RENTON, N.J. — Trying to be a good dad has come at a high price this week for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The usually austere first-term Republican paid in cash and in criticism for his use a police helicopter to see his son play baseball.
The unapologetic governor on Thursday reimbursed the state $2,100 himself and $1,200 from the state Republican Party to cover the cost of two helicopter flights to see his oldest son, Andrew, star in two baseball tournament games.
"Afterwards, he said to me, 'Dad, thanks for coming," Christie recalled at a news conference in Denville.
Democrats had a less heart-warming response when learning of Christie's use of a month-old, $12.5 million state police helicopter to shuttle him from the Statehouse to the ballpark. They have called for hearings to look into the governor's personal use of the perk and called Christie a hypocrite for wasteful spending.
Christie's announcement Thursday that he was cutting a check to cover the cost was a rare about-face for the tough-talking governor.
A day before, Christie's spokesman said the governor wouldn't pay for the transportation, calling the flights appropriate and Christie's use of the helicopter judicious.
Less than 24 hours later, Christie — whose national reputation as a fiscal hawk and champion of political ethics was being called into question — said he was paying not because he believed he was in the wrong, but because the furor had become a distraction from serious matters.
"If me writing a check for $2,100 and a $1,200 check coming from state (GOP) committee to pay for two helicopter rides will allow us to focus on the really important issues to the state of New Jersey," Christie said, "then I'm willing to do it."
Christie said he didn't initially think that he had to pay because the State Police assured him there was no additional expense to taxpayers because pilots needed to log the flying hours to keep their skills sharp.
He said he chose to fly to his son's ballgames because there was no other way to get there in time. And, he made no apologies about going.
"We tried to balance me being governor, and my demands on that, with my responsibility as a father," Christie said.
The controversy started Tuesday night when Christie flew about 90 miles from the Statehouse to Montvale to see his son play catcher — a position Christie also played in high school — for Delbarton, a private Catholic prep school.
Christie was joined by his wife, Mary Pat, at the game. Afterward, they flew back south 75 miles to the official governor's mansion in Princeton for dinner with a group of top GOP campaign contributors. The donors, from Iowa, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Christie to run for president.
A list released by Christie's office on Thursday also showed that the governor used the helicopter Friday to fly to another one of his son's games.
Christie is paying for two flights and the GOP is paying for the leg to Princeton to meet with campaign donors because the meeting was political, he said.
Since becoming governor in January 2010, Christie has used the helicopter 33 times, his office said. The most common use was for trips to New York City, which were made on nine occasions — including two for media interviews.
When done by car, the trip to Manhattan can be disruptive because troopers shut the Lincoln Tunnel to other traffic for security reasons.
Christie's turnabout comes after criticism from Democrats, who said they would call a hearing to look into the governor's use of the helicopter, which is part of a fleet also used by State Police to respond to medical and other emergencies.
"Chris Christie has now taken his arrogance to the next level," said state Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski.
But Christie has used a helicopter less than other New Jersey governors, such as Jim McGreevey, who took 272 flights during his first 10 months in office, including 14 non-governmental trips. The Democratic Party reimbursed the state $18,200 for those trips after it hit the news.
Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray said Christie erred politically by not being contrite sooner after the issue started making headlines, saying his explanation may fall short with the public.
"I think that the parent thing would work if there weren't the other images surrounding it," Murray said, referring to the presidential-bid meeting after the game.
But University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said the flap wouldn't damage Christie among his national Republican following.
"Republicans are so keen on Christie that this didn't bother them in the first place," he said.
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