What Chris Christie understood that Phil Murphy never will
Former Gov. Chris Christie returned to New Jersey 101.5 Thursday night as we marked 10-years since Superstorm Sandy impacted the Garden State.
It was his first time on-air here since he left office in 2018.
"I miss out regular 7-8 o'clock adventures," Christie said, "I miss those times, it's good to be back with you."
For eight years, Christie joined me once a month for "Ask the Governor," fulfilling a campaign pledge to continue a program that began with Gov. Jim Florio in the early 90's and continued until Christie left office.
Christie, like those before him, understood that the program was one of the best ways to directly connect to the people of New Jersey.
At no time was that more vitally important than when Sandy was approaching the New Jersey coast. The Superstorm was making landfall just as "Ask the Governor" was beginning.
Christie and his family had been evacuated from their home in Mendham. His wife and children joined him at our studio, and were then headed the to governor's mansion in Princeton.
"There was a lot of debate among my staff about whether I should do the show that night at all, or whether I should just be in the emergency operations center," Christie recalled of that night.
He insisted on doing the show
"I thought it was really important that while the power was still on, to be communicating to the people of New Jersey about the gravity of the situation and to try to get every person I could out of harm's way," Christie said.
I have no doubt that lives were saved that night.
Why 'Ask the Governor' mattered
At it's heart, "Ask the Governor" was never about political agendas or policy. It was about helping people. It was an unscripted show that gave access to anyone who could dial the phone.
As many as 50,000 calls would attempt to get through on any given evening. We often would be able to take fewer than 20 calls on-the-air.
We certainly did talk about policy issues and each governor that did the show used the appearances to advance their political agenda.
During the Bridgegate scandal, that ultimately killed Christie's political career, he refused to cancel his "Ask the Governor" appearance. It was his first interview since details of the scandal were made public and the program was carried on network TV.
For about 15 minutes, I grilled Christie about the scandal, but then we taking phone calls from listeners.
None of those calls were about Bridgegate. It's not that people didn't care, its that they were not going to waste their one chance to talk to the governor of New Jersey on politics. They needed help, and they knew Christie would provide it.
Agendas, yes, but help came first
Christie Whitman used the program to promote her 30% tax cut, but she also helped listeners frustrated by government red tape.
Jim McGreevey often tried to sell his tax increases, but used listener suggestions to reform the Motor Vehicle Commission.
Jon Corzine, who did not make monthly appearances, did appear to promote his failed monetization plans, but also had staff standing by to contact listeners who had issues they could not resolve.
Christie took that outreach to a new level. He insisted that every cabinet official tune in to the program. When a listener would ask a question, he expected the commissioner of that department to immediately text him an answer. Listeners would get a follow-up call the next day.
If he didn't get a text, he would (good naturedly) call out the commissioner on-air. One commissioner once confided in me, "We hate 'Ask the Governor,' its so stressful for us."
Christie understood one of his primary jobs as governor was to help solve people's problems on a direct and intimate level. The show allowed him to do that.
Where is Phil Murphy?
It's something Phil Murphy, who refuses to appear on New Jersey 101.5, doesn't get.
When Murphy campaigned for governor, he refused to commit to continuing "Ask the Governor." His staff refused to discuss it for weeks after he was elected. When they did discuss it, they had conditions, including the prescreening of all calls and submission of any questions before the show.
Those were unacceptable conditions that went against the entire history of the show.
In the end, Murphy's team didn't even give the courtesy of a phone call to say they were canceling. We read about it in the newspaper.
It's understandable that this may sound a bit like sour grapes to some, but I believe it points to a larger disconnect.
What Murphy failed to grasp was, that no matter how unpopular some of his polices may be, he would get high marks for caring about the problems of individual voters.
Christie left office with abysmal approval ratings, but people still jammed the phone lines for a chance to have him solve their individual problems.
He is still respected for that and for caring about problems that may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of government.
Murphy will never have that respect.