New Jersey's pugnacious, budget-cutting Gov. Chris Christie — widely mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for president — is catching grief for taking a state helicopter to his son's high school baseball game.
Critics portrayed Christie as a big hypocrite, given his tough talk about runaway spending, and Democrats called for an investigation Wednesday. GOP leaders, meanwhile, were mute, with no one immediately coming to his defense.
"Gov. Christie obviously doesn't include himself in his hollow call for shared sacrifice," Democratic state Assemblyman Paul Moriarty said as he called on the governor to publicly detail his use of state police helicopters and reimburse the taxpayers for any personal or political trips. "Gov. Christie must learn that taxpayers cannot afford his helicopter joyrides."
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said there was nothing illegal or inappropriate about the governor's use of the helicopter, which he said is relied on only when his schedule demands it. But Drewniak would not say precisely why Christie chose to fly or whether he plans to repay the state for the use of the aircraft for non-official purposes.
While state police helicopters cost $2,500 an hour to operate, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said that giving Christie a lift did not cost taxpayers anything extra because the pilots need to put in flying time anyway to keep their skills sharp.
Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general's office, said that as the state's chief executive, Christie can use the helicopter "at any time for any purpose" and that it is up to the governor to decide if he should reimburse the state for personal use.
Christie, his wife, Mary Pat, and an aide arrived by helicopter just before Tuesday night's game between Delbarton High School and St. Joseph's of Montvale began in Montvale. The couple stepped off the aircraft and into a trooper-driven car that drove them 100 yards to the bleachers, where they watched the game while flanked by state troopers. The Christies left during the fifth inning, and play was stopped briefly while the helicopter took off.
The governor's oldest son, Andrew, attends Delbarton, a Catholic prep school, where he plays catcher — a position Christie also played in high school.
"As a father I could understand getting to your son's game. But I don't understand the problem with going up the Turnpike with a police escort," said Rob Appello, whose backyard fence borders the football field where the helicopter landed.
According to the police, Christie has been aboard state police helicopters 35 times since taking office a year and a half ago, including flyovers to survey flood and storm damage. State police and the governor's office did not say which, if any, of the trips were personal or political or whether the governor has ever reimbursed the state.
"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," said Fuentes, the state police superintendent. He added that rescues or other urgent police business would have been given priority if the aircraft had been needed on the night of the ballgame.
A spokesman for the state Republican Party referred all questions to the governor's office.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor who indicted politicians for misusing public money, has become a darling of the GOP, with party loyalists begging him to run for president. Christie left the ballgame to go to a dinner at the governor's mansion in Princeton with a delegation of Iowans who tried — unsuccessfully — to persuade him to mount a White House bid.
He has built a national profile by fighting runaway spending by even the smallest state agencies and by calling for shared sacrifice by all public employees. He has issued nearly two dozen vetoes of spending by state authorities — some for less than $1,000.
State Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski said it was inappropriate for Christie to use state property to fly to the purely political meeting: "The only thing I can think of is that he wanted to look presidential flying in. It's his version of Marine One."
The governor's spokesman would not say where Christie was coming from when he arrived at the game. The helicopter "is a means of transportation that is occasionally used as the schedule demands," Drewniak said. "This has historically been the case in prior administrations as well, and we continue to be judicious in limiting its use."
Christie has faced criticism over other travel-related expenses.
The Justice Department's inspector general found Christie engaged in a pattern of abuse when he was U.S. attorney by billing taxpayers for stays at luxury hotels. Christie said he stayed in more expensive hotels only when cheaper ones weren't available.
However, Christie is not the only New Jersey governor to get flak over the use of helicopters. Gov. James E. McGreevey was criticized for using a state helicopter to take 14 non-governmental trips. The Democratic Party reimbursed the state $18,200.
After Gov. Jon Corzine was nearly killed in an auto accident on the Garden State Parkway in 2007, a special commission recommended governors use helicopters more often for safety reasons. But Corzine, a multimillionaire, rented private helicopters for personal business.
The use of aircraft at state expense has caused problems for other governors around the country.
Last year, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford reimbursed the state $8,795 for personal use of state planes. Former acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift was criticized in 1999, when she was lieutenant governor, for taking a state police helicopter home to the Berkshires for Thanksgiving. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin repaid about $8,000 for nine state trips she took with her children.