Chris ChristieThe Democratic speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, Sheila Oliver, has asked Gov. Chris Christie to apologize for a  remark she considers racially insensitive that he made at a black church in Patterson, New Jersey.

Speaking at St. Luke Baptist Church, Christie attempted to inject the element of race into the state debate on school vouchers, by noting that the “African-American female speaker of the Assembly” was blocking the voucher bill.

Although he never used her name, the implication was that because she is African-American, Oliver should be in favor of the bill, which allows children in failing school districts to attend school somewhere else.

Oliver, the first black female leader of the state Assembly, said she was “appalled” that the governor, who has been trying to improve his popularity in the black community in advance of the November election, injected race into the discussion on education. Oliver’s district includes numerous failing schools in Essex and Passaic counties, and  she says she wants Christie to make a larger investment in public education beyond simply freeing children to flee their districts.

“I was and am saddened by the governor’s blatant attack (on the speaker),” said Kenneth Clayton, pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church. “The words that the governor chose to use in speaking of Oliver, while not even respecting her enough to call her by name, defy his earlier assertion that political leaders, himself included, need to learn to respect all views and work together.”

Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the governor’s comments were misinterpreted. Drewniak noted yesterday that the influential head of the Black Ministers Council, Bishop Reginald Jackson, who supports the voucher bill, also said in 2010 that the fate of the stalled bill, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, was in the hands of the legislature’s Democratic majority, especially Oliver.

“The Democratic Party must stop taking us for granted and failing to act for our children,” Jackson said in 2010.

If Christie runs for president in 2016, as many Republicans are hoping, one of his key selling points will likely be his ability to draw African-American and Hispanics voters, and his willingness to reach across party lines to get things done. He demonstrated this by his embrace of President Obama six days before the presidential election, after Obama toured of the state’s Superstorm Sandy-ravaged coastline. Christie’s appearances with Obama drew the ire of many in his own party.

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