New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie brought a jolt of star power to the Port City on Tuesday, meeting Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis at a local café where the governor attracted fans and the House Speaker attracted supporters and protesters angry at the state legislature for cutting film tax incentives this year.
Christie, who is considered a potential Republican presidential candidate, said it marked the 31st state he’s visited in his national role of attracting donors to support GOP governors. That’s what he did in Wilmington at a closed fundraiser after The Dixie Grill appearance, before heading to South Carolina for appearances on behalf of Gov. Nikki Haley in Charleston and Kiawah Island later Tuesday.
“As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, I spend almost all my time campaigning for gubernatorial candidates,” Christie said. “But this Senate race is so important that on my way to go help Nikki Haley in South Carolina I want to come here and help Thom Tillis become Sen. Thom Tillis on Nov. 4.”
Christie said Tillis had the leadership experience for the job, and he implied the bigger stakes: If Republicans gain six seats in the upcoming midterm elections they will take control of the Senate.
“You elect Thom Tillis and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid is going to be out of work,” Christie said to an enthusiastic crowd.
About 50 protesters shouting slogans and waving placards – “Tillis just sent my job to Georgia” was one sign – on the sidewalk greeted the two men when they arrived. A relaxed contingent of Wilmington police were on hand, but took no action.
Christie said he was glad to see protesters somewhere other than New Jersey.
“They can be on the street all they want,” Christie said. “I love it. I can’t wait to shake hands with all of them. But here’s the thing: If they’re not protesting then that means he hasn’t done anything for the people of North Carolina. He’s made tough decisions.”
The governor said controversy is OK.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, we need to have that kind of controversy in this country,” he said. “We need that people are going to have strong opinions. They’re going to stand up for those opinions. And that’s the kind of person you want representing North Carolina in the United States Senate.”
Christie concluded his remarks by thanking the restaurant crowd for the reception: “I really appreciate the warm welcome you’ve given for a guy who, you know, is north of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
But it’s not a news flash that a good number of North Carolinians have moved here from New Jersey, and some of them turned out to see the governor.
Mimi Ashton was one. Although she has lived in Wilmington for 28 years, she still has family ties in the Garden State.
“He is absolutely New Jersey – honest, fair and he has done a lot for the state,” Ashton said. “He had my support a couple years ago to be president. I wanted to meet him – I love him.”
She demurred when asked if she also supported Tillis. “I have some issues with him,” she said.
Another ex-New Jersey resident, Mike Traflet, said he isn’t sure how he’ll vote and wanted a closer look at Tillis. He said as a certified public accountant, he has several clients who are moving to Georgia because of the loss of the film industry tax incentive program, which the General Assembly this year replaced with a grant program that caps out at $10 million. That doesn’t make sense to Traflet.
“If you made the decision to implement it and it’s working for the economy, I wouldn’t have just shut it off like they did,” he said.
Praise for Christie
But most of the late-breakfast crowed appeared firmly in the Tillis camp – although the protesters outside did their best to shout him down when he spoke. Tillis sounded a little star-struck himself in brief remarks.
“Just about every day in this campaign I have a ‘How did I get here?’ moment,” Tillis said. “I’m having another one right now, with this many friends in the room and with the great governor from the state of New Jersey.”
Tillis also made a nod toward the 2016 presidential election by praising Christie for his ability to work with a Democratic-controlled legislature “in a dark blue state.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a chief executive in Washington who could actually reach across party lines and get something done?” he said, to hearty applause.
The men took a few questions from reporters. Tillis said the state had to do more to help the film industry, and said he has always worked toward that end. “Hopefully, we can convince the Senate to come back and make progress on it next year,” he said.
Asked his intentions for 2016, Christie said he was focused on electing as many Republican governors as possible. “Then we’ll deal with 2016 as it comes,” he replied.
Christie and Tillis shook some more hands and posed for photos with customers as they worked their way out the back door, avoiding the clamoring protesters out front.