Christie and Camden — A Success Story

Posted on November 22, 2013

The Chris Christie 22 point re-election romp two weeks ago occasioned an avalanche of chatter, but one curiously buried detail comes from the City of Camden. Perennially ranked as the most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken municipality in the U.S., Christie received more than double the votes there as he had four years earlier. On its face this seems jarring. How on Earth did a self-professed conservative Republican manage to so improve his performance among (quite possibly) the country’s most immiserated population, especially after championing policies that forced cuts to essential city services? Might there be a lesson to be learned in this feat?

So I asked Sean Brown, a former member of the Camden school board who writes a blog on local politics, for insight. First, he noted the “traditionalist” streak of older-generation inner-city resident who reliably vote Democratic, but like people of all races across New Jersey, found appeal in Christie’s uniquely powerful projection of fatherly authority. The Gov., it is thought, deals in hard truths and uncomfortable realities, refusing to mince words even before hostile audiences. Out of this reputation grew Christie’s singular celebrity power — he appeared at a Camden elementary school with Shaquille O’Neal — which proved salient even in the country’s most destitute enclave.

Brown also pointed to Christie’s history of evincing basic respect for President Obama rather than total unbridled loathing, which set him apart from the average GOP pol. Images of Obama and Christie sharing extended bearhugs and games of football toss on the Jersey Shore boardwalk were affecting, observed Brown, and fed the sense that though he’s a thoroughgoing Republican, Christie doesn’t present as folks’ cultural enemy or as waging war on their community.

Then there was the plain fact of Christie’s insuperable campaign apparatus. Four years spent employing every available mechanism of gubernatorial power to court state Democrats bore fruit, with Camden mayor Dana Redd being a prime example. Even as Redd technically supported Democratic nominee Barbara Buono, she and Christie made multiple mutually congratulatory public appearances, sharing hugs and kisses, whispering in one another’s ears, and posing for photos. Their partnership appeared more than merely transactional. At the Shaq event, Redd offered high praise for the governor’s “courage and commitment to our city.” (Upon announcing her endorsement of Buono, Redd’s office did not even so much as issue a press release.) Christie’s friendly relationship with South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross further meant that virtually no infrastructural resources were expended in the city on Buono’s behalf.

So in relative terms, Christie excelled. Is this reason enough to draw wider conclusions about his supposed prowess with minorities, or do the peculiarities of the race render such speculation pointless? There are certainly bountiful caveats: for one, because the city is so reliant on state aid, any Camden mayor would likely have found it in her interest to establish good relations with the governor. And though he won Camden County by 11%, Christie was still blown out in Camden City, by 52%.

However, as the Republican Party scrambles to stunt its growing disconnection with blacks and Hispanics, there is perhaps some wisdom to be gleaned from Gov.’s approach. Little of it was particularly novel — he recruited politicians like Redd to join him in pursuing ideologically-driven projects in line with a conservative vision of policy reform. But in contrast with typical ersatz GOP “outreach” efforts, Christie looks like a trailblazer. Under the Christie-Redd partnership, city finances were restructured, control of the school system was seized by state authorities, and the entire police force was disbanded. All this was effectuated without forced photo-ops. (Christie has hailed Camden’s potential to serve as a national model for education reform, which might well make its way into a future presidential stump speech.)

Christie also won 51% of the Hispanic vote statewide; Hispanics constitute 47% of Camden’s population.

But talk about 2016 is ultimately cheap. Anyone searching for lessons about the state of U.S. democracy from Camden’s election results might ponder why only 20% of registered voters cast a ballot for governor — an abysmal figure. Imagine if a fraction of the energy spent pontificating on theoretical campaigns to take place three years from now were instead devoted to determining how such utter disaffection has arisen in the most blighted reaches of society? That’d be something worth chattering about.

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