TRENTON, N.J. — After taking a beating for more than a day, Gov. Chris Christie agreed Thursday to reimburse the state for personal use of a police helicopter to fly to two of his son’s high school baseball games and a political dinner with GOP donors.
But the governor, revered among Republicans for his hard-charging, budget-cutting ways and reviled among many Democrats for the same traits, made no apologies for what called an effort to be a good father.
Christie, often mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, said he paid $2,100 and asked the state Republican Party to pay $1,200 to cover the costs — not because he believed he was in the wrong, but because the furor had become a distraction from serious matters.
“I want to make sure the public understands that I’m doing this because of the duty I feel to them to have my attention and everyone else’s attention focused 100 percent on the real problems of this state,” he said, “not the political theater and media theater that people enjoy at times.”
“I also understand this is a really fun media story for all of you,” he told reporters at a bill signing ceremony in Denville.
He said he had been assured by the State Police that he did not have to reimburse the state for the personal flights because the pilots needed to log the flying hours anyway to keep their skills sharp. And he said he chose to fly to his son’s ballgames as a way of balancing his role as governor because there was no other way to get there in time.
“We tried to balance me being governor, and my demands on that, with my responsibility as a father,” Christie said during a bill signing in Denville. “I’m governor 24-7, every single day, but I’m also a father. And the fact of the matter is, sometimes when you are governor, you do not control your schedule.”
Christie’s reversal came a day after a spokesman said the governor would not make a reimbursement, defending the trips as appropriate.
The conflict started Tuesday night when Christie flew about 70 miles from the Statehouse to Montvale in a month-old $12.5 million helicopter to watch his oldest son, Andrew, start as 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 the 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 flight to meet with campaign donors because the meeting was political, he said.
A list released by Christie’s office Thursday shows that he used the helicopter 33 times since becoming governor in January 2010. 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, it 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.
Associated Press writers Angela Delli Santi in Trenton, Josh Lederman in Denville and Geoff Mulvihill in Haddonfield contributed to this report.