Gov. Christie waded into a skirmish with a former Navy SEAL on Thursday as the weeks-long battle over his plan to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University spilled into a town-hall meeting in Burlington County.
The yelling match erupted Thursday in Roebling after Christie told veteran William Brown - a Rutgers-Camden law student and former Democratic Assembly candidate who opposes the merger - that the school would definitely be folded into Rowan.
It ended with the governor dismissing Brown as an "idiot" and police hustling the man out of the firehouse in the Florence Township community. Outside, Brown fumed that the governor had acted like a bully and officers were heard inviting him back inside.
Hundreds of people were watching as Christie said current Rutgers-Camden students would be able to graduate with Rutgers degrees. That did not placate Brown, 34, a second-year law student, who asked, "What about my son? What about my neighbors? What about my friends?"
The Republican governor snapped back after Brown repeatedly interrupted him as he tried to say why he was going to push the merger through in the face of increasingly mobilized and vocal opposition.
"Listen, pal, I sat here and listened to your story and your position . . . and if you decide what you want to do is put on a show today, let me tell you something, I can go back and forth with you as much as you want," Christie said.
The governor said that not everyone at Rutgers was against the merger and that he was "providing opportunities for a bigger and better university."
Said Brown: "Nobody at Rutgers wants it, nobody in South Jersey."
Christie, his voice rising, retorted: "And let me tell you something, if, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end's going to be thrown in jail, idiot."
Brown, who was wearing an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America T-shirt, was then removed by Florence officers and spoken to outside by a plainclothes officer for several minutes.
"It's freedom of expression," he told the officers. "This is America."
Brown gave the officers his contact information and was not arrested. Moments later, he was told he could return if he maintained decorum.
Brown said after the encounter that he had served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He said he worried that veterans and other nontraditional students would not get the same kind of educational opportunities if the merger goes through.
He added that he thought both Christie's response and the police reaction were "inappropriate."
"I think he's a bully sometimes," Brown said. "I was disappointed the governor couldn't have a debate."
The merger plan has drawn sizable opposition, including from the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden. Christie and South Jersey Democratic officials say folding the Rutgers campus into Rowan, based in Glassboro, will lead to a more robust research institution.
Although some have mused about a possible compromise in which Rutgers would keep its name and identity even as it combined with Rowan, Christie has said he was not considering any compromises.
It is unclear how Christie would enact his plan - through legislation, for example, or executive order - or when it would go into effect.
At the end of the town hall meeting, Christie was reflective. He brought up the encounter and acknowledged getting heated.
"Now it's going to be on YouTube somewhere with me calling him an idiot," he said.
Then he referred to Glenn Paulsen, the powerful former chairman of the Burlington County Republican Party, who was sitting near the governor during the altercation.
"I was going to turn there and say to Glenn Paulsen: 'Damn, Glenn, were we that arrogant in our second year in law school?' "
He added, "I cannot imagine standing up in the back of the room saying, 'Shut up, Gov. Kean!' " Brown was not heard saying "shut up" to Christie.
Christie said the audience might have wondered after witnessing the confrontation: "Where's this come from?"
And from there, he launched into the story that ends all his town halls, about visiting his mother - a fiery, tell-it-like-it-is Sicilian - on her deathbed.
"We're all products of our parents," he said.