Christie & racial issues: A complicated relationship

In Sunday's paper, I took a look at Christie's relationship with the issue of race:

Meeting with African American leaders at the governor's mansion last year, Gov. Christie told a story from his student days at the University of Delaware. An African American friend, hoping to give the young Christie a sense of being black on a largely white campus, took the future governor to the historically black Delaware State University.

Christie stood out. He got stares. And so, the boy from the white North Jersey suburbs got a small sense of his friend's daily existence.

Michael Blunt, the African American mayor of tiny Chesilhurst borough in Camden County, recalls being moved when hearing the story. He also remembers how, months earlier, Christie showed a deep awareness of racial history as he signed a proclamation marking Juneteenth, which commemorates slavery's end.

These moments - coupled with generous state appropriations that Christie has made to Chesilhurst - were on Blunt's mind last week when he became the first black Democrat to endorse Christie for reelection.

The white Republican governor accepted Blunt's endorsement in the wood-paneled meeting room of Chesilhurst Borough Hall and mentioned another endorsement he had received, from a Latino group. The implication: I am not a politician for white people alone.

The sentiment would seem to have been affirmed by a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll earlier in the week, which showed 56 percent of nonwhites giving Christie positive approval ratings. As a Republican who delivered the keynote address at a predominantly white GOP convention on behalf of Mitt Romney - whose Election Day supporters were 89 percent white - that's a remarkable number. It gives Christie, a potential presidential candidate, a compelling case to make to GOP primary voters: More than a quarter of the general electorate is not white, and I can woo enough of those voters to win.

But something else happened last week beyond the endorsement and the poll, something that suggests that Christie's relationship with the minority community is more complicated. The highest elected African American politician in the state - the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Sheila Oliver - accused Christie of "racial polarization."

Oliver was reacting to Christie's town hall meeting on Tuesday at a black church in Paterson, a mostly minority city known in part from Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane," about a black man framed for murder.

Christie received a warm welcome, if not the kind of idolatry he gets in white suburbia. He spoke of his push for school choice, also known as vouchers, which would allow children in failing schools to matriculate elsewhere through corporate-funded scholarships. He said the educational system can only change "when guys who look like me are joined by folks who look like you."

"Fix the public schools," a heckler yelled, over and over again. Christie said that was what he is trying to do but that Oliver was preventing school choice from passing.

Except that Christie didn't use Oliver's name.

"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," Christie said.

Oliver reacted angrily, not only denying responsibility for blocking the vote but accusing Christie of talking as if it were the "19th century." When slavery existed.

"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 Gov. Christie did today when discussing me," Oliver said in a statement. She added: "Do not reference my ethnicity to try to score cheap headlines and salacious YouTube videos."

Christie's presumptive Democratic opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who is white, agreed, saying Christie was playing the "politics of division." Two days afterward, the pastor of the church that hosted Christie demanded an apology.

Christie's office noted that another black leader had also chastised Oliver for the school choice bill, but in the moments after the Blunt endorsement, the governor ignored reporters' shouted questions about the accusations. Blunt was left to defend the governor and say he would not have been bothered if Christie said something similar about him.

This wasn't Christie's first racially controversial statement. After vetoing a gay marriage bill last year and saying New Jerseyans should have the opportunity to vote on the measure, Christie said 1960s-era Southern blacks would have been "happy" to have a civil rights referendum instead of "dying in the streets."

Christie was slammed for not understanding African American history - that blacks had no other avenue toward civil rights but civil disobedience. They couldn't even vote in many places. Civil rights hero John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, went to Trenton to hold a news conference denouncing the governor.

Christie ultimately issued a rare apology. But before he did, he met privately with about 35 African American leaders, including Blunt. In that 2012 meeting, the governor sought to explain his controversial remark and shared the story of his visit to Delaware State.

Afterward, Blunt told The Inquirer, "Just because he's a Republican doesn't mean that he's racist."

And maybe that's something like the message Christie has sought to get across.