Opinion: Buono vs. Christie — It Won’t Be Kean vs. Shapiro Revisited

Michael Aron, NJTV News | February 6, 2013 | Opinion
Unlike Kean in 1985, Christie is vulnerable on a number of fronts, but he still commands a huge lead

michael Aron
A number of people have suggested that this year’s gubernatorial election could be a reprise of 1985, when Gov. Tom Kean swamped Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro 69.6 percent to 29.3. Kean won all 21 counties and all 567 municipalities except three: Audubon Park and Chesilhurst in Camden County and Roosevelt in Monmouth County.

“I don’t know who this Peter Shapiro guy is,” 2013 gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono told me in a TV interview in early January, dismissing the comparison and the notion that she and Gov. Chris Christie might fall into the same paradigm.

Let’s consider the possibility.

Shapiro is a very talented guy. He was 33 when he beat four other men for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. At 23, he had been the youngest person ever elected to the state Assembly, where he served two terms. He led a charter-change movement in Essex County, which created the position of county executive, then beat the Essex County boss of that era Harry Lerner and got himself elected. He was in his second term when he ran for governor.

It was said that he might become the first Jewish president of the United States, back when we thought a Jew would get there before an African-American. He had gone to Harvard, was friends with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and was Kennedy-esque himself.

He won the primary with 31 percent of the vote over Senate Majority Leader John Russo (27 percent), Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson (26 percent), and former state Senator Stephen Wiley and former U.S. Attorney Robert Del Tufo, who each polled less than 10 percent.

But Kean was very popular. He had started his governorship in 1982 during an economic slump, but the economy took off around 1983, enabling him to tackle ambitious programs. The teachers union liked him for installing a minimum salary of $18,500. African-Americans liked him for his courageous decision to make New Jersey the first state to divest its pension funds of investments in companies that did business in South Africa. His “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together” tourism ads endeared him to New Jersey in general, and the state’s image started to improve on his watch.

Commercial development was rampant, and both business and the construction unions were happy.

Shapiro tried to out-environment Kean, but that was futile. Kean was an ardent environmentalist and had been a legislative leader when the Department of Environmental Protection was created. He would go on in his second term to author the Wetlands Protection Act.

So Shapiro never really got any traction, and to make it worse his wife gave birth to a baby with health issues in the weeks leading up to the election, so the candidate was distracted and distressed. Happily, the baby went on to grow up healthy, and Shapiro went on to make a lot of money on Wall Street.

Could it happen again? Unlikely. New Jersey is a more Democratic state than it was back then. In the 80s, we thought of it as a swing state. A large influx of Hispanics (and Brooklynites) since then have helped tilt the state Democrat.

New Jersey’s Faltering Economy

Kean had a strong economy at his back. Christie has the opposite. We are now in year five of recession followed by stagnation, and the state’s economic statistics can be made to sound pretty bad: 9.6 percent unemployment, highest in the region; second-highest home foreclosure rate in the country; 11 percent of the population living in poverty and getting worse. Christie can point to some good private-sector job-growth numbers, 103,000 since he took office. But there does not seem to be a wave of economic good feeling across the state as there was in 1985.

Public employee unions are an important piece of the electoral puzzle. Back in ’85 there was no particular reason for them to oppose Kean, and they didn’t. Mostly, they backed him.

Christie, on the other hand, has antagonized the NJEA, the CWA, the PBA, and the FMBA with his pension and benefits reform and in some cases his rhetoric.

Buono voted against the bill, arguing that it should have been split into two bills and that stripping public employees of their collective-bargaining rights for four years on health issues was an overreach. She will likely garner union endorsements, which can also translate into boots-on-the-ground campaign workers.

Then there are the issues. It’s hard to remember an issue that Kean was weak on in ’85.

Christie, on the other hand, holds minority viewpoints on abortion, same-sex marriage, women’s health, the minimum-wage hike, and gun control. If all the people who support those were to peel away from Christie, Buono would probably be the next governor.

Throw in Christie’s controversial positions on climate change (he pulled New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), on creating a health exchange and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and killing the ARC Tunnel, and you’ve got a real welter of issues that could drive votes to the Democrat, any Democrat.

Shapiro was 33. Buono is 59 and far more seasoned than the ’85 nominee. More experienced at politics and at life. She provides a sharper contrast with the incumbent than Shapiro did. She is a woman and will attract women voters on that score alone.

And there is no sitting Republican president to come in and boost the candidacy of Christie, as Ronald Reagan did for Tom Kean. It’s not clear whether President Obama will come in for Buono — he of the famous embrace with Christie. But you can be pretty certain he won’t campaign against a fellow Democratic liberal. And maybe he comes in just to help “dirty up” Christie in advance of 2016.

The Candidate in Training

At her campaign kickoff at New Brunswick High School on Saturday February 2, Buono was a little like a candidate in training. She read her speech off a Plexiglas teleprompter probably for the first time in her life. There was moxie and passion in the delivery but also a paint-by-numbers feel to the whole exercise. The attack lines were good, but parts of the speech felt like filler.

She will get better. Over the course of nine months she will grow as a speaker and as a presence. Two days after the kickoff she appeared on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC, and her voice sounded good on the radio. The following day, after Christie defended the Ashbritt debris-removal contract in Union Beach at noon, she had a press release in reporters’ in-boxes by 3:00 taking sharp issue with Christie’s statements. That’s called rapid response.

All of that being said, she is up against the most formidable incumbent since Tom Kean. Chris Christie’s leadership style, his entertainment value, his ability to connect with an audience, his brand are all unparalleled in modern New Jersey times. He led her in a Quinnipiac Poll last week 63 percent to 22, a 41-point advantage. He will have a large money advantage, and she won’t have the benefit of a primary to help her get known in April and May.

A question mark is how hard will the bosses and the county chairs work for her: George Norcross and Joe DiVincenzo, yes, but also Mark Smith in Hudson, and John Currie in Passaic, and Lou Stellato in Bergen. If their hearts aren’t in it, that hurts her.

Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University pollster, told me at the campaign kickoff that it could be a 20-point race. I’d say Buono loses well if she gets 45 percent or better. There is a long time for something to happen. The state budget could give Christie some political difficulties this spring. She could pull off a miracle and win.

Only one thing seems certain: it won’t be a repeat of 1985.