It is not every day that a GOP politician goes to an event 76 days before an election in a neighborhood he will not carry. But it is even rarer to see African American politicians, residents and a contingent of African American Muslims from the neighborhood applauding him. But then not every politician would take over Camden, New Jersey’s failing school system.
Gov. Chris Christie today went to the H.B. Wilson Elementary school, one of those the state took over after years of failing schools. In this case it isn’t the 4-year old building, new and shiny, that is the problem; it is what is going on inside — or not going on — that has been the problem. Only 30 percent of children in the district can read. Of the state’s 26 worst schools, Camden has 23 of them. For a white Republican governor to take over a mostly African American school district in a Democratic stronghold in an election year was a risk, but in June Christie did just that.
He plainly had lined up the support of Camden’s African American mayor, who was at the event to sing his praises, as well as a fleet of minority state and local leaders. The ostensible purpose of the event was to introduce the new superindent of schools, whom Christie personally interviewed and chosen. But Christie’s message was broader. He told the audience (including a healthy contingent from the New Jersey press corps), “It is my responsibility to provide every child with a high quality public education.” In his view it isn’t the kids who are failing but the public schools. “I put in a new team,” he said. “We need fresh thinking, visionary leadership and the willingness of everyone in the system to question everything we are doing.” With his usual humor, he wryly commented. “I’m 51 years old. I’m baked. What you see is what you get.” But, he argued, if you believe in equality and want to narrow the gap between high and low-performing schools, you must refuse to accept kids from Camden can’t learn like kids from affluent Cherry Hill, located just a few miles away. “I reject that,” he said emphatically. Christie is certainly not content with merely fixing Camden. “Camden can be the example for urban education for the country,” he declared.
This is vintage Christie. He’s brash and not afraid of controversy. He lined up community and political support from people not usually inclined to work with Republicans. And then he told the new raft of school officials to break out of the box. No wonder the teacher’s union was back with TV ads accusing the governor of cutting education funds and using standardized tests.
Christie is not shy about touting his belief in an upwardly mobile society; he talks not about conservative ideology but about what he is doing to improve voters’ lives. That’s transactional politics, something rare inside the Beltway these days.
Incidentally, the superintendent Christie selected came to America as a refugee from Iran, penniless and speaking no English. Paymon Rouhanifard looks like a skinny college kid, but when he recounted his experience in New York and Newark public schools and told the crowd that he would “fight relentlessly for all children,” many in the audience nodded in approval.
In the questions from the press Christie was showing uncharacteristic restraint in declining to respond to the teacher’s union ad claims. “It’s their union. It’s their money,” he replied. Asked a second time about the ad, he would only say, “It is not true and they know it.” In fact New Jersey is spending over $9 billion on education, the most in its history. The take-over, however, isn’t using any more money than the district already had. “Failure has not been due to lack of funds.” The mayor nodded in accord. “What I am tired of is paying for failure,” he declared. The audience applauded.
Christie and his team are focused intently on the election and actively scold state politicians for taking a premature victory lap. He wants to win and win big. Then, he can begin to entertain the idea of a presidential run. What I saw today suggests the sort of rhetoric and agenda we’re likely to see if he does run for president. Others may be rhetorically more dogmatic, but few politicians in the GOP can say they’ve done what Christie has in the deepest of blue states.