Governor Chris Christie angered Democrats and black leaders who say he unnecessarily injected race into his comments about fixing public schools during his first town-hall meeting in Paterson, New Jersey.
The Republican on March 12 told an audience at St. Luke Baptist Church in the state’s third-largest city that one lawmaker, who he didn’t identify by name, stands in the way of progress because she has blocked a bill that would give students vouchers to attend out-of-district schools.
“We have an African-American female speaker of the Assembly who represents communities like East Orange and Orange, where there are failing schools all over and she refuses to let people vote on this bill,” said Christie, 50, who is running for a second term in November.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange, said she was “appalled” by how Christie referred to her. New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union, which typically endorses Democratic candidates, opposes vouchers and has said it would take money out of poor schools.
“I have never, nor will I ever, reference the governor’s ethnicity, or make a veiled reference to the color of his skin, yet that’s exactly what Governor Christie did today when discussing me, as if it was the 19th century,” Oliver said in a statement. “Governor, if you have a problem with me, call me by name. Do not reference my ethnicity to try to score cheap headlines and salacious YouTube videos.”
Christie caused a similar reaction last year when he called for a referendum vote on gay marriage and said blacks would have been pleased to have their civil rights decided that way. That remark was denounced by John Lewis, the Democratic Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader, and drew an apology from Christie.
The governor declined to comment on the matter yesterday during a campaign stop in Chesilhurst, where he was endorsed by Mayor Michael Blunt, a black Democrat.
Blunt said he wouldn’t mind if Christie referred to him as “the African-American mayor of Chesilhurst” rather than by name. He said he couldn’t judge Oliver’s reaction.
“I can’t tell you whether she’s sensitive or not,” he said. “That’s her opinion and how she looks at a situational question.”
In an e-mail to reporters today, the Paterson church’s pastor, the Rev. Kenneth D.R. Clayton, called Christie’s words “a blatant attack” on Oliver and said he should apologize.
Clayton also is president of the Paterson chapter of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest and largest U.S. civil-rights organization, with more than 500,000 members.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, forwarded a statement made in 2010 by Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, that criticized Democrats for not acting on the voucher bill.
“African-Americans are the most loyal base of the Democratic Party and our children are the ones primarily trapped in failing schools,” Jackson said, according to a posting on an Asbury Park Press political blog referenced in Drewniak’s statement. “The Democratic Party must stop taking us for granted and failing to act for our children.”
Drewniak said in an e-mail that Christie “wholeheartedly agrees” with Jackson.