June 30, 2015 12:07 PM EDT

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie started his campaign for the White House telling supporters that Democrats and fellow Republicans alike are to blame for the dysfunction in Washington and only a strong leader who tells the truth can fix it.

“We have to acknowledge our government isn’t working any more for us,” Christie said at his high school alma mater. “We have to acknowledge that and say it out loud. And we have to acknowledge it’s the fault of our bickering leaders in Washington, D.C., who no longer listen to us and no longer know they are serving us.”

The packed audience welcomed him home as a favorite son and seemed receptive to his pitch at compromise and truth-telling. Yet it was a scaled-down version of the campaign launch his advisers once imagined. The tough-talking former federal prosecutor was once the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

Yet Christie angered some conservatives in the final days of 2012’s presidential race when he toured storm-damaged coastline in his state with President Obama, a Democrat. He later came under investigation for his allies’ role in closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge in a case of political retribution. And his donors have shifted from him and lined up with rivals with better odds such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Even in starting his run, he acknowledged he was willing to ignore his political advisers.

“We need a government in Washington, D.C. that remembers you went there to work for us, not the other way around,” he said to cheers of “Chris.” Christie continued: “Both parties have failed our country. Both parties have stood in the corner and held their breath and waited to get their own way. Both parties have led us to believe that in America, a country that was built on compromise, that somehow now compromise is a dirty word.”

If the country’s founders had not compromised, he warned, “we’d still be under the Crown of England.”

Christie’s kick-off speech, delivered without a podium or teleprompter, had the requisite dings against Obama and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. But it also had the best-of hits from Christie’s time running his Democratic-leaning state. Sometimes, that record has angered members of both parties. Tea Party-styled groups, even as he was speaking, released criticism of him as insufficiently conservative.

“I’m not looking to be the most popular guy who looks in your eyes every day and figures out what you want to hear,” Christie said, acknowledging he wasn’t running to be “prom king” or even popular. “I mean what I say, and I say what I mean. And that’s what America needs right now.”

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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