Video: Gov. Christie answers criticism

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/13/2010 10:51:54 AM ET 2010-04-13T14:51:54

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie defended his position Tuesday over an escalating rift with the state teachers union, which is refusing to fire a local union chief who wrote a memo joking about the governor's death.

"I'm a combative guy. I'm happy to have at it with those people who disagree with me and to argue about the issues — I think that's what democracy is all about," he said on Msnbc's Morning Joe.

"But when you're praying for somebody's death, I think that goes a little too far," he said.

Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak said the governor wants Bergen County teachers union head Joe Coppola fired for his "irresponsible" memo. The memo from the Bergen County Education Association to its locals included a closing prayer that read:

"Dear Lord this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor."

Coppola and New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian have apologized for the memo. Coppola has said the "prayer" was a joke and was never meant to be made public.

Keshishian left her first face-to-face meeting with the governor after 15 minutes Monday afternoon when she refused to fire Coppola.

"Barbara does not have the authority to fire him," New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said. "She doesn't intend to ask for his resignation. He has made an apology to the governor; it is a sincere apology. She considers that to be the end of that issue."

Drewniak said Keshishian walked out on the governor, and the governor said on Msnbc's Morning Joe that she stormed out after he asked her to demand Coppola's resignation. Baker said Keshishian left when the governor showed her the door.

Keshishian requested the meeting so she could apologize for the memo in person.

Big cuts for schools
Christie and the teachers union have been at odds since before he was elected governor in November. He refused to meet with the NJEA during the gubernatorial campaign and has since taken on teachers' and administrators' salaries and benefits. The union endorsed Christie's opponent, then-Gov. Jon Corzine.

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Christie's proposed budget cuts $819 million in aid to schools, up to 5 percent of a district's budget. He has been urging teachers to accept a one-year wage freeze to help avoid layoffs; the NJEA has refused to endorse the reopening of teachers' contracts.

More than 100 districts have achieved some type of salary freeze when administrators and staff are included. However, only a fraction of those include teachers, according to the governor's office.

Those districts will see a little extra aid as Christie returns the money the state would have paid for increased Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, which the state picks up for teachers, as a result of the planned raises.

Earlier Monday, Christie urged voters to defeat school budgets in districts where teachers have not accepted a one-year wage freeze. The governor also said again that resulting layoffs and program cuts will be the union's fault, not his.

"I just don't see how citizens should want to support a budget where their teachers have not wanted to be part of the shared sacrifice," Christie said after an event in Princeton highlighting incentives for business development.

Keshishian said the governor is wrong to recommend the defeat of local school budgets on April 20.

Defeated school budgets are given to the local governing bodies for possible additional cuts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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