During a Belmar, New Jersey press conference last October, Gov. Chris Christie famously told Jim Keady to “sit down and shut up” when Keady and others protested the governor’s failed Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Keady is not listening to the governor.
Instead, he announced last week that he’s running to represent New Jersey’s 30th District in the state Assembly. While reexamining the state’s hurricane recovery efforts would be a priority, the restaurant owner and activist with the New Jersey Organizing Project told ThinkProgress he would use the position to advocate for fixing the state’s failing pension plan, reforming the education system and advocating for the environment of his hometown — all with input from constituents.
“The devastation of the storm was visceral to me — I saw it, I smelled it, I crawled through it — which is why I took particular umbrage with the governor yelling at me telling me I need to roll my sleeves up and do the work,” Keady said. “When I get into the statehouse, I want to open [government] up and I want to shine light on everything and invite every citizen that is interested to the table to help meet the challenges that our state faces, whether they are environmental, fiscal, educational, workforce development, or job creation.”
On the day that Keady interrupted Christie’s press event, the governor also told him to “roll up your sleeves and do something for the people of this city,” yelling that it’s been almost two years “when all you’ve been doing is flapping your mouth and not doing anything.” But Keady told the governor he took a month off work in the aftermath of the storm to help his neighbors recover and has been thinking about getting back into government since.
Having already served a term on the Asbury Park City Council, Keady said the “alarming” stories he heard from storm victims and the need for a new approach to the state rebuilding program prompted him to launch a campaign. The roll-out of the state Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program was plagued with problems, including employees who provided conflicting information, lost paperwork, extended delays in providing payment and rejections of people who should have qualified for aid. And Keady said lawmakers should have been more transparent about the process.
“I started digging into the policy side of things and went through and did a financial analysis of where the money was, why it’s not being spent, went line by line through contracts,” he said. “And the recurring theme that would pop up in my head was that this is an abject failure of government at every level.”
Keady said he would advocate for a legislative oversight committee that would keep track of the money being spent on the recovery effort. “This should be coming out of the governor’s office, but clearly he’s not doing his job,” he said. He would also push for more transparency between the state and its housing contractors and would reform the process so that bureaucratic documents are written in a way that all state residents can understand.
“When you read through the stacks of paperwork these homeowners have to go through, you need a law degree and it’s a full-time job,” he said.
While activists have been disrupting Christie’s events across the country and speaking out about the failed hurricane response, the two incumbents Keady is hoping to unseat — state Reps. Sean Kean (R) and David Rible (R) — have not put enough pressure on the governor to follow through on his promise to Sandy victims, Keady said.
“If the governor wants someone who’s going to sit down and shut up, then they’re his guys because they have just been yes men for the governor, and not just on the Sandy issue but on a range of issues,” Keady said.
Those other issues, including pension reform, education and environmental protection, will also be prioritized in Keady’s campaign, he said.
Gov. Christie has repeatedly made cuts to the state’s pension fund system, which has been called a “mess.” A state bond sale disclosure last year reported that the state’s unfunded liability had increased by almost $30 billion since 2011 and projected that six of New Jersey’s seven pension funds will go broke by 2027.
“The promises that were made to our public employees need to be upheld,” Keady said.
The launch of Keady’s campaign comes just months after the two year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the day in which he was confronted by the governor and told that “somebody like you doesn’t know a damn thing about what you’re talking about.”
Christie has received sharp criticism from New Jersey residents about the inefficiency of the rebuilding efforts. A recent report from the Fair Share Housing Center found that Sandy recovery efforts are “far from complete” and 15,000 families in New Jersey are still waiting for aid from the state to rebuild their homes. The report said that of the 10,800 families the RREM program was supposed to help because of the serious damage to their homes, only 328 have completed rebuilding and half have not yet signed a contract to begin the process.
Instead of working to expedite the rebuilding process, the state is currently disputing the FSHC’s claim that 15,000 families are still waiting to rebuild, saying it’s “a gross and irresponsible distortion of the facts.”
Christie has also mismanaged government funds that were intended for relief efforts. Early last year, federal officials said they were investigating his use of millions of dollars in Sandy relief funds for ads to promote tourism that also prominently featured the governor.
The FSHC report included a number of recommendations for the governor — many similar to what Keady said he would prioritize if elected — like issuing clearer benchmarks for when aid will be distributed, offering more short-term assistance for displaced families still waiting out the process and declaring a moratorium on foreclosures for victims.