Christie Apologizes After Civil-Rights Remarks Turn Into Weapon for Foes

New Jersey (STONJ1) Governor Chris Christie, who once urged reporters to “take the bat out” on a 76-year- old legislator, called union leaders “political thugs,” and a lawmaker “numbnuts,” is saying he’s sorry for his latest remarks.

While such brash comments have helped make Christie a national political figure, his remarks about the civil-rights movement in the 1960s angered supporters and have become fodder for political rivals. That may cost Christie support for his proposals, backed by some black clergy and politicians, to overhaul urban education and increase the number of charter schools, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

“It’s possible that he’s gone off the rails a bit too much,” Murray said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Christie, a 49-year-old Republican, was accused of ignorance by black leaders after responding last week to Democratic lawmakers’ statements that gay marriage is a civil right and therefore shouldn’t be put before voters as a ballot question. In a radio appearance last night he apologized for the remark.

“People would have been happy with a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets of the South,” Christie told reporters Jan. 24 in Bridgewater.

‘History Books’

The comments brought Georgia Representative John Lewis, a Democrat and veteran of the U.S. civil-rights movement, to Trenton. They also drew criticism from Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a black Democrat who has allied with the governor on efforts to improve urban schooling.

“Apparently, the governor of this state has not read his recent history books,” Lewis, 71, said in Trenton, the capital of a state where 13.7 percent of residents are black, almost 1 percentage point more than the U.S. average.

“I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation,” he said.

“If anybody was offended by what I said, and if they’re listening out there, I apologize,” Christie said last night during his monthly “Ask the Governor” radio show. “I wasn’t clear enough. I absolutely wasn’t.”

The governor has “voiced regret before on some things he’s said,” his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said in an e-mail. “I am not going to definitively characterize any of those remarks on his behalf.”

‘Numbnuts’ Comment

Christie said that while he was willing to apologize for his civil-rights remark, he wouldn’t do the same for his use of “numbnuts.” He said his mother used to use the name for him.

Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, saw his stature in the national party rise weeks after taking office in January 2010. He froze $2.2 billion in expenditures to close a midyear deficit and then cut $10 billion in projected new spending for schools, pensions and towns.

The governor has gained national popularity by “standing almost entirely on fiscal conservatism,” and avoiding taking positions on social issues, said Peter Woolley, director of the PublicMind poll at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey.

Touchy Issue

Democrats in New Jersey made same-sex marriage a priority for 2012. They vowed to push the measure through the Legislature, even though Christie has said he is “not a fan” of the practice.

Christie’s proposal for a referendum on gay marriage was aimed at avoiding “what is really a very touchy social issue among national Republicans,” Woolley said.

The governor last year turned down entreaties from party leaders and donors to enter the Republican presidential primary race. He was a key surrogate for Mitt Romney during primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, before he went on national television and pressed Romney to release his income-tax returns. Christie didn’t appear in Florida during the run-up to that state’s contest.

Romney “doesn’t want to bring Christie anywhere that this may be an issue,” Murray at Monmouth said of gay marriage. “You don’t want him on a national stage when this has been such a big issue. It certainly puts him on the sidelines for a while.”

Public Vote

Christie said this week that in the political climate of the 1960s, no referendum for civil rights would have passed. He said those pushing for same-sex marriage have cited popular support for same-sex marriage among voters in the state, a message he said contradicts their opposition to a referendum.

The governor said critics, including Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a gay Democrat who represents Trenton, are “numbnuts” for comparing him to segregationists because of his civil-rights comments.

Christie compared the furor to comments he made last April during a dispute with Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck. Christie told reporters they should “take a bat” to Weinberg, 76, for collecting both a public pension and a paycheck as a legislator while knocking others for similar practices.

The governor “reverted to name-calling” because he couldn’t take on the issue on its merits, Gusciora said.

“The governor’s opposition to the civil right of marriage equality is comparable to others who opposed other civil rights,” Gusciora said in a statement. “If he doesn’t like the comparison, then he should change his position on marriage equality and sign the bill into law.”

Unions Law

Black unemployment in New Jersey is higher than the statewide average, at 15.8 percent in 2011, 6.8 percentage points above the state figure of 9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Gusciora and other advocates for gay marriage say the current system of civil unions in New Jersey often denies rights to same-sex couples.

Christie, who cut almost $1 billion from school funding in his first budget, is looking to restrict teacher tenure, create a voucher program in failing school systems and expand charter schools in cities. In education, Christie has found some of his strongest allies in urban politicians such as Booker.

Education Allies

Booker said he favors same-sex marriage, though he said he hasn’t followed the furor over Christie’s civil-rights comments and doesn’t expect them to impact his ability to work with the governor on education. Other allies may not be so forgiving, said Murray, the pollster.

“His allies on education reform in the African-American community could become upset by his continued statements,” Murray said. “The bigger issue is his political future on the national level and whether this is going to go into someone’s vault to be used at some point in an attack ad.”

Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, has supported Christie in pushing for school vouchers and increasing urban charter schools. He said he wants Christie and his critics to distance themselves from the situation to avoid derailing the education proposals.

“I don’t know that we’re being alienated, but I do think this is sufficient enough to make people have some questions for the governor,” Jackson said by phone yesterday. “People will need to take a step back and take a longer look at this.”

‘Civil Right’

Christie said he’d urge Republicans in the Legislature to vote to put gay marriage on the ballot to create a “broader process.” Whether it rises to the level of civil rights is “all in the eyes of the beholder,” he told reporters in Trenton on Jan. 30.

“Those people who advocate for it consider it to be a civil right,” Christie said. “I do not believe that marriage between two people of the same gender is something that should exist in this state, so my view on it is that we have an honest difference of opinion on this issue.”

Christie last week said in addition to vetoing any legislation allowing two people of the same gender to wed, he would also vote against any referendum. He said he wouldn’t attempt to overturn the results of a public vote and said a ballot question would give backers a realistic shot at seeing same-sex marriage become law.

Democratic leaders in the state have rejected the option of a referendum on gay marriage. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a same-sex marriage bill on Jan. 24, setting it up for a floor vote in the full Senate. An Assembly panel is scheduled to begin debate on the measure on Feb. 2.

“The governor rightfully acknowledged the hurtful and insensitive nature of his remarks,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said in a statement after Christie apologized. “Going forward, I now trust and expect that, as the legislature moves toward implementing marriage equality, the governor will respect the serious nature of the constitutionality of civil rights and equal protection under the law.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton at tdopp@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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