ANGELA DELLI SANTI
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Critics of Republican Gov. Chris Christie are becoming more vocal -- and more visible.
Opponents are showing up at his public and private events, hurling criticisms on a range of topics and questioning his knowledge of a plot orchestrated by his aides to tie up traffic near the world's busiest bridge.
It may not seem unusual for a brash politician with a national following to attract dissenters when he's out in public, but Christie's opponents mostly stayed home until emails revealed in January that people loyal to him had stalled traffic in Fort Lee for four days, apparently to punish the town's Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie's re-election.
As his poll numbers slipped, his second-term agenda stalled and questions about his viability as a 2016 presidential candidate arose amid the scandal, people and groups who opposed his policies or his politics wanted to make their voices heard.
"Christie has done his best to project a sense of normalcy" amid investigations into the lane closings and allegations of misconduct over the distribution of storm-recovery aid, said Rob Duffy, a spokesman for New Jersey Working Families, one group that has organized protests. "But his playbook is no longer working."
"There is a tremendously diverse group of activists with various interests who are united by concerns over transparency and accountability," said Duffy, whose group includes organized labor, which has fought the governor in the past.
Christie has denied knowledge of his aides' scheme to snarl traffic on the George Washington Bridge, and his administration has also rejected claims by the mayor of Hoboken that it threatened to hold up a riverfront city's storm recovery funds unless she approved a favored redevelopment project.
The governor has restricted his public appearances since the scandal broke open, holding no press briefings since early January and appearing only in Republican-friendly settings, whether to raise money for the Republican Governors Association, give a speech or hold a town hall event.
About 40 protesters gathered outside a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., country club on Wednesday while Christie attended a fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land and Gov. Rick Snyder. One protester carried a sign that read, "Don't Mess with Our Bridge," referring to the bridge scandal.
Christie faced organized opposition in 2011 when he enacted changes to public workers' retirement and health benefits that required greater employee contributions. Labor unions retaliated with protest rallies and attack ads, but they didn't storm Christie's events.
Now even Christie's signature town halls -- where the governor is known for holding the crowd's attention with a mix of humor and personal stories -- have become magnets for dissenters, though audiences remain mostly supportive.
Six college students who disrupted a town hall in Mount Laurel were ejected by police. At an event last week in South River, the number of protesters grew to more than a dozen, all of whom were shown the door by police as an undercover state trooper snapped photos. The attorney general has ordered the picture-taking stopped; Christie said he didn't know his critics were being photographed.
Jim Miller, co-founder of the state Coalition for Medical Marijuana, has been outside the past three town halls holding 5-foot signs imploring the governor to allow patients easier access to marijuana.
Ten protesters sat together at a town hall in Flemington on Thursday to spell out the word "Bridgegate" with letters hand-painted on their T-shirts.
Christie has come to expect the dissenters. At his most recent town halls, amid beefed-up security, he has told audiences that his old union foes are responsible for the disruptions.
"This new and recent phenomenon is brought to you by the Communication Workers of America," Christie has said. "When you begin to ask questions, they will stand up and start to scream and yell over you."
CWA legislative and political director Seth Hahn said Christie should stop blaming others and answer constituents' questions.
Business owner Fred Kanter on Thursday became the first resident to publicly address the bridge scandal at a town hall. He said Christie appeared more concerned that an aide had lied to him about her involvement in the traffic plot than in her order to divert traffic.
Christie said he would have fired the aide, Bridget Kelly, regardless of whether she'd told the truth because of what she did.
"There were lots of reasons for the firing," Christie said. "I can't have somebody work for me who lies to me."
Christie's next town hall is scheduled for Tuesday in Belmar.
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