SOUTH RIVER, N.J. - Displaying some of his trademark bluster, Gov. Christie castigated public worker unions and got into a testy argument with a health-care activist during a town-hall meeting Tuesday in this Middlesex County borough.
As he did a similar event last week in Mount Laurel, Christie met with disruption Tuesday. More than a dozen protesters, after launching a call-and-response chant about "corrupt uses of Hurricane Sandy money," were ejected by police from St. Mary's Community Center.
Before the incident, the Republican governor had told the crowd he expected an outburst. He named the Communications Workers of America, which represents state and local government workers, and said the disruption was driven by "people who we - we, collectively - have been standing up against for the last 41/2 years."
"Congratulations, everybody," Christie said, once the group had left. "You have now seen the latest gift given to you by the public-sector unions of New Jersey." He added, "I am a soothsayer," getting laughs and applause.
A CWA official did not say Tuesday whether the union had recruited the protesters, but accused Christie of ignoring questions about his administration, which is facing investigation into lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and questions about its handling of Sandy aid.
One woman who was ejected, a retiree from Princeton affiliated with a progressive Democratic group, said a number of groups were represented among the protesters.
Christie got into a back-and-forth debate with Maura Collinsgru, health-policy advocate with the left-leaning New Jersey Citizen Action, who told the governor that her group and others had been working to enroll the uninsured and had gotten "silence" from the administration.
Christie cut in. "When I expanded the Medicaid program, is that silence?" he said, referring to his decision to accept federal money to expand the program.
After Collinsgru said the state had failed to reinvest money it had saved as a result of the federal Medicaid dollars, Christie said: "You're simply wrong."
"To stand up here and misinform people because you have an agenda is simply incorrect," Christie said. He drew applause when he told Collinsgru: "I'm sorry that you favor Obamacare, and I do not."
As the argument continued, Christie told Collinsgru: "I don't know how many times you can stand up there and give a speech and be wrong and continue to keep the microphone in your hands."
The governor came Tuesday to South River, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, to talk about the state's recovery from the storm. He repeated his message that federal bureaucracy has slowed the recovery process and said his administration had focused on directing aid to low-income storm victims.
Christie has faced added recent scrutiny of the state's handling of Sandy aid, following the quiet firing of the contractor paid to set up the main homeowner relief program, as well as allegations that administration officials tied aid to approval of a redevelopment deal in Hoboken. Officials have denied those claims.
Christie said Tuesday that the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program (RREM) - much maligned by homeowners - was "continuing to improve every day" and that the state had been retraining and hiring new workers.
While fielding questions, Christie blamed the state Legislature for a dispute with Tesla. The state Motor Vehicle Commission blocked the electric-car maker from selling directly to buyers, rather than through dealers. The company said the state changed its rules to bar its business model.
Christie said Tuesday that a state law barred the company's model. He said that he had "no problem" with the approach, but that the Legislature has to change the law first.
One man asked Christie whether he could expedite efforts by State Sens. Samuel Thompson (R., Middlesex) and Ron Rice (D., Essex) to prompt the legislative panel probing the George Washington Bridge lane closures to investigate possible abuses of power in Newark.
Christie told the man he could not. "Whatever Assemblyman [John] Wisniewski wants to spend his time on is, as we've seen, completely up to him," Christie said, referring to the Democrat leading the panel.
In response to a question from a mother whose 14-year-old daughter is in the state's medical-marijuana program, Christie suggested he was willing to consider changes to the program.
Instructing Tina DeSilvio of Franklinville to address her concerns to lawmakers, Christie said: "What I'm not willing to do is legalize it or permit recreational use. . . . Am I willing to make changes as we learn about ways it's not helping? I did that last summer," referring to his decision to allow children into the program to obtain medical marijuana.
One man asked Christie about his political image.
"How do you perceive yourself, as a conservative or a moderate?" asked Emery Spirko, 79, of South River.
"How do you perceive me?" Christie asked.
"Moderate," Spirko said.
"That's the beauty of me. Everybody looks at me and sees something different," Christie said, describing himself as a "commonsense conservative," willing to compromise. "My job as governor is to make things work."
After the meeting, Spirko said that Christie had "confused" him - "sometimes I look at him as a conservative, sometimes a moderate" - but that he was satisfied with the governor's answer.
Spirko, who called himself an independent who leans conservative, said he admired Christie for "coming to these town meetings and getting a lot of abuse. I couldn't take it."