TRENTON, N.J. — A teacher union's memo hinting that New Jersey's governor should die has escalated a war of words in a state already squabbling about public schools and how much they cost.
The memo from the Bergen County Education Association to its locals reads in part: "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."
Association president Joe Coppola said the "prayer" was a joke and was never meant to be made public. Friday, he apologized, saying he'd made an error in judgment.
The New Jersey Education Association was also contrite. It issued an apology Friday, saying the attack wasn't funny and that it takes away from the more serious discussion the group would like to have with the governor. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said she would try to apologize personally to Christie.
At an appearance in New Brunswick on Friday, Christie didn't see any humor in the memo – and used it as another chance to blast the teachers unions.
"They said they didn't intend it to be public," said Christie, a Republican. "So, private prayer for my death would have been OK?"
One Republican lawmaker even called for the state attorney general to investigate.
The memo – even if it was a joke – escalates an ongoing war of words.
During the Republican Christie's run for governor last year, he didn't mind offending the teachers union.
He refused to meet with the NJEA as it interviewed candidates to consider whom to endorse. And he attacked the union on the campaign trail. In July, he said: "Frequently, the leadership of the NJEA has been a strong advocate for the status quo, whether the status quo is succeeding or failing."
The union endorsed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine in the election – and paid for fliers, staffed phone banks and knocked on doors on his behalf.
This year, the state education association has aired television commercials critical of the governor.
The friction intensified last month when Christie proposed a state budget that called for state and federal aid to school districts to be cut about 11 percent. Many districts are getting cuts deeper than that – and most say they expect to lay off staff.
Christie, though, says that he'll give extra aid to any district where educators agree to freeze their salaries for the year and start paying a portion of their health insurance costs. Any layoffs, he says, will be the fault of the unions – not him.
Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesman, said the group hopes the memo dustup will create an opportunity for the group to meet with Christie to talk about the future of the state's schools.
"Frankly, we have been talking at each other and we haven't been talking with each other," he said.
Mulvihill reported from Philadelphia.