NEWARK – Gov. Chris Christie sat on an improvised stage on the altar of Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, the home church of famed singer Whitney Houston. Sitting across from Pastor Joe A. Carter, Christie remembered the criticism he faced when he ordered flags flown at half-staff following Houston’s death in 2012, gone at 48 years old in part because of her cocaine use.
“I think anybody who lives their lives in a way that’s honest knows somebody whose lives have been touched by drug addiction,” Christie said before a crowd of more than 200 people inside the church in Newark’s Central Ward, assembled for a summit on drug addiction. “It knows no bounds.”
Christie came to Newark at a time of crisis for New Jersey’s largest city. On the day Newark Mayor Ras Baraka was sworn in July, he faced a $93 million budget deficit, and a 2014 budget has not yet been passed. Crime remains a serious problem as an undermanned police force still recovering from layoffs in 2010 contends with an environment that produced 111 homicides last year.
In addition, the One Newark school organization plan for the state-run school district, put in place by School Superintendent Cami Anderson, a Christie appointee, has led to ongoing protests from students, parents and community activists, all calling for the return of local control. The initiative includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city’s students, as well as the closure or consolidation of certain public schools. Further, the plan includes a new open enrollment model that instead of permitting parents to pick the school closest to their home allows them to research schools and rank their preferences for public or charter schools throughout Newark. Although this component of the plan was meant to improve the city’s public education system by increasing student options, the initial results since the school year began have left many parents angry, confused and frustrated. Student protest leaders have repeatedly called on Christie to schedule one of his well-known town hall events in Newark to provide an opportunity for the community to air its grievances, so far to no avail.
Christie chose not to address Newark’s other problems on Tuesday. Instead, the governor and Carter went back and forth about the focus of the drug addiction summit, which was the stigma often attached to the problem. Christie noted the bail reform package signed last month, which included a “ban the box” bill, which prevents an employer from asking about an applicant’s possible criminal history until after a job offer is actually made, as a component to shutting down the stigma associated with drug addiction.
“We as leaders and people with experiences have to be talking about this in a different way, and treat people in a different way,” Christie said, noting his initiative to institute a statewide mandatory drug court program for nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders. “We have to treat drug addiction as an illness. You don’t stigmatize people who have cancer. We have to make treatment more available. This is not something to hide. We have to work together, identify people who need help and bring them out of the shadows.”
“We need to put this in the bright light of day,” added former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who helped moderate the summit’s panels. “And we need to do it authentically, honestly and transparently.”
Christie addressed the challenges of looking past New Jersey’s urban-suburban divide when it comes to dealing with drug addiction.
“We’ve grown up in a culture that stigmatizes this. When I’m in suburban New Jersey, they think stricter enforcement is the way to go,” commented Christie as he spoke about an old law school friend who died at 52 years old as the result of becoming addicted to pain-killers. “This is also about kids in the suburbs and on the farm. It’s not always about the criminal act. It’s about the disease.”
Before leaving, Christie looked around the church where Whitney Houston’s funeral was held.
“Prayer by itself is not enough. It’s about getting into action,” Christie said. “This is another step in the right direction to make our state a model for what the rest of the county should be doing by taking care of our own. [Drug addiction] can and does happen to anyone. There are few opportunities we have in life to make miracles happen. When you give people the tools to save their own lives, that’s God’s miracles happening in their own lives.”