Mary Pat Christie arrives at a back door to the YMCA in Mount Laurel, ducks into a locker room to put herself together (not much makeup, sensible black boots paired with a knit plaid skirt), and emerges in the hallway.
For this event, the presentation of the New Jersey Hero of the Month award, she is accompanied by a bit of an entourage - driver/security guy, press aide, camera crew, chief of staff, and a "head of protocol" who prearranged details (including scouting the locker-room pit stop). But once she walks down the hallway, you sense she's not the type to let too many people tell her what to do.
They include her husband, Chris, the governor of New Jersey, with whom she has four children and "simpatico" political views, whose sudden national profile of ambition, confrontation, and controversy seems barely to faze her.
"It's like water off the duck's back," Christie, 47, says later, with her characteristic raised eyebrow, implied wink, and knowing laugh.
The ninth of 10 children raised on Cobblestone Drive in Paoli, Christie, nee Foster, has the type of spunk that has been likened to Elaine's on Seinfeld. And if her husband has a reputation for constantly talking, Mary Pat seems to have - and thank goodness - an honest desire to really listen.
Sitting in on a workshop on controlling conflict and countering overly assertive partners run by the Women's Opportunity Center - whose director, Cathi Rendfrey, is receiving the hero award - Mary Pat nods and says she especially appreciates the concept of relying on "scripts" when in the middle of a heated argument. "I'm taking that one home," she tells the group, and who could blame her.
On the home front
Her husband of 25 years is the fellow Bruce Springsteen fan she first followed at the University of Delaware as class president ('84 and '85) - yes, they met in student government - then followed all the way to the New Jersey governor's mansion, except rather than take up residence in Drumthwacket, they sensibly decided to stay put in their Mendham digs.
"Our children are at a good place right now in their schools, in their life," she says of the children, ages 7 to 17, who attend Catholic schools. "It's a really fragile time for them. We have our priorities."
She laughs at the idea that her husband on the home front resembles the combative guy on YouTube. In fact, she says, they don't disagree on much (except baseball, where she is the lone Phillies fan in a Mets family). "He's very assertive. He's an amazing father. He's a great partner. Gosh, we really see eye to eye on so many things, on most things."
Is the governor the same guy she met in college and married the year after graduating? "His personality - I mean, yeah, he's always been amazingly smart. That's what attracted me to him. His humor and his intelligence."
Friends say Mary Pat, too, could have gone into politics.
"They have a lot of very similar personality traits," says lawyer Rich Mroz, who has known both since college. (He preceded Chris as class president.) "I know them both to be fairly blunt . . . to each other and even to their friends."
Mary Pat, he says, "is very engaging" but also "a very serious person. Particularly on issues that she feels pretty passionate about, she will pursue them aggressively."
Mroz says little has changed about the couple since he knew them at Delaware - except, perhaps, for the presence of state troopers now at get-togethers such as the Blue Hens football games the two families regularly attend.
Christie himself said at a town meeting this month in Hammonton that he had dragged Mary Pat to New Jersey "kicking and screaming" and that in relationships public and private, "nothing is left unsaid."
His wife concurs: "He really is, gosh, he's so forthright and frank. And he's that way with our family. You never have to wonder where he stands, even if it's can Patrick go to a hockey game at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. He'll say yes or no, and nine times out of 10 we agree."
Mary Pat's brother Brian Foster, 50, a furniture designer in Germantown who built the governor's desk that Christie uses in Mendham, says his sister can hold her own.
"She's very much her own woman. She's a career woman and a mom. She's a real balabusta," he says, using the Yiddish word for, roughly, a powerhouse homemaker. "She's always cooking, loves making desserts. She always wants to know what she can bring if she's coming to my place." (He usually requests her Dr. Byrd Cake, a pineapple, apple, walnut wonder.)
Christie, he says, "is a very loving man. "He kisses me when we see each other, gives me a big Italian kiss on the cheek. He's totally into his family."
Unlike, perhaps, at town-hall meetings, Christie is open to disagreements over politics, Foster says. And like the home Mary Pat grew up in, the Christie home is one of rules.
"When I'm over, there's rules about video games and that stuff," Foster says. "Huge rules around television. They're disciplinarians, for sure. That's how Mary Pat grew up. They're very decided about their philosophies. There's no wavering. They see eye to eye. It's all about school and manners, rules and table manners, extending your hand to be introduced, that whole thing."
Mary Pat has served on the mothers guild at her son Andrew's school, Delbarton; she says the governor reserves weekends as much as possible for kids and their sporting events.
While the children are certainly old enough to see that their father has loyal supporters and angry detractors, Mary Pat says the family takes it all in stride.
"We're on the same page about the kinds of things that happen in town halls. Do my kids get offended or take it personally? We just don't. The governor has really done a good job in helping all of us understand it's business, not personal."
'A tough player'
At the Mount Laurel event, she sits among women who tell stories of domestic violence, of economic fragility, of battling back. Mary Pat is riveted: "I really, I get choked up, to see all of you amazing women taking the steps that you have, to really just be brave enough to come here."
As first lady, she's beginning to find her stride with issues such as recidivism and at-risk populations, issues she says have always interested her.
At the Mount Laurel Y, she speaks about her concern for older teens who have dropped out of school, who are not in the criminal justice system. "They're really, really lost," she says. "Nobody's responsible for them."
With a master's of business administration from Seton Hall University, she works part time as a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald in Manhattan (Mondays, Tuesdays, every other Wednesday, job-sharing with another woman) - a schedule she hopes will be a positive example for her children. (And how: She has earned as much as $500,000 annually even with the reduced hours.)
That she has access to the governor is a given; he has given her credit, or blame, for weighing in at times.
Mary Pat famously nixed the idea of cutting their Disney World vacation to attend to the state's powerful post-Christmas blizzard. "Oh, sure. Well, I did," she says. "It's not either one of us makes these decisions. We're a real team."
And when the governor withdrew New Jersey from the $8.7 billion Hudson River tunnel, infuriating folks in two states and Washington, he gamely explained "the lobbying on this was from" his wife, a commuter to Manhattan, who told him the plan to end up beneath Macy's made no sense. Her reasoning - that from Macy's it would be a long walk to the subway - was rebutted by the planners, who said a new stop had been planned. Yet she stands by her view. "I just thought whoever came up with that plan didn't commute for 25 years."
"What I said had nothing to do with his decision," she insists, a bit alarmed by the implication. "It was just a conversation he and I had over dinner. . . . I guess I have more influence than I think sometimes."
Don't underestimate that influence, says State Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth), a family friend and chairman of the campaign.
"Mary Pat was a part of every meeting, every strategy session, every significant conference call," he says. "There was no better fund-raiser. You put a list of names and phone numbers in front of her, and her fingers dial fast. She's a tough player in her own right."
In the big stone house in Paoli where she and her late husband raised 10 children, Pat Foster, 82, is talking about her son-in-law, the governor, whom she doesn't get to see as much. "He comes with a lot of attachments now."
She loves Chris, praises his parenting skills, gets a kick out of seeing him at town-hall meetings, extols his finer points. "Chris and his father and his brother always did the dishes at Thanksgiving."
At home, "he's very calm and controlled. He talks to [his children], reasons with them. It's a lively household."
As for her daughter, who graduated from Villa Maria Academy near Malvern and has one brother with an auto-body shop in Malvern and one with a pasta restaurant in Pottstown: "She seems very positive about it. This morning, she was at Gracie Mansion for breakfast!"
As the country gets to know Christie, the narrative has taken surprising turns. At a recent town-hall meeting, a woman called him "hot and sexy" - a comment Mary Pat heard, at work, from clients.
"I got instant messages of the story. I forwarded the story to him and said, 'You are going to be insufferable.' "
As for whether her husband's style might play well in a presidential run, she says: "It's unfathomable."
But for now, having bestowed the award, Mary Pat is back in bond-trader mode, her iPhone buzzing, headed to Cantor Fitzgerald offices, because it happens to be that every other Wednesday when she is due at work. "Go to my website," she tells the women before leaving, "whatever it is."