Smack in the middle of an eight-state, seven-day barnstorming tour for Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates, Gov. Chris Christie concentrated on New Jersey on Wednesday – in a very public way.
After his second New York City press conference this month with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to talk about security and terrorism, Christie helicoptered down to South Jersey, the state’s other media market, where a six-car motorcade took him to three stops in Camden through a maze of closed streets.
He began with a choreographed walk down a block and into an open field in front of a sprawling complex of low-rise public housing buildings. Warmly received in this city that he has visited more than any other in recent years, Christie took to the podium, flanked by Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson. There was no news to announce, per se, but there were numbers to trump: The city, long known as the state’s poorest and most dangerous, had its safest summer in three decades, officials said, with just three homicides and a 71 percent drop in shootings from 2012. That was the year that Christie’s budget cuts led to massive police layoffs throughout the state, with Camden temporarily losing nearly half of its police force. The city department was then disbanded, and a new county force — with Camden City as its only member department — took over.
The new department, free of some onerous union work rules and instilled with a new culture, has had a dramatic effect on rebuilding trust with the community, officials said.
Law enforcement is not the only element of life in Camden that has changed under Christie. After a brief press conference — “I’ll take a small part of [the credit], but you should be proud of what’s happening in your city” — Christie went to the site of the new KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a “renaissance school” created by a law that Christie signed.
The school is named for the family foundation of Christie ally George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic power broker. His brother, State Sen. Donald Norcross, sponsored the bill that authorized these new kinds of schools. Renaissance schools are similar to charter schools, but critics say they receive more money per student and lack the transparency of charter and public schools. Christie said the renaissance schools are a bold experiment in revolutionizing education, but he didn’t directly answer a question to delineate the difference between charter and renaissance schools.
Christie ended his tour with the undefeated Camden High Panthers, whom he joined for a team photo before they gathered around him for a loud Camden High chant. The governor told his Democratic allies here that he’d come back for a football game soon.
Before he left, a football player asked Christie if he was running for president. “I’m thinking about it,” he said.