‘That’s Him’: Christie Goes to the Shore, and the Critics Pounce

The governor and his family were easy to spot on the shimmering Jersey Shore, amid 10 miles of a state beach closed by a budget standoff, even from 1,000 feet above.

Andy Mills, a 6-foot-3-inch photographer for The Star-Ledger, dangled out of a Cessna 152 two-seater and aimed his long lens at what looked like just dots on the sand. Following a hunch that with an empty Sunday morning schedule, Gov. Chris Christie might be indulging in some private holiday weekend sun on a beach he had ordered closed as part of a government shutdown, Mr. Mills fired away.

The hunch paid off.

“As we came back up, I’m looking, I’m like, ‘that’s him,’ there’s no doubt in my mind that’s him,” Mr. Mills said. He peered through his 400-millimeter lens and saw Mr. Christie looking right back at him. “When you make eye contact with someone, both you know and he knows what’s going on.”

The national spotlight on the images from the beach brought new attention to the political stalemate in Trenton, the state capital, where an impasse between Mr. Christie and some Democratic lawmakers over a new budget was the reason state parks and beaches, along with many other government services, were closed in the first place.

That ended late Monday, when Mr. Christie and the State Assembly speaker agreed on a new budget allowing the government to reopen. Among other things, the agreement will reopen the state beaches and parks for the Fourth of July.

But the political damage had already been done.

The photographs were yet another self-inflicted indignity, exposed by the news media, for a governor who long dreamed of the dignified office of the presidency. In 2011, photographs published by The Star-Ledger caught him using a state helicopter paid for by taxpayers to attend his son’s baseball game. Television cameras caught him in awkward celebrations in 2015 with Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys — a hated rival in New Jersey — Mr. Christie’s pale, red sweater standing out in the luxury box surroundings.

Mr. Christie had been adamant that he had a right to the use the beach house at Island Beach State Park — it is an official governor’s residence — and that he was not going to cancel weeks of planning because of the shutdown.

When a reporter asked about his use of the home, Mr. Christie said: “That’s just the way it goes. Run for governor, and you can have a residence.”

At the height of Mr. Christie’s popularity, when he was celebrated at home and nationally as one of the Republican Party’s brightest stars, Mr. Christie easily shrugged off seemingly damaging episodes, rarely giving any credence to concerns about political optics. Armed with a quick, sharp tongue and a brash sense of humor, his “sit down and shut up” tongue lashings were often praised as authentic and tough.

But now, with Mr. Christie having been battered by the George Washington Bridge scandal, a disastrous presidential bid and the lowest approval ratings of any governor in state history, his continued reliance on biting defensive humor is less endearing and more enraging.

“His rise to national prominence was that he had this reputation as a fighter, and that when he was fighting, he was on the side of the Everyman and the New Jersey taxpayer against the status quo,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “I think the danger of the photos is that it undermines that.”

And referring to his approval ratings, Mr. Madden noted, “When you are at 15 percent, you are stripped of your political capital.”

As a firestorm erupted over the beach photographs, the governor’s office said that Mr. Christie had long been planning to use the shore house and that out-of-state relatives were visiting for the Fourth of July weekend.

Still, the images of Mr. Christie enjoying an empty beach on a perfect beach day infuriated his constituents, who were caught off guard and whose plans were upended.

The images drew immediate ridicule from friends and opponents.

“It’s beyond words,” said Mr. Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, a Republican who is running to replace him. “If I were governor, I sure wouldn’t be sitting on the beach if taxpayers didn’t have access to state beaches. We need to end the shutdown now. It’s hurting small businesses and ordinary New Jerseyans.”

In a state where the once-mighty local press has atrophied to a scrappy few, and faced with a governor who detests the news media with such vigor that he once introduced a bill nicknamed “the newspaper revenge bill,” the unflattering photograph of the governor lounging seaside with his family was a big victory for the state news media contingent that has been a thorn in his side.

Hours after Mr. Christie was spotted on the sand, Claude Brodesser, a reporter for The Star-Ledger, asked the governor if he had gotten any sun.

Mr. Christie curtly responded that he had not and hurled an unrelated insult at Mr. Brodesser.

But in The Star Ledger’s newsroom, Mr. Mills and his editor, Kevin Whitmer, were poring over the photographs. They had originally planned to fly over the state’s beaches on the Fourth of July, as they do every year, but Mr. Mills, a veteran Jersey Shore photographer, thought they might get Mr. Christie on Sunday.

For years, major and local newspapers owned planes to take aerial shots. But as budgets have withered over the years, renting a plane is increasingly rare, but The Star-Ledger and Mr. Mills were willing to take the risk.

Shortly after Mr. Mills arrived at Monmouth Executive Airport on Sunday, he spotted the governor’s helicopter idling next to a plane — mounting evidence that Mr. Christie was by the ocean.

When The Star-Ledger sought the governor’s response to the photographs, Mr. Christie’s office tried to turn it into a joke, “He did not get any sun. He had a baseball hat on,” was the official statement from Mr. Christie’s spokesman, Brian Murray. But as soon as the photographs were published, criticism, condemnation and laughs at the governor’s expense rained down.

“Attn Chris: When Springsteen sang, “Down the shore everything’s all right,” I’m pretty sure this is not what he had in mind,” Preet Bharara, a former United States attorney, wrote in a tweet, adding an extra hashtag, #JerseyGirl.

The images of the governor, head tilted back in rumpled black shirt, mesh shorts and flip flops, quickly became a meme and ricocheted around social media. Soon the lounging governor found himself Photoshopped into the Oval Office next to a kneeling Kellyanne Conway, in an apocalyptic scene from “Planet of the Apes” or gazing longingly at Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, locked in their iconic surfside embrace from the movie “From Here to Eternity.”

Aggravated residents were forced to pack tightly onto nearby beaches, while nearby, more than 10 miles of beach sat unblemished.

Some questioned why Mr. Christie had a taxpayer-funded beach house in the first place. (The sizable house and separate garage were built after the Great Depression by private developers hoping to turn Island Beach into a luxury resort. After that failed, the State of New Jersey bought the property, including the buildings, for $2.75 million in 1953.)

On Saturday morning, while confused residents were being turned away from Island Beach State Park’s entrance, one local fisherman spotted the governor’s daughter driving past the barricade.

For many of the residents who are not the governor of New Jersey, cramming onto open municipal shores, rarely an easy task, became more difficult.

Perhaps sensing the level of fury, Mr. Christie’s office carried out a public-relations blitz on Monday, using his official Twitter account to point to the many open municipal beaches.

“NJ beaches are open in 119 of our 130 miles of coastline. Come and enjoy them — but use sunscreen and hydrate!” one tweet said.

By late Monday afternoon, a new plane was circling the Jersey Shore, slightly bigger than Mr. Mills’s Cessna, trailing a banner stealing one of Mr. Christie’s famous lines: “Tell Gov Christie: Get the Hell Off Island Beach State Park.”

A few miles north of Island Beach State Park, beachgoers in Lavallette applauded.

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