New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have a comfortable lead over his Democratic challenger for next year’s election, but he’s not leaving one of the state’s fastest growing voting blocs to chance.
The Republican, who is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, launched Thursday the “Hispanics for Christie” coalition.
The group has dozens of appointed members, including 13 pastors who form part of its Hispanic Clergy Advisory Council. The coalition will have representatives in all 21 counties and will be headquartered in Paterson, the state's third-largest city, where Latinos form a majority.
New Jersey is home to 1.6 million Hispanics, they are almost 20 percent of the state population, the eighth largest Latino share in the nation. About 680,000 of the state’s Latinos are eligible to vote.
“It has always been incredibly important for me to ensure that everyone in our state has a voice and to make sure the strength of the diversity of our state is represented - in government and in our campaign,” Christie said in statement about the coalition.
“Our efforts to build relationships with the Hispanic community on a foundation of dialogue and mutual respect is what today is about. I thank the dozens of individuals from across the state for strengthening those relationships and friendships today and look forward to our continued work together."
In a recent poll by Latino Decisions of likely Latino voters, Christie ranked the third favorite of a field of possible 2016 presidential candidates, coming behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Democrat, who got favorable ratings from 73 percent of the respondents, and Vice President Joe Biden, Democrat, who got 58 percent.
Some 38 percent viewed Christie favorably, a stronger showing than San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Democrat who got 34 percent, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who got 33 percent, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who got 31 percent.
Christie's Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial election, state Sen. Barbara Buono, has also been courting Latino voters.
Christie’s relationship with Latinos in the Garden State has been checkered.
They lauded him when, in widely publicized remarks on immigration during a visit to a church in Dover, New Jersey in 2008, Christie, then U.S. Attorney, said that undocumented immigrants were not criminals.
“Being in this country without documentation is not a crime,” Christie said in his characteristic blunt manner. "The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person by just being here committed a crime ... We're not going to be arresting people who are here undocumented."
Christie routinely criticized then-Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, a Democrat who drew nationwide attention when he called for his town police to enforce immigration laws.
After Arizona passed its immigration law, Christie said he opposed it and thought it should be purely a federal matter.
But Christie has incensed many Latino leaders and organizations in New Jersey over the years.
For his running mate in the gubernatorial race, he chose then-Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, who was unpopular with many Latinos for her decision to implement a controversial federal program, known as 287G, in which police can act as quasi-immigration agents.
Christie also implemented many public program cuts that Latino leaders said disproportionately hurt Latino residents who needed them. Nearly 30 percent of the Hispanics in New Jersey are uninsured and about 16 percent live in poverty.
Many groups, including the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey, also assailed the governor for failing to nominate a Latino to the state Supreme Court.
“The HBA-NJ considers it imperative that the leaders of our state appoint individuals that proportionately reflect the residents of New Jersey in order to instill public trust in our government and the justice system,” the association said in a statement. “As the largest minority population in the state of New Jersey, and the largest growing minority population throughout the United States, Latinos have undeniably made significant contributions to the state.”
Christie earlier this year picked up the endorsement of a statewide Latino group, the Latino Leadership Alliance, which supported Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009.
The president of the group, Christie ally Martin Perez, was tapped by the governor to a seat on the Rutgers University Board of Governors. Perez is a member of “Hispanics for Christie.”
At a gathering in which he accepted the endorsement, Christie called on the Republican Party to make more assertive moves to court Latinos.
“We cannot expect to get support from the Latino community if we do not make the Latino community feel welcome and important in our party,” Christie said, adding that Latinos were “people of hard work, of great aspirations.”
But Christian Estevez, a member of the Latino Leadership Alliance who is a longtime critic of the governor, said to The Star Ledger: "We’d like to ask [Christie] why he thinks Latinos should support him after he’s gutted every major program important to our community."
Elizabeth Llorente is the Politics Editor/Senior Reporter for Fox News Latino, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente