Who Has The Guts To Run Against Chris Christie? Meet Barbara Buono
When I was a kid, my family had a small bungalow in Mt. Freedom, New Jersey, not far from Morristown. My mom swears that I started talking there-- at 5 months old! I always felt it gave me the interest in New Jersey's very complicated, even byzantine, state politics. The last time New Jersey gave it's electoral votes to a Republican was 25 years ago when George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis and New Jersey voted 1,743,192 (56%) to 1,320,352 (43%) for Bush. This past November, Obama was backed by Jersey voters 2,117,175 (58%) to 1,472,709 (41%). He won every county in the state except for 7 mostly rural ones, Cape May, Ocean, Monmouth, Morris, Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren, same as when he ran against McCain. But the state has a Republican governor, the very popular Chris Christie.
Christie convincingly won (with 55% of the vote) the GOP primary against two more right-wing candidates, Steve Lonnegan and Rick Merkt in June, 2009 and went on to defeat scandal-plagued Democratic Incumbent, Jon Corzine 48.5- 44.9%. It's a pretty Democratic state but Christie looks pretty unbeatable for governor. The big hope to take him out, Newark ConservaDem Mayor Cory Booker is a chickenshit who backed out as soon as Christie started looking popular. He's decided to take on progressive U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg instead. But the Democrats couldn't not put someone up against Christie, especially because he's prone to say or do something horrible enough to turn public opinion against him.
The Democrat who's taking on the task is a reform-minded, anti-corruption state Senator, Barbara Buono. "Reform-minded, anti-corruption" puts her at odds with the state's godawful South Jersey Democratic bosses George Norcross (a Christie ally) and Stephen Sweeney, with whom she's tangled before. But the only other Democrat who was seriously looking at a run was a longtime Norcross enemy, Richard Codey, so Norcross quickly endorsed Buono. (See what I mean by byzantine?) Anyway, Buono's district is part of very Democratic Middlesex County. There are lots of white people and it has the biggest concentration of Asian voters in New Jersey, far more than any other minority group in the district. She was the first woman to be elected Majoirty Leader of the state Senate, where she served until Sweeney squeezed her out in a classic conservative vs progressive power struggle. Tom Moran at the Star-Ledger introduced his readers to Buono this week.
Her dad was a butcher who died when she was 19, and she worked her way through Montclair State University and Rutgers School of Law in Camden.
She once sought welfare benefits as a young woman after she lost her apartment in a fire, and she found it humiliating. She never followed through to get cash benefits, but did rely on food stamps briefly.
She has a long history of bucking the bosses in the Democratic Party, beginning when she first ran for office against the wishes of the infamous Sen. John Lynch, who later went to prison on corruption charges.
She worked her way up to be chairman of the Senate budget committee, and then majority leader. But she was dumped from the leadership team after she refused to go along with the bipartisan pension and health reform passed in 2010.
She expected to fight for this year’s gubernatorial nomination, and is shocked that all the other Democrats backed away from challenging Gov. Chris Christie.
“People say I’m courageous to run, but I really don’t feel that way,” Buono says. “A wide swath of working men and women are going to support me because I have a message that resonates. They will have a governor in me who stands up for the middle class, who doesn’t just protect the millionaires and leave a few crumbs for the rest of New Jersey.”
Let the games begin.
To say that Buono is a long shot in this race doesn’t quite capture it. This gap is historic. The latest poll, from Quinnipiac University, shows her trailing Christie by a 3-1 margin, or 41 points.
It gets worse when you look at the breakdowns. Even women prefer Christie by better than 2-1. Independent voters, where elections in New Jersey are won and lost, favor Christie by a 6-1 margin. Low-income voters prefer Christie, too.
“She’s the sacrificial lamb,” says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “It’s not an enviable thing.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the money yet. Christie has about 10 times as much in the bank now, and he hasn’t broken a sweat. If he needs to, he could raise enough to match Jon Corzine’s spending.
Buono is the one who needs money. Most people don’t know her, so she’ll have to spend big bucks on TV in New York and Philadelphia to even get into the conversation.
“I’m going to run a grassroots campaign,” Buono says, which is what all pols say when they can’t afford TV.
For a moment, though, let’s dare to dream. What would it take for Buono to win this thing?
Democratic hopes begin with the conviction that love fades. Christie has always been respectable in the polls, but when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, his numbers exploded. And sudden romance can come to a sudden end.
Next comes a hard look at Christie’s missteps. New Jersey’s unemployment rate is the highest in the region, and yet he left $3 billion in federal money on the table when he canceled plans to build a tunnel under the Hudson River. The state’s credit rating has dropped on his watch, thanks to his habit of pushing costs to the future. New Jersey’s foreclosure rate is also among the highest in the nation, and the state’s response among the most inept.
Most voters say the state is moving in the right direction. Which makes you wonder if they know all this.
Finally, there are the wedge issues. Christie opposes abortion rights and closed six Planned Parenthood clinics. He vetoed marriage equality. He vetoed a surtax on millionaires. He has retreated on climate change. And he removed the only black justice from the state Supreme Court.
“He’s very good around a microphone, and with YouTube moments and choreographed town hall meetings,” Buono says. “But we’re headed in the wrong direction.”
It’s a tough sell, in the end. Even in a blue state that President Obama carried by 18 points last November, Buono needs a miracle to win this one.
She will have the public worker unions on her side, a boost for her ground game. But that carries liability as well. The pension and health reforms were popular with tax-weary voters. And education reformers say that Buono’s loyalty to the teachers union could stifle progress.
But Buono is all in. At age 59, she is a cheerful warrior, a likable woman who seems to genuinely believe she really can pull this off. You have to admire the gumption. She is not afraid to stand up and fight. And that’s more than can be said for the boys in the party.
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