Beachside photos of New Jersey governor draw criticism, photo-mashups during state budget crisis

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On Sunday, a long-distance snapshot of New Jersey governor and former Republican United States presidential candidate Chris Christie and his family on a beach outside the gubernatorial residence in Island Beach State Park went public, raising criticism of the governor, who had ordered Island Beach and the rest of New Jersey's state parks closed the previous Friday amid a budget dispute. The response included comments from fellow Republicans and tourists, a plane over Seaside Park, and a variety of memes showing the Governor's beach chair digitally added to other images.

Chris Christie in 2015
Image: Michael Vadon.

"[Christie's] 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," Republican political strategist Kevin Madden offered. "I think the danger of the photos is that it undermines that."

Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, said, "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." Guadagno is planning to run for governor.

One visitor to Atlantic City, New Jersey — Matt Jenkins — told the press, "I think it's a shame, it's hideous."

Regardless of whether they shared Jenkins' opinion, users of Photoshop and similar programs added the Governor in his beach gear to images of television programs such as Jersey Shore and The Sopranos, movies like Jaws, and one scene from the Oval Office.

On Monday, a plane towed a banner over Seaside Park reading, "Tell Gov Christie: Get the hell off Island Beach State Park," echoing the Governor's own words in 2011, in which he told visitors "Get the hell off the beach" as Hurricane Irene approached. The plane received applause from beachgoers.

The dispute that precipitated the shutdown concerned a law letting the New Jersey state government decide how much money the state-founded health insurer Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey would be allowed to accumulate before being required to contribute to the New Jersey state health fund passed the state Senate but not the House, which is largely made up of Democrats. Governor Christie supported the bill. On Sunday, he told the press he would sign any budget the legislature sent him so long as the bill is passed as well: "If they send it to me with Horizon, I will sign it. If they send it to me without Horizon I will use my authority to make a smaller budget[...] If they send me a budget today the shutdown would be over. The Legislature is deciding not to send me either budget." The smaller budget that the governor proposed would include less funding for schools and other programs. Late Monday, the state legislature complied with the governor's stipulations, and Governor Christie signed the bill, reopening the state's parks in time for the Fourth of July holiday.

Christie enjoyed an approval rating of roughly 70% after his response in 2012 to Hurricane Sandy, but his popularity suffered following a 2016 scandal called Bridgegate, in which some of his aides ordered some of the entry lanes into the George Washington Bridge, a major artery for the commute from New Jersey into New York City, closed during rush hour, possibly as political retaliation against a politician in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the town most potently affected by the closure. He also lost the Republican presidential nomination to now-President Donald Trump and the vice presidential nomination to Mike Pence.

Christie defended his decision not to cancel his family's vacation plans by pointing out that many of New Jersey's beaches, over 100 miles (160 km) remained open to visitors and saying that he has the right to use the gubernatorial residence and that his visit required no government services. The Guardian noted a state helicopter shuttled the governor between the park and the state capital, Trenton.

New Jersey is one of several U.S. states that did not have budgets ready for the fiscal year. The northeastern state of Maine also underwent a government shutdown.