As Gov. Chris Christie introduced Chris Cerf as his new education commissioner at a Statehouse press conference on Monday, Rochelle Hendricks stood dutifully -- if not a little awkwardly -- to the side.
The longtime state education department employee had served as Christie’s acting commissioner for the last four months, after the debacle of the federal Race to the Top application and former commissioner Bret Schundler’s firing over it.
Maybe Hendricks wanted the permanent position, maybe she didn’t, but she wasn’t picked and she knew it wasn’t her day on Monday.
All the more notable then, when Christie spent nearly as much time thanking and praising her as he did Cerf, calling her "one of the jewels of my administration" and promising that she would be staying in the department.
"She has dealt with enormously difficult issues, issues of morale, personnel and policy over the course of the last number of months, and she has done so with extraordinary professionalism," Christie said.
"Out of what was a really lousy situation having to fire a member of your cabinet, one of the good things that came out of that was the opportunity I had to meet Rochelle Hendricks and to get to work with her," he said.
That Hendricks stepped into a tough situation four months ago is probably an understatement, but she has won high praise from nearly everyone for the job she did in steadying the helm of the department.
Best known as the leader of the state’s charter school office, first as its director and then as an assistant commissioner overseeing it, Hendricks had already won over that constituency.
But she also had to steer through the wreckage following the Schundler firing, including a tortuous legislative hearing, while carrying the mantle for some of Christie's most controversial positions in public talks and in private.
Famously, she rejected an invitation from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) to speak at its convention, the first commissioner in recent memory to do so. She also led the administration’s crackdown on capping superintendent salaries and rejecting those that exceed them, one of its more controversial steps to date.
There was some speculation that all this was under orders from the governor, especially as Hendricks is probably best known for her collegiality. But others said Hendricks is no wallflower, either.
"She’s a lot tougher than people think she is,” said Shelley Skinner, a leader in the charter school movement and development director for the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City. “She didn’t have any problem lowering the boom like that."
Others said she was hardly a caretaker, either, even if handicapped by the uncertainty of her fate. It didn’t help much that key senior staff were also leaving vacancies impossible to fill in the short-term.
Arcelio Aponte, president of the State Board of Education, recalled the first meeting with Hendricks after she was named acting commissioner. "She immediately pointed out things that should be taken care of right away," he said. "She dove right in."
And Aponte said he also spoke with her on the day late last week when news filtered out that she would not be named to the permanent slot, a job instead going to Cerf. What she will do is unclear, but Christie emphasized that she will remain in the department in some role, presumably as an assistant or deputy commissioner.
“She didn’t say anything negative,” Aponte said of that conversation. “That’s how she is, a real professional. She was real upbeat about what lay ahead.”