In New Jersey, Barbara Buono Is the Last Democrat Standing

Chris Christie casts a big political shadow—but one Democrat has stepped up to try to take him down a peg. David Freedlander reports.

02.19.13 9:45 AM ET

Last week was not a good one for Barbara Buono. The longtime state lawmaker had the week before become the only Democrat in New Jersey with the temerity—or the lack of a sense of self-preservation—to jump into the governor’s race against Chris Christie, he of the gargantuan girth, larger mouth, and still larger approval rating. On Tuesday, a Monmouth University poll put her 42 points down. More worrisome, nearly two thirds of Garden State voters said that Christie deserved a second term. He had just appeared on Late Night With David Letterman wolfing down doughnuts. A couple of unions had already endorsed the governor, and some Democratic leaders in the state signaled that they were about to do the same. On Wednesday, Christie was feted at the Silicon Valley home of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and was fending off questions from the Trenton press corps about whether or not his reelection campaign amounted to a coronation.

Then on Monday night, the SUV Buono was riding in made an ill-advised right turn and was slammed into by a Ford Escape; Buono was sitting in the back without a seatbelt, and ended up going to the hospital for a laceration above her right eye. The incident was a reminder of a car accident that former governor Jon Corzine had been in five years before, one that laid him up for several weeks and set him on the downward trajectory that would reach its nadir when he lost to the then little-known U.S. Attorney Christie in 2009.

But Buono seems to be holding up well, sitting in a navy-blue skirt suit and pearls in her purple, rambling Victorian-style home in the town of Metuchen, a close-knit bedroom community 20 miles away from New York City. A photo of her and President Obama was stuck on the fridge. Campaign aides trickled in from outside and headed to the basement, a temporary campaign headquarters until the real one is set up. Buono let in her baying German shepherd mix to growl at a visitor as she made the case for why Christie can and should be a one-term governor.

“I believe this governor’s decisions are guided by his aspirations for national office, whether it is his turning down billions of dollars in federal funding for women’s health care, turning down federal funding for the ARC tunnel”—a commuter rail project that would have been mostly paid for with federal funds that Christie scuttled—“or his failure to take a leadership role on gun safety. Leaders lead, and you shouldn’t pick and choose where you are going to lead based on what is going to impact your ambitions for national office.”

Buono is in many ways the anti-Christie. Trim and demure, she is, for one thing, seemingly an eighth of his size. It is hard to imagine her doing much more than smiling politely at a constituent she disagreed with, never mind verbally sucker-punching one and posting the exchange onto YouTube, as Christie frequently does. And if Christie is a conservative Republican who has built a brand on a take-no-bull kind of shtick, one that led him in the span of a month to embrace Obama and slam House Speaker John Boehner, Buono is a proud progressive who is known around the state capitol as representing “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

“He is a good entertainer, but YouTube moments and choreographed town-hall meetings aren’t going to create the jobs in New Jersey,” she said. “I really feel strongly about this because I think the middle class and the working poor have been forgotten by the governor. And I feel that struggle because I have lived it.”

This personal struggle is one that Buono campaign aides believe will constitute a large part of her appeal. Her father was an Italian immigrant who came to New Jersey when he was a child. He dropped out of school and worked as a butcher in the town of Nutley; her mother worked as a substitute teacher. The parents slept on a fold-out bed in the living room of their second floor walk-up so Buono and her sisters could have the bedroom. At 19, Buono’s father died. She relied on his veteran’s benefits and Social Security death benefits to pay her way at Montclair State University. After college, she was on food stamps for a while and applied for welfare benefits. She worked as a stringer for the Newark Star-Ledger and thought of going to journalism school, but ultimately decided on law school, courtesy of a national defense student loan and $500 borrowed from a girlfriend to secure a bank loan. She beat an incumbent Republican who was tacitly backed by her local Democratic Party machine to win a seat in the State Assembly in 1994. In 2002, she again beat the party-backed candidate in a Democratic primary. In 2010 she was named State Senate majority leader, but was removed from her post, according to Trenton insiders, because she had become too much of liberal thorn in the side of party leadership that was determined to strike deals with the increasingly popular Christie.

“She wasn’t a team player in that she stood by what she believed in,” said Ray Lesniak, a Democratic state senator and a Union County political powerbroker. “And you can’t really do both, so she was asked to step down. But it turns out she didn’t belong in that position.”

Others said that it was more personality driven.

“Women don’t hang out like the guys do in politics,” said another colleague. “Especially not Barbara. She is just sort of not socially inclined—she didn’t come into the caucus early and socialize with her colleagues. There is a way to remain true to your progressive values and move around the system, and I don’t think she ever mastered that technique.”

The removal from leadership gave Buono one of her chief calling cards for the race—she is, in her campaign’s telling, the tough-talking truth-teller who stood up to “the party bosses.” It is  widely believed in Jersey that some of those powerful Democratic bosses will hold their fire, only meekly supporting Buono in order to curry favor with the overwhelming frontrunner.

“It is a boss-run state,” Buono says, but adds, “Look, the campaign we are running—I have been very pleased with the amount of support I have been getting. We cleared the field even before we announced on February 2. Have I ruffled some feathers in the past? Yes. I don’t think that is a bad thing. I am confident we are coming together.”

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Democrats close to Buono think that it could be an advantage to have the party bosses effectively taking a pass on the race—it will mean less strategic chefs stirring the broth. Plus, once they are faced with the prospect of losing a slew of legislative seats in a Christie landslide, they may see the light. Asked directly if she expects to have a unified Democratic Party behind her, Buono said flatly, “Well, we are working towards it.”

And although Buono may refer to the events of the last several weeks as “clearing the field,” that is not precisely what happened in the Garden State. After she announced, superstar Newark mayor Cory Booker turned down the opportunity, saying that he would consider a run for the U.S. Senate instead, although many in New Jersey thought that his close working relationship with Christie and the governor’s high approval rating helped edge him out of a race that he had been looking at for a while. Then Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who removed Buono from her majority leader post, declared that he was ending his flirtation with a campaign, as did former governor Richard Codey.

Part of the reason every other Democrat took a pass is that New Jersey is a tough state to run in. It lacks its own major media market, and so instead candidates have to compete to get on the news in Philadelphia or New York City, two prohibitively expensive media markets. And other than the governor’s office, New Jersey lacks the kind of down-ballot statewide offices that most states have—there is no comptroller for instance, or land commissioner—that aspiring pols can use to climb up the ladder.

“You are probably not going to believe me, but the reason I have come to where I am is because I am focused and I don’t listen to the chatter,” Buono said when asked why she was the only Democrat standing. “Obviously, I entered this race whether Booker was in or out, or any other candidate was in or out. People tell me it takes courage to do this. I don’t feel that way. How could I not run? I mean, look at the shape our state is in. His fiscal policies are bringing us to the brink of disaster.”

Democrats say that Buono will be a good contrast with Christie—on politics, on personality. Although he has kept to a Rose Garden strategy at the moment, and will get good press all year as he cuts ribbons on buildings brought back to life after Hurricane Sandy, when he does engage her, he will have to work to not come off as crass or condescending. But nobody in New Jersey thinks of Buono as their top choice. “She kicked the governor in the crotch at every opportunity, and that is how she became known, but she is also the default candidate,” said one top Democrat. “It was 2 a.m. and the bar was closing, and Barbara was looking pretty good, frankly.”

On paper at least, Buono should have a pretty good shot. Last year New Jersey went for Barack Obama by 18 points. Not since 1988 has a Republican presidential candidate gotten more than 50 percent of the vote statewide. And Christie is way out of step with most New Jerseyans on gay marriage, abortion, and gun control. He spent the last two years barnstorming around the country on behalf of Mitt Romney. Plus if Christie hopes to run for president in 2016, he has a difficult balancing act—appealing to blue-state swing voters in the immediate term without offending the red-meat Republican voters who will make up the core of the GOP primary electorate. For national Democrats who hope to derail the Christie juggernaut, or at least make sure he is pretty well bloodied up by the time he starts trecking to Iowa and New Hampshire, Buono is their only hope.

“There is an obligation to expose him now,” said one top D.C. Democratic operative.

The calculus changed, however, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“The storm has changed everything,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murphy. “He embodied New Jersey after Sandy. And the way he is running his campaign is by saying that voting against him is not a vote against Chris Christie or the Republican Party—it is a vote against New Jersey’s recovery.”

The challenge for Buono will be to get her message out, to show New Jersey voters that Christie disagrees with them on core social issues, and on a lot of fiscal ones too, including on a higher minimum wage, on higher taxes for upper-income earners, on more funding for education and environmental initiatives. The economic recovery in New Jersey has been slower than it has been in other states, although so far voters don’t seem inclined to blame the governor for that.

The key for her will be to prove her viability, quickly, before more labor unions and big-pocketed donors start getting jittery. This can’t be a race where Buono emerges late; she has to close the gap in the polls quickly in order to have a shot in November, and has hired key members Barack Obama’s campaign team to guide her effort.

So far however it has been slow going.

On Saturday, Buono received the endorsement of Garden State Marriage Equality at a press conference at Rutgers University. She gave a barn-burner of a speech, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., reminding the crowd that the California fat cats donating to her opponent’s campaign won’t be able to vote in this election. The only problem was there was no New Jersey press there, and only a couple of dozen supporters. Buono left as soon as it was over to go to her office. A day’s worth of fundraising calls awaited her.