This is the second part of a series of three stories released in conjunction with the publication this week of WNYC reporter Matt Katz’s new biography, “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption.”
As a college student he spoke out against racism and anti-Semitism. As a federal prosecutor he forged alliances in black and brown communities. And as a governor he built a bigger tent for Republicans in New Jersey.
Then Chris Christie started running for president.
When Christie criticized the Black Lives Matter movement this past October he shocked former supporters.
“I don’t believe that movement should be justified when they’re calling for the murder of police officers,” he said. Black Lives Matter describes itself as nonviolent, and there have only been isolated moments of anti-police chants at their rallies. No other major law enforcement figures — nor Republican presidential candidates — had come out so strongly against the movement.
The comment, made on CBS’s “Face The Nation,” prompted a condemnation from Bishop Reginald Jackson, a prominent black leader who endorsed Christie in 2013.
“It’s really just during this campaign that I’ve seen that side of the governor,” he said.
Indeed Christie’s political career is marked by a repeated effort to reach out to communities of color.
Christie was born in 1962 in Newark, just as the city saw some of the most dramatic white flight in the country. When he was four, his family moved to nearly all-white suburban Livingston. So it was later, as a student at the University of Delaware, where Christie first interacted with African Americans — like Kelvin Glymph, president of the Black Student Union.
“He was very conscious about what was going on in the black community, getting advice from me, getting perspective on things happening on campus, how it affected us,” Glymph said.
To get the black vote, Christie put Glymph on his ticket when he ran for student body president. As president, Christie decried racism and anti-Semitism in editorials in the student newspaper, and he started a diversity committee.
After a stint as a corporate lawyer and lobbyist, Christie became US Attorney in 2002. A former employee remembers how unlike his predecessors, he attended a Martin Luther King event at his new office. He wasn’t expected to be there. But he gave a speech about civil rights. Black women in the audience, said the employee, wept.
US Attorney Christie made an effort to combat crime in the mostly minority cities of New Jersey. And when he faced off with a state Supreme Court justice over his plan to offer lenient sentences to fugitives by allowing them to turn themselves in at a black church, he went public with the fight and won.
As governor, he got a standing ovation at the funeral for Whitney Houston, a deeply popular figure in the African American community. Why the ovation? He had lowered the state flag to mark her death, prompting criticism from people who didn’t think a drug addict deserved such an honor. A Michigan man burned the New Jersey flag in protest.
“She made great contributions to this state and this culture,” Christie said at the time. “And I don’t believe that succumbing to an addiction and a disease should diminish that in people’s lives. And I understand that people can have a difference of opinion but I’m the governor and I don’t for a second doubt the decision on this.”
Christie nominated a black gay mayor to the state Supreme Court. He won endorsements for his reelection from black church leaders, like Jackson. And as he recently explained, he actually visited minority communities.
“If you want to lead a group of people you need to show up,” Christie said. “And the Republican party in my opinion has not shown up in places where we feel uncomfortable.”
One of America’s most recognizable black men, NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, cut a commercial for Christie’s reelection:
“He’s a good man. Excuse me. He’s a great man. Please join me in supporting Chris Christie.”
Hispanics backed him, too. He signed a bill that gave in-state college tuition to New Jersey children who were undocumented immigrants. And the night before Election Day in 2013, he went to mostly Hispanic Union City for a raucous rally.
The next day, he won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote — an extraordinary high number for a Republican today. The next day, he returned to Union City to affirm his commitment to Hispanics.
“Of all the things that happened last night, that’s what I’m most gratified about — winning the Latino vote,” he said.
Christie’s most iconoclastic moment as a racial unifier came after he nominated an Indian-born Muslim to Superior Court in Passaic County. When conservative critics alleged that the man, Sohail Mohammed, was going to implement Muslim Shariah law, Christie unleashed his famous temper.
“This Shariah Law business is crap,” he said. “It’s just crazy. And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just ridiculous to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”
Now, Christie is running for president. And he is accentuating a different sort of telling-it-like-is rhetoric. He’s running in almost entirely white New Hampshire and Iowa. The tone of the campaign has been set by front-runner Donald Trump. It is racially charged, and sometimes racially antagonistic.
“Seems like the crazier [Trump] gets, and the more crazy comments he makes, his polls remain the same or go higher,” said New Jersey NAACP President Richard Smith. “The other candidates are scrambling to try to remain relevant and are afraid to be who they are. And that’s a problem.”
Smith has worked with Christie on issues like criminal justice reform, but now he thinks the governor is, like the other candidates, trying to keep up with Trump.
Christie is also losing support among Latinos after taking a new hard-line stance against illegal immigration. He suggested tracking visitors to the country just like FedEx tracks packages, but has since explained that he doesn’t want to literally treat people like objects.
Christie drew even more attention when he reversed his position on allowing some war refugees fleeing Syria to settle in the United States. “I don’t think orphans under the age of 5 should be admitted into the United States at this point,” he said.
Incendiary comments aside, it’s Christie’s silence that has perhaps been most out of character. He was among the last candidates to publicly support removing the confederate flag from the state capitol in South Carolina after the church murders in Charleston last year.
And he accepted his first major endorsement from Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who had told the NAACP to kiss his rear end and alleged that President Obama hates white people. LePage, whose state borders New Hampshire, where Christie is centering his presidential run, drew national headlines again earlier this month. LePage said drug dealers who come to Maine “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave — which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue to deal with down the road.”
Christie refused to condemn the remark.
“That doesn’t change a bit for me my affection for him, my respect for him as a leader and as a person,” Christie told MSNBC. “He’s a good man. And he’s apologized. And every one of us, me and everyone in public life, says things they wish they could take back.”