WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Never one to shy away from a fight, Gov. Chris Christie told the mostly African-American crowd at a town hall in Paterson that one of their own was failing them by not supporting public funding of vouchers for private schools. He called out Speaker of the Assembly Sheila Oliver, and now she says it was inappropriate to discuss her race.
Christie told the standing-room-only crowd at St. Luke's Baptist Church that he has made it a top priority to improve the state's failing urban schools but, in the meantime, he wants the state to fund vouchers so poor families can afford alternatives like parochial or private charter 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," Christie said
Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) fired back Tuesday evening.
"I want to make clear that I am appalled," Oliver said in a written statement."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, as if it was the 19th century."
The town hall was raucous, with an audience member repeatedly heckling Christie to "fix the public schools" that have been under state control for 21 years.
And Christie went back and forth with the heckler but resisted calls from some audience members to have the heckler ejected, praising the heckler's passion on the topic.
"Why is it taking a Republican governor from the suburbs to stand up and fight the teachers union and the urban political machine to say 'Hey, I want to give you a shot. I want to give your children a shot.'"
Christie said poor families should not be denied the options the state's wealthier households have at their disposal.
"We spend $20,000 dollars plus here on a failing public education yet I can't give you $10,000 dollars a year to do down the street to a parochial school or private school and send your child there where he or she can have success," Christie said to some applause from the crowd.
Several times during the town hall, Paterson residents and students complained about the lack of resources for their local public schools that were taken over by the state 21 years ago. One middle school student's complaint that she had no text book prompted an audible groan from the animated audience.
"Just like when the Governor says that his parents moved him out of Newark cause they knew he could not get a good education -- and that's how many years ago? -- and Newark is still in that same situation, the same as here,"Paterson resident Charles Ferrer said.
Others at the town hall asked Christie to focus on poor cities like Paterson as much as shore towns damaged by Sandy.
"Last year somebody got shot right in front of the school. Its a big crime area," said William Henry, an elder with the Everlasting Life Ministry. "The Paterson police they laid off 130 cops. I think they hired back 30 so it is a slow response," Henry said.
In 2009 Christie got just 11 percent of the vote in Paterson. The last New Jersey Republican to win the majority of the African American vote was Governor Tom Kean Sr. when he was joined on the campaign trail by Coretta Scott King.
Throughout Christie's tenure he has tried to align himself with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's education reform agenda.
Peter Woolley, Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist, says FDU's Public Mind Polls shows Christie still has a low job approval rating with voters of color.
Wooley says Christie's success with making in roads with Black and Latino voters in 2013 will be gauged by analysts sizing up Christie's 2016 Presidential prospects.
Christie's strategy to confront the state's under performing urban schools by extending state funding for alternatives, Woolley said, is a way to engage both Latino and African American voters who feel under served by their public school.
"Governor Christie is showing Republicans a way to the future. It can't continue to just be a party of old angry white guys," Woolley said.