CAPE MAY — Gov. Chris Christie used his visit Wednesday to boost a state program set up to help businesses hurt by Hurricane Sandy and chide failing urban schools that he said are not doing their jobs.
But most of the people who visited the Washington Street Mall to see the governor — a crowd estimated by police at about 1,500 people — did not go to hear about Sandy or urban schools. They seemed drawn by his national celebrity status as a regular on television and a possible contender for the presidency in 2016.
He arrived by helicopter, wearing khakis and a blue polo shirt, with loudspeakers playing the Bruce Springsteen song “We Take Care of Our Own.” People in the crowd called his name as Mayor Ed Mahaney welcomed him to “America’s oldest seashore resort” for his first visit since the blizzard of 2010.
“We love you, Chris,” yelled one man.
“Thank you. Sounds like my kind of guy over there,” Christie responded.
Leslie Kramer, who works nearby at Cape Resorts, used her lunch break to get a hug and a kiss from the governor and captured it all on video.
“I said you’re the future president of the U.S. He said, ‘I like the sound of that,’” Kramer said.
Running for the nation’s highest office may be in his future, but for now the Republican governor is running for re-election against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, though this was not billed as a campaign stop but one to highlight efforts to get the shore “Back to Business” following Sandy. October’s storm barely grazed this Victorian resort, but locals said they appreciated the work Christie has done statewide.
The mall is made up of mom and pop stores and many merchants came out to thank him for state programs specifically helping small businesses.
“Welcome Governor. Thank you for supporting small business,” read a placard held by Whale’s Tale owner Hilary Pritchard.
Christie told Pritchard he loved her store and signed the placard. She thanked him for coming and being supportive.
“We’re tired. It’s the end of the season. It gives us a lift to see he cares about our business,” Pritchard said.
Local photographer Tina Giaimo got Christie to sign her picture of the Seaside Heights roller coaster in the ocean. Giaimo drove to Seaside Heights after Sandy hit. He signed it and wrote: “We’re coming back. Chris Christie, N.J.”
“I love him, and I’m a Democrat. You know that the man is good for New Jersey. He gets it. I’m happy he’s fighting for New Jersey,” Giaimo said.
Aime Lonsdorf, 20, and her younger sister Tara, 14, had just checked out of a Cape May hotel after a five-day vacation when they heard Christie was coming. They talked their parents into staying for the visit and got to the mall early to get a front-row seat.
“We’re really excited. Everybody was out on the terrace of the hotel talking about it,” said Aime, a Rowan University student.
Though she voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, Aime said she appreciated Christie working with President Barack Obama to get Sandy aid in spite of the political ramifications to the Republican Party. Her sister agreed.
“I think people should stop worrying about the parties, Democrat and Republican, and focus on what’s good for the country. President George Washington was against political parties,” Tara said.
During his visit, Christie promoted a state Economic Development Authority program that will grant as much as $50,000 to businesses and low-interest loans of up to $5 million if they suffered damages from Sandy. The Stronger NJ Business program has $460 million in federal funding and has only awarded $2.66 million thus far.
“We haven’t gotten the reaction to these programs I thought we would. We got half a billion in funding from Washington. Call the EDA at 1-855-SANDY-BZ. They will send somebody to help you fill out the forms. You don’t need to suffer in silence. We’re here to help,” Christie said.
The governor also addressed failing urban schools while answering a question about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He said if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be concerned about educational equality.
“We don’t have segregated lunch counters anymore, but we have an enormous inequity in our educational system. There is a big gap between the highest-achieving students and the lowest-achieving students,” said Christie.
He mentioned a number of urban schools, including Atlantic City, but really singled out Asbury Park. He said the average per pupil cost in New Jersey is $17,700, but Asbury Park spends $30,000 per pupil and less than 50 percent of the high school graduates can read at an eighth grade level. He said money is not the answer.
“Throwing more money at it is not going to fix it. We need longer school days and longer school years,” Christie said.
The Lonsdorf sisters liked his answers.
“My sister is going into high school and I’m looking into graduate school to become a high school teacher. I think we need serious reforms and he gets a lot of credit. I think everything he said was wonderful,” Aime Lonsdorf said.
“I like what he said about education,” chimed in Tara Lonsdorf, “because the school system isn’t so much about learning as about meeting state standards. I can vote in 2016 and I think he’s very reasonable. He makes more sense than a lot of other people.”
The governor walked the mall, a different venue from shore visits that usually see him on the boardwalks. The Original Fudge Kitchen presented him with a box of fudge.
“This is the good stuff. We took it from the top shelf,” said Fudge Kitchen owner Joe Bogle.
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