Nothing so gutsy about Christie's Camden school takeover

Gov. Chris Christie makes the announcement the state of New Jersey is taking over the school system in the city of Camden, Monday, March 25,2013. Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Christopher Cerf stand with him. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gov. Chris Christie makes the announcement the state of New Jersey is taking over the school system in the city of Camden, Monday, March 25,2013. Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Christopher Cerf stand with him. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 01, 2013

Gov. Christie's decision to take over the Camden school system was described by his education commissioner as the politically gutsiest thing he had ever seen.

"This is not politically smart, this is not politically driven," Commissioner Christopher Cerf said. ". . . It's not for the timid, it's not for the safe, it's not to stay in the harbor."

He gushed: "There is no one who has more political courage on a matter like this . . . than this gentleman to my left."

Or not.

Because in several ways, Christie's takeover was politically smart, obvious - and, yes, as safe as can be.

Forget, for a moment, the merits of the takeover. Don't worry about whether Christie's eloquence last week about the plight of urban children is genuine. Instead, consider that it is seven months before an election, and Christie's takeover was the right political move.

It took brains, not guts.

On Monday, Christie made the announcement that he was taking over the schools at a Camden news conference attended by more than 100 community members. He was introduced by the most prominent African American female politician in South Jersey, Democratic Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd.

Less than two weeks earlier, remember, the most prominent African American female politician in north Jersey, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), had accused Christie of being racially insensitive. This was after Christie had accused Oliver of limiting opportunities for urban children.

But Monday's introductory words from Redd served to wash away Oliver's accusations: "It is my great honor to introduce our governor, who has been leading our state, leading reform - taking tough stances on tough issues. He's not afraid of any big issue."

Here, again, a reference to Christie's gutsiness.

But consider that Redd is a foot soldier in the South Jersey political army that wanted the takeover. The South Jersey Democrats' unofficial leader (and part-owner of The Inquirer), George Norcross III, has worked with Christie on education reform and chastised the quality of the school board. That board is rendered advisory under the takeover.

Christie has effectively neutralized a huge issue - education - in half of the state.

And beyond South Jersey, it was hard to find anyone opposed. Both Democrats and Republicans were either silent or supportive.

The teachers' union, New Jersey Education Association, opposed it - but the gubernatorial candidate the union just endorsed, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), was nearly mum.

Buono needs Norcross' support. She gave a lukewarm response to Christie's takeover: "I encourage the governor to listen to the concerns of parents and teachers in Camden, and make sure their voices are heard."

Is it gutsy to do something even when your only real opponent for reelection seems to sort of agree with it?

For a guy who courts controversy, this may have been the least controversial thing Christie did all month (until he signed a resolution on Thursday declaring March "Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month").

Earlier this month, when Christie gave what amounted to an "I don't know" answer to a question about a bill to ban gay-conversion therapy for children, Democrats pounced. The bill hasn't even passed the Legislature yet, but Democrats yelled and screamed about his indecision for days.

On the state takeover of a district that serves 16,000 mostly impoverished children? Crickets.

But the most important reason Christie's takeover was a political no-brainer is that no one expects him to succeed.

Note that Christie put no expiration date on the takeover. Assuming he holds on to his astronomical poll numbers and wins reelection, he may be around for only three years before he runs for president. Even if he stays in Jersey, he's gone in five years. In such a relatively short time, do voters - locally or nationally - expect him to turn around the lowest-performing school district in the state?

Of more significance to voters are the three words they read in headlines as they sipped coffee last week: Christie. Camden. Takeover. Just as they have come to expect, their hard-charging governor was taking the reins of something unruly and using his tough personality to whip it into shape.

Glad he's in there. Pass the creamer.

But if he does fix Camden schools? If he makes even a little bit of progress? It'll be a legendary move for a Republican - a potentially legacy-making accomplishment that could give him crossover appeal in a 2016 presidential race. There is only upside.

The Camden takeover isn't going to work out for everyone. School board members have lost the sliver of power they once had. The superintendent candidates the board interviewed last week may now be off the short list. And teachers may now face longer school days.

But don't worry about Christie. The Camden takeover will work out just fine for him.


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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