcement missions."
Jeff Tittel, the president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, estimated that the helicopter used by Christie averages between 2.25 to 2.5 miles per gallon, compared to a large SUV that gets 16 miles per gallon on a highway.
"There is a bigger environmental impact from using a helicopter. Anyone who says otherwise is just spinning it," Tittel said, who added that he's not against using helicopters for official business, but criticized the use for personal flights.
"God help us if there was ever an emergency when the helicopter is in use by the governor to take him to his son's baseball game," U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) said in remarks Wednesday to a rally of state union workers in Newark's Military Park.
Patch users debated the issue with fervor on Tuesday and Wednesday. By noon Wednesday, comments were about 3-to-1 in favor of people who said they felt that Christie had abused his access to the state police helicopter. Some pointed to his son's enrollment in a private high school, while at the same time he battles with the state teachers' union. Still others questioned the use of the helicopter to return Christie from the game to the Governor's Mansion in Princeton, where he met with an Iowa group that is trying to pursuade him to run for president.
A minority of commenters, however, said that Christie's use of the helicopter was acceptable. They contrasted Christie's one-time personal use with Air Force One shuttling President Obama around the country for vacation, though federal law requires the president to travel via Air Force One or its helicopter cousin, Marine One.
For a governor who many would classify as divisive and unapologetic, the discussion mirrored the man.
This story was reported by Tom Troncone, Giovanna Fabiano, James Kleimann, and Noah Cohen.