TRENTON, N.J. — The verbal feud over gay marriage in New Jersey got more personal Monday with Gov. Chris Christie firing a slang term at a lawmaker, and a hero of the Civil Rights movement chastising the governor for a separate remark.
Christie called openly gay Assemblyman Reed Gusciora "numb nuts" during a Statehouse news conference — his response to the lawmaker comparing him to former segregationist governors in the South.
The comment culminated more than a week of back-and-forth over gay marriage, which the Democratic majority in the Legislature is trying to achieve through legislation and Christie, a Republican who opposes same-sex nuptials, wants decided by a public vote.
The issue also brought U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia to Trenton on Monday to take Christie to task for comments linking gay marriage to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
Christie last week vowed to veto any gay marriage bill that reaches his desk. He instead called for the question to be put to voters in November.
"I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights, rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South," Christie said after an event in Central Jersey.
Black leaders pounced. Newark Mayor Cory Booker said baseball great Jackie Robinson would not have had the opportunity to break the sport's color barrier had the matter been put to a vote, and the mayor himself would not have had the opportunity, years later, to be elected to lead New Jersey's largest city. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said many felt the sting of Christie's comment.
Gusciora, who is white, said Christie would have found allies in late Alabama Gov. George Wallace and late Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, both segregationists.
On Monday, while attempting to clarify what he meant —that civil rights leaders would have preferred having the option of a popular vote to settle the issue, but it wasn't available to them — Christie called out Gusciora for jumping on his civil rights remark and chastised the press for not challenging him on it.
"You have numb nuts like Reed Gusciora comparing me to George Wallace and Lester Maddox. Now, come on guys. At some point you've got to be able to call BS on those kinds of press releases," Christie said.
Christie equated the latest flap to another remark that got him into hot water more than a year ago. Then, in a disagreement with Sen. Loretta Weinberg, he suggested that the press "take a bat" to the Jewish grandmother from Teaneck.
Christie said Monday he hadn't meant either remark literally.
But, Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement who appeared with Oliver and other New Jersey Democrats outside the city's train station, said court and congressional actions were necessary to secure rights for blacks, and that no referendum ever would have been successful.
"I've said over the years that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation," Lewis said.
As Assemblyman John Wisniewski pointed out, blacks hadn't yet won the right to vote so they would have been unable to vote on the referendum they needed most.
Asked about Lewis' appearance in the city, Christie said, "Congressman Lewis is an American hero. Any time he wants to come to New Jersey, he will be welcomed with open arms. He led an extraordinary movement at great personal risk and sacrifice to himself."
Christie said he would have cleared his calendar if Lewis had asked to meet with him.
"The governor constantly reverts to name-calling when he is unable to address issues on their merits," Gusciora said in a statement released Monday. "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."
Democrats have resurrected gay marriage as a priority issue for the new legislative session that began this month. The majority party failed two years ago to pass a similar bill, even while an outgoing Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, was willing to sign it. Christie, a Catholic, has not changed his position on gay marriage. He called for the question to be decided by popular vote during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
An Assembly panel will consider the bill Thursday. A Senate panel forwarded it in a party-line vote last week, with no Democrats voting against it and no Republicans voting for it. It must clear both houses before being forwarded to Christie.