The Democratic David facing New Jersey’s Goliath Gov. Chris Christie is a woman from humble beginnings who rose briefly to the second highest seat in the state Senate, yet is in the midst of a fight with her own party’s powerful leaders.
Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) the mother of four and stepmother of two, is very much a self-made woman. She put herself through college and law school, relying on food stamps when necessary — even thinking about applying for welfare, an option she decided against.
A full-time legislator representing the 18th District that covers part of Middlesex County, Buono told supporters at her February kickoff rally in New Brunsick, “I know the struggle of New Jersey’s working and middle class because I’ve lived it.”
She faces a different sort of struggle now, not just against the hugely popular governor, but one pitting her against her own party’s top guns.
That’s something Buono expected, proclaiming last December in a video announcing her candidacy, “I won’t be anointed by the political bosses.”
At that time, there was speculation that such heavy hitters as Newark Mayor Cory Booker or Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) would also be on the ballot. Now that Buono is the nominee, she still has not gotten the full backing of the party’s biggest powerbrokers — Joe DiVincenzo in Essex County and George Norcross in South Jersey – but Norcross and heavy hitters north and south are fighting her choice for state party chair.
A press release last Friday from Sweeney announced that he, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), virtually the entire South Jersey Democratic legislative contingent, Norcross, Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen, and a host of others want Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) named the state Democratic chairman. It made no mention of the fact that the choice of the chairman traditionally goes to the gubernatorial nominee. Buono wants Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-Hudson) named chair.
Buono and Sweeney have a history: She was his first majority leader but the two did not get along and he first booted her from that position and then took away her committee chairmanship.
She is also not getting support from the nation’s highest Democrat. Two weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited the Jersey Shore for a post-Sandy tour, Christie was by his side, shaking hands, and even winning him a stuffed bear. Buono reportedly only got as close as a group of 30 local officials who met Obama off camera before he spoke publicly, despite being one of only two Democrats running for governor in the United States this year.
All of this is going to make it even more difficult for Buono to defeat the very popular governor.
Supporters like Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes, III, her running mate for the past six years, are not surprised that she remains undaunted in her quest to defeat the popular Republican governor.
“She’s tenacious,” said Barnes, who is running for the Senate seat Buono is vacating. “She has endurance. She has the ability to bounce back from setbacks.”
Those are qualities Buono will need, given she is trailing Christie by 34 points among likely voters in the most recent poll, released May 8 by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, and has only one-tenth as much money in the bank.
The Buono Backstory
Buono was born in Newark and raised in Nutley. She described her childhood upbringing as “modest.” Her father was an Italian immigrant who “came here in search of better life and worked long hours to support his family.” Her mother took jobs in an office and as a substitute teacher to help support the family. She lived with her parents and two older sisters in a cramped second-floor apartment.
“My mom and dad slept on a pullout couch so my sisters and I could have a bedroom,” recalled Buono as she enjoyed a cup of coffee during a recent interview. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I had all I needed.”
Buono attended Montclair State College and was only 19 when her father died of a heart attack at age 51. She stayed in college, using tuition-assistance grants, veterans and Social Security death benefits, and part-time work. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1975, at the end of a recession when the national unemployment rate was around 9 percent.
She said she “lived on food stamps for a while.” Then a fire destroyed virtually everything in her small apartment. Age 22, and not knowing where else to turn, Buono said she “made the call I never thought I’d make” — to the local welfare office.
Buono said she didn’t keep the appointment and never got welfare benefits. Her grandmother took her in and she lived in Newark for a while and worked three part-time jobs. Buono said she had wanted to be a public interest lawyer since she was in 8th grade and decided to go to Rutgers Law School. She took out student loans to pay and graduated in 1979.
“People say it takes courage to run for office; courage was standing at the edge of that fiscal abyss and looking down,” said Buono. “This is what drives me.”
She said she decided to run for governor because she is unhappy with how poorly New Jersey’s middle class has fared under the Christie administration, as well as his cut to funding for women’s health centers and his veto of a gay marriage bill.
“Over the last three months, 30,000 people have dropped out of the work force,” said Buono. “I decided I couldn’t stand by any more. I needed to stand up for the middle class.”
A Political Newcomer
Buono said she had no aspirations of running for any public office while she was growing up. After graduating, Buono worked as a law clerk for a public defender before entering private practice. She married, settling in Metuchen, and had four children. She took time off to raise them, did some volunteer work and was approached about running for the council. It was her first and, so far, last election loss.
It was 1991, the height of the so-called Florio backlash. Following Gov. Jim Florio’s enactment of $2.8 billion in tax increases, the Democrats lost their majorities in both houses and voters installed veto-proof Republican majorities in the Senate and Assembly.
“You would knock on doors and people would ask, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat’ and when you said, ‘Democrat’ they would slam the door,” recalled Buono.
“I didn’t like losing,” she continued, noting she ran again for council the following year. “But I also wanted to teach my kids a life lesson. Just because you fail at something, you don’t walk away.”
That year, Buono won. She spent two years on the council, serving as police commissioner and instituting a community-policing program. When Republican Assemblywoman Harriet Derman gave up her seat to serve in Gov. Christine Todd Whitman’s cabinet in February 1994, Buono said then-Edison Mayor George Spadoro encouraged her to run for the Assembly. Buono easily won a special election against Republican Joanna Gregory-Scocchi, who had replaced Derman, after police found a temporary employment firm Gregory-Scocchi owned used illegal immigrants.
After seven years in the Assembly, Buono ran for the Senate in 2001, easily beating Republican John Cito, a last-minute replacement for incumbent Jack Sinagra after Sinagra left two weeks before the election to join the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Since then, she has consistently won reelection without difficulty in her district, which includes East Brunswick, Edison, Helmetta, Highland Park, South Plainfield, South River, and her home town of Metuchen. Buono lives there with her second husband, Dr. Martin Gizzi, chairman of the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute at JFK Medical Center in Edison. Between them, they have six children, ranging in age from 19 to 30.
Taking the Chair
Having served as ranking Democrat on the budget committee in the Assembly, Buono sought and won the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, becoming the first woman to head that body. Buono boasts of having cut $4.5 billion from state spending while maintaining education and health care funding. She also sponsored a constitutional amendment to give voters a direct say on state debt.
In 2010, she rose to the rank of Senate Majority Leader, the second ranking Democrat in the upper house. Two years later, she lost that seat, and the favor of Sweeney.
Buono blames her ouster on her vocal opposition to the state worker pension and health benefit reform bill on which Sweeney and Christie collaborated. The law forced public employees to pay more for healthcare benefits and pensions and lose yearly pension cost-of-living increases. She supported an early version of the legislation, but opposed the final version as “abrogating the collective bargaining system” because it changed health benefits through legislation, rather than union negotiations, as is traditional.
Others point out that Weinberg, who replaced Buono as majority leader, also voted against the bill. They say Buono lost favor with Sweeney because they disagreed on a number of issues. Sweeney did not return a request to discuss Buono and her candidacy, but he did appear at her campaign kickoff in February to endorse her and has contributed to her campaign.
Weinberg, Gov. Jon Corzine’s lieutenant governor candidate in 2009, said Sweeney and Buono had “personality differences” and did not make a good team. She supports Buono’s candidacy, praising the woman’s strength and grace in the face of adversity.
“She’s very disciplined and focused,” Weinberg said. “Her ability to remain calm under pressure is her strongest attribute. That certainly comes through during this very pressured time as she tries to bring the party together.”
Buono said she follows her conscience, proclaiming at her kickoff rally, “I have never been afraid to stand up for what’s right, even at my own peril.”
Initially, she had hoped to be able to work with Christie, stating after his inaugural speech, “The Governor laid out a clear vision today for the road ahead, a vision that will require a great deal of sacrifice and even greater cooperation.”
Less than a month later, after Christie declared a “fiscal state of emergency” and cut aid to schools, colleges, charity care and the public advocate, Buono changed her mind and questioned the legality of Christie’s actions.
“This is akin to imposing martial law,” she said.
After that, according to Buono, Christie “wouldn’t meet with me.”
Her relationship with the administration strained further months later when she refused to endorse the report and recommendations issued in April of 2010 by the Red Tape Review Group Christie had created. Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno chaired the group and Buono was one of two Democrats on the seven-member body.
“It was just a lot of anti-government, far right rhetoric,” Buono said. For instance, the group endorsed letting municipalities opt out of civil service. “When they issued their report, they took my name off of it and called it unanimous.”
“You don’t want someone in office who is weak and caves under pressure,” said Barnes. “Anybody who really has integrity is going to stand up for what he believes in.”
At the start of this legislative session, Buono found herself demoted from the chairmanship of the Legislative Oversight Committee and is now its vice-chair. In 2010, as head of that committee, Buono held hearings on the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s debt and the Department of Education’s failure to get $400 million in federal Race To The Top funds.
“Because of the way I grew up, I’m not going to do what’s politically expedient,” Buono said. “Sometimes that ruffles some feathers.”
Backers and Believers
That’s one of the qualities that led to her endorsement last week by the New Jersey Sierra Club.
“She is one of the people who stood up even to the Democrats,” said Jeff Tittel, the club’s director. “She is one of those leading voices in opposition to weakening environmental rules.”
Tittel said Buono “led the fight against fast track,” the process of expediting the Department of Environmental Protection’s permit process. She also sponsored a resolution declaring “inconsistent with legislative intent” DEP’s waiver rules, allowing for the suspension of environmental regulations in certain circumstances. She also sponsored the 2007 Global Warming Response Act, requiring a reduction of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. Buono is critical of Christie’s decision to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Currently, Buono also sits on the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens and State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation committees.
Buono sponsored the state’s anti-bullying law, and measures increasing and expanding the Urban Transit Hub tax credit program, regulating the sale of insurance of portable electronics. She is a co-sponsor of some of the gun control bills that recently passed one or both houses of the Legislature. She also authored several bills that Christie has vetoed, including one that would have set up a mechanism to turn foreclosed properties into affordable housing.
Buono easily beat her one primary opponent, who didn’t spend any money or campaign. A tougher fight will be whether Buono can get her choice for party chairman. Sweeney said he opposes O’Donnell because he sided with a faction of Democrats who wanted to unseat Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver last year and said Lesniak is the better candidate because of his experience and ability to unite the party.
“I know he has the best interests of the party at heart,” Buono said in describing her choice, a 41-year old from Bayonne who is in the midst of his second legislative term.
Buono is confident she has the votes to make O’Donnell chairman. But her next battle, to unseat Christie, is one few think she can win.
Last month, former Gov. Brendan Byrne, who himself faced long odds but won reelection in 1977 — the last New Jersey Democrat to win a second term — said in a question-and-answer exchange with the Star-Ledger that Buono should consider dropping out of the race to let someone with greater name recognition step in.
“If the election were held tomorrow, the odds would be greatly against her,” Weinberg conceded. “But it’s five-and-half months until election day. She’s a good campaigner. She’s certainly energetic. With the right campaign strategy, the right issues, and the ability to raise enough money to get her message across and get out among the people, she has a chance.”
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the race is going to get closer, but Buono is going to have to step up the fundraising.
“The state still has a huge Democratic voting advantage, but she needs a message that will resonate with New Jersey voters,” he said. “Now, she can raise $12 million, but based on what she has done in the primary, will she be able to get to [the maximum] level of public funding?”
Buono raised $1.15 million for the primary, which gave her $1.7 million in matching funds through June 3, but was unable to raise enough money to get the maximum amount. Christie, meanwhile, raised $6.5 million, spent $4.7 million and still had $1.8 million left as of May 21. The governor did not take matching funds in the primary. The fight for Frank Lautenberg’s seat in the U.S. Senate is no doubt going to make it even harder for Buono to raise money for November.
The governor’s larger war chest enabled him to already run five ads, including one in Spanish. Buono made her first major television buy two weeks before the election in the New York and Philadelphia TV markets, among the most expensive in the nation.
Buono said beating Christie will not be impossible. Corzine was “unpopular but he didn’t lose by that much,” she said. Christie got 48 percent to Corzine’s 45 percent.
“People were angry last time around,” she said of the 2009 gubernatorial election. “The response I get from the people I meet is positive. They see I’m authentic. I know what they’re going through. That makes all the difference.”