Where Chris Christie Found His Political Calling In four years at the University of Delaware, the New Jersey governor and GOP presidential candidate learned how to build a winning coalition — and found his wife.
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Where Chris Christie Found His Political Calling

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Where Chris Christie Found His Political Calling

Where Chris Christie Found His Political Calling

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CARRIE KAHN, HOST:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was president of his class in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. At University of Delaware, he was president of his dorm and later president of the student body. And that's where his ambitious and unorthodox style really began to take shape. As part of our series The Journey Home on the early lives of presidential candidates, Matt Katz of member station WNYC brings us the story of Governor Christie's college political career.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Chris Christie did two things when he arrived at college in 1980. First, as he reminisced to students a few years ago, he partied.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: My 18th birthday was celebrated right here at the University of Delaware as I began my freshman year. Of course, the drinking age at that time was 20 in Delaware. So I couldn't drink too much.

KATZ: Then, in his dorm room, he voted for the very first time.

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CHRISTIE: Into 208 Harrington E, I filled out my absentee ballot and voted for Ronald Reagan.

KATZ: Politics more than partying defined Christie's four years at Delaware. It was the only time he ever lived outside his home state of New Jersey. James Magee, his professor in a class on civil liberties, remembers an eager student with excellent analytical and writing abilities.

JAMES MAGEE: He was one of the best students I ever had in constitutional law in nearly 41 years of teaching those courses.

KATZ: Magee and old friends remember how Christie forcefully argued his right-of-center positions. But he was more subtle than the governor who made a name for himself yelling at constituents and reporters on YouTube. His friend Ellen Feldman says she learned a lot from him.

ELLEN FELDMAN: Watching him navigate how to get things done and understanding the lay of the land and having a goal set and figuring out how to do it by involving the right people and making sure you notify the right people and just the way you spoke to people, he did that so well.

KATZ: Christie first joined student government as a lobbyist, traveling to the state capital in Dover and to Washington, D.C. He organized opposition to President Reagan's proposed cuts to student loans. Then he ran for president of the Delaware Undergraduate Student Congress against the popular student. Christie put on a tie and campaigned hard. He secured a key endorsement from the student newspaper, The Review. Journalist Tobias Naegele was the editor.

TOBIAS NAEGELE: Chris had a much better handle on issues on how to deal with people and had a real organization behind him. They had signs and got out the vote kind of activity. And I don't think the other guy had much of that.

KATZ: His platform called for, quote, "breaking out of old molds to solve problems." Christie built a coalition and asked the president of the Black Student Union, Kelvin Glymph, to join his ticket. Glymph says Christie wanted black support.

KELVIN GLYMPH: That was part of his strategy. Like I said, they were pretty politically astute.

KATZ: And it worked.

GLYMPH: Well, we won. Put it that way.

KATZ: President Christie created and activities fee, 10 bucks per student, to help fund school groups. He pushed for the creation of teacher evaluations and 30 years later, made those kinds of evaluations part of his education policy. And he spoke out against anti-Semitic and racist incidents on campus at the time. When Christie witnessed a white student direct a slur at black sorority pledges, he called for starting a, quote, "movement of understanding, caring, compassion and guts." He also became friends with Glymph.

GLYMPH: He was very conscious about what was going on in the black community, getting advice from me and the perspective, what things happen on campus, how did it affect us.

KATZ: This might not sound familiar given Christie's recent rhetoric in the presidential campaign. He's called for banning orphan Syrian children from the U.S. and has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of inspiring cop killers. But as governor, Christie has been inclusive, nominating a Muslim American and a gay black man to top posts. That's an echo of his college days, when Christie created a diversity committee and appointed a gay student and a women's rights activist to it. Naegele said Christie was always trying to understand the other side.

NAEGELE: The idea being that you've got to expose people to other ways of life, and that should be part of what the university experience is.

KATZ: One of the students Christie appointed to the diversity committee was named Mary Pat Foster. He put her on his ticket when he ran for student body president.

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KATZ: But it was here at the Deer Park Tavern near campus that Christie noticed her on the dance floor in a new way. And they started dating. Mary Pat succeeded her boyfriend as president. A year after that, they were married. Their 30th anniversary is March 8, a week after Super Tuesday. For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.

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