New Jersey governor Chris Christie called a gay state lawmaker "numbnuts" Monday while attempting to explain his controversial remarks from last week about a marriage equality referendum.
The Star-Ledger reports that the Republican governor made the comment about Assemblyman Reed Gusciora during a press conference in Trenton where he clarified his remark that activists in the 1950s and '60s "would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South." Christie drew the analogy last Tuesday while calling for lawmakers to put marriage equality to a public vote and reiterating his vow to veto any bill that reaches his desk.
On Monday, the governor followed up his comment by saying, "The political climate in the South didn't give them the option to have a referendum back then." A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 52% of New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage. The governor added, "They wished they would have had the option, but the political climate did not permit it, meaning they would not win."
Then, according to the Star-Ledger, Christie singled out Gusciora, one of two openly gay state lawmakers, as "numbnuts" for comparing him to segregationists such as Lester Maddox and George Wallace because of the referendum suggestion. Prominent African-American officials and leaders of the Democratic-controlled legislature had also expressed outrage over the referendum comments.
Assemblyman Gusciora released a statement in response that said, "The governor constantly reverts to name-calling when he is unable to address issues on their merits. The fact is the governor's opposition to the civil right of marriage equality is comparable to others who opposed other civil rights. If he doesn't like the comparison, then he should change his position on marriage equality and sign the bill into law."
Also on Monday afternoon, U.S. representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, spoke in Trenton about the governor's referendum remarks at a news conference with U.S. representative Rush Holt of New Jersey and state Assembly speaker Shelia Oliver. Prior to the event, Lewis told the Star-Ledger that he thought Christie made a "big blunder."
"I just thought it was unbelievable, unreal," he said. "He's a lawyer, governor and not to know that putting the issue of civil rights - segregation and racial discrimination in the American South -- to a vote? We would have never made it during the '40s, the '50s or the '60s. Most of the governors except for a few of the states were outright segregationist. And most of these states in the old Confederacy, people of color could not register to vote."
The marriage equality bill passed a Senate panel last Tuesday in an 8-4 vote. The Assembly will take up the bill with a committee hearing this Thursday. Leaders of both houses have expressed confidence the bill will pass, but it remains uncertain whether they can muster enough bipartisan support to override the governor's veto with a two-thirds majority. The bill failed by a 20-14 vote in the Senate in 2010.
Advocates have filed a court case arguing that the state's civil union law does not give them benefits equal to marriage. Governor Christie said Monday that Bruce Harris, the gay African-American man he nominated to the state Supreme Court last week, would not rule on issues involving same-sex marriage, according to Bloomberg. The governor said that Harris, the Republican mayor of Chatham Borough, had advocated for marriage equality.
"If confirmed to the court, he would recuse himself from that matter because he did not want there to be the appearance of bias on his part on that issue," said Christie. "My perspective on that issue was to put it aside because he's not going to rule on that."