New Jersey Firefighters Warming Up to Gov. Christie
By Jacqueline L. Urgo
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Created: September 17, 2012

Gov. Chris Christie received an overwhelmingly positive reception Friday at the New Jersey Firemen's Convention at the Wildwoods Convention Center after being jeered at the event two years ago.

WILDWOOD, N.J. -- There were a few barely audible boos when Gov. Christie arrived at the New Jersey Firemen's Convention at the Wildwoods Convention Center.

But two years after the same crowd jeered him so heartily that Christie has proudly recounted the incident to illustrate his willingness to do the unpopular - like force public workers to pay more for their benefits - the governor received an overwhelmingly positive reception Friday at the annual gathering.

Some gave him a standing ovation as Christie bounded up the steps to the portable stage erected for the occasion.

Before a crowd of several thousand, Christie delivered an address that was part keynote address (some lines were familiar from his speech at the Republican National Convention) and part town-hall meeting, though he took no questions from the audience.

By the time he thanked the crowd for being invited back, considering the response he received in 2010; talked about gradually restoring pension funding; extolled their bravery; and delivered his we're-all-in-this-together-'cause-I'm-from-Jersey-and-so-are-you spiel, the conventioneers were nearly eating out of his hand.

So many thronged the dais to greet him, offer hugs, and whisper well wishes that it took Christie almost 10 minutes to exit.

In interviews and in speeches at places such as the George W. Bush Institute and the Brookings Institution, Christie has used his previous meeting with the firefighters as a go-to anecdote to illustrate his truth-telling leadership style.

"About 2 o'clock in the afternoon, lunch, I suspect, had been liquid, and those firefighters were ready for their governor," Christie told his audience at the Brookings Institution in July.

"When I got introduced, they were booing like crazy. I got up to the stage, got behind the podium like this, and I said, 'Come on, you can do better than that.' And they did."

After the firefighters quieted down, Christie said at Brookings, he explained that they had been betrayed by previous governors and it was left to him to restore health to their benefits plan.

On Friday, Christie returned to that theme, telling the firefighters that he takes the heat for what he believes needs to be done.

"I'm not in this to be loved," he said. "I get plenty of love at home. I have a wife and four kids. . . . I am here to stand by my principles and do what I think is right for New Jersey."

Christie lost little time in tackling the pension issue. When he last met with them, he told the firefighters, it was early in his administration and the state was in dire financial straits. The public employees' health and pension fund was underfunded by $1.2 billion.

The firefighters' pension, Christie said, was only 51 percent funded. Today, he said, it's funded at 60 percent.

The governor said the state was poised to resume payments to the pension fund and planned to allocate $1.1 billion - 3.5 percent of the state budget. The amount would be the largest single payment to the fund in state history, Christie said.

The announcement was met with applause from the crowd.

"Politics aside, the pension that these men and women have worked long and hard for is really at the heart of what concerns a lot of people here. I think that is what people were responding to the last time he addressed this group," said Don Smith, a fire captain from Bayonne, N.J., who listened to the governor's speech on Friday.

"I think people were a lot happier with him this time around."

Copyright 2012 Philadelphia Newspapers, LLC. All Rights Reserved

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This reporter definitely has a different "feel" about Christie's appearance than all the FF's near me at the convention.