CAMDEN, N.J. — “It was an ugly, ugly scene,” Chris Christie said of the last time he was on the indoor basketball court at this community center in one of America’s most violent cities.
About a year ago, the New Jersey governor was touring city facilities in Camden and he decided to take a few shots from the free-throw line. It wasn’t until his 12th try that the ball went into the basket. And the press was watching.
“You know, I’m not bad at that,” the ever-confident Christie said of his basketball skills in an interview with The Daily Caller. “But I could not hit a shot that day. It was humiliating.”
Now a Republican presidential candidate, Christie returned to the Roberto Clemente North Camden Community Center on Thursday to talk about how violent crime has decreased in Camden and deliver what his campaign said was a major policy speech on criminal justice reform. (He says there has recently been a 22 percent drop in violent crime here).
Wading into the debate over “sanctuary cities,” Christie, during his speech from the floor of the basketball court, accused local governments across the country of “protecting felons,” promising, if elected president, to see an end to the practice.
“Sanctuary cities have to stop protecting felons in the midst of law-abiding people,” Christie said. “That must end and it will end in a Christie Administration.”
Speaking from a rough neighborhood full of abandoned houses, Christie referenced two recent high-profile murders: the shooting death of Kate Steinle on a public San Francisco pier and the fatal stabbing of Kevin Sutherland on the Washington, D.C. metro.
“Kevin was stabbed to death on that train — right in front of a couple passengers — by a man who had been arrested just two days earlier for violent robbery,” Christie said.
Speaking of the man who ended Steinle’s life, Christie said: “She was shot and killed by a 45 year-old undocumented immigrant. He had seven prior felony convictions. Seven. And was previously turned over to San Francisco police by U.S. Immigration Services.”
Taking aim at those cities, Christie said: “Here’s a question I want to ask all those mayors and defenders of a broken system: How much compassion did these policies show for the families of Kevin Sutherland and Kathryn Steinle?”
After his Thursday speech on criminal justice reform, Christie was ushered into an nearby office for an interview with The Daily Caller, where he discussed sanctuary cities, President Obama’s recent comments on criminal justice reform and the 2016 race.
Asked how he would target sanctuary cities as president, Christie said: “I think we would have to get legislation in Congress to ban” them.
“You cannot have people who are blatantly committing felonies and — because it’s a sanctuary city — keep getting returned to the streets,” he said. “It’s just unacceptable.”
“And what happened with the Steinle case is just one example of many,” he said. “I would seek federal legislation to require local law enforcement to enforce those laws. There are laws on the books.”
Asked if he thinks it’s very conservative for a Republican presidential candidate to give a speech calling for specific changes to local law enforcement, Christie replied: “Oh, I think it’s OK…if you have community cooperation with it.”
Christie On Obama: ‘What’s He Done In Seven Years?’
Christie’s speech came on the same day President Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to talk about criminal justice reform, but said the timing was “a total coincidence.”
“I don’t think there’s been any approach to criminal justice reform,” Christie said of Obama. “What’s he done in seven years? This is the first I’ve ever heard him speak about it in any kind of detail. Just the last week or two. I’ve been doing this for six years. So I’m not very impressed with his approach because I don’t think he’s had much of one.”
During his speech, Christie referenced last year’s unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Asked whether he thought there were valid grievances there, or if it was just demagogued, Christie replied: “Both.”
“There were folks who demagogued the issue, and also there are valid concerns about law enforcement engagement with the community.”
Asked if he’s been in contact with conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch on the issue of criminal justice reform, considering their well-known interest in the subject, Christie said they’ve always discussed other issues.
“David or Charles have never spoken to me about criminal justice reform,” he said. “My conversations with David and Charles over the years have been predominately on tax and regulatory reform and issues like that … but I welcome their support on it, because it’s an important thing to do.”
Christie often frames his views on criminal justice reform as a pro-life issue. Asked about the recent uproar over a video showing a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the selling of fetal body parts, Christie acknowledged having a “grave concern about it.”
“I want to learn more,” he said. “I mean, I just think it is really, really concerning. Now, we got to get to the bottom of it, find out exactly what’s going on.”
Added Christie: “I understand there’s going to be congressional hearings on it, which is a good thing. I hope they’re aggressive and they use all the authority they have to get all the information they need.”
“I think most Americans, no matter where you are on the abortion issue, I think most Americans would be really, really disturbed by the idea that that kind of thing is going on, if that’s what’s happening,” he said.
Christie said he has high hopes for the first Republican primary debate, set for Aug. 6 in Ohio.
“I’ve always done well in these types of forums throughout my political career, and I’ve never had a whole lot of trouble trying to get attention,” he said. “So I feel very comfortable going in.”
“I mean, nobody else has done the kind of detailed policy speeches that I’ve done,” Christie said. “On entitlement reform, on tax and regulatory reform, on America’s role in the world — part of your confidence in going into the debates is if you actually have something to say. And I have something to say about the future of our country.”