Barbara Buono didn’t set out to slip unnoticed into a small but crowded second-floor banquet room in the Assembly Steakhouse, a landmark Englewood Cliffs restaurant. But that’s what happened. No buzz attended her entrance until she was spotted by a legislative friend who guided her around the room and made introductions.
It was late February, and Buono, a state legislator for 18 years, was in the early stages of an adventure that had taken an improbable turn: With nary a fight, she stood alone as the Democratic party’s likely nominee in this year’s New Jersey gubernatorial election. Better-known politicians had given the race a pass.
Buono was being labeled a default candidate, but that had an upside, sparing her the intra-party squabbles that can damage or doom a candidacy. However, she couldn’t shake the fact that few recognized her name or knew anything about her Jersey roots, her progressive politics or her deep antipathy for Republican governor Chris Christie.
Christie, of course, is the most popular New Jersey politician in a generation, a public figure with approval ratings the envy of officeholders far and wide, and a booming personality that commands a room, as he had done just a few days earlier in Cedar Grove. Two standing ovations had greeted Christie as he entered an auditorium packed with hundreds of elected and appointed officials and political hangers-on—virtually all Democrats. They had gathered to hear an address by Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., the Essex County Executive and a prominent Democrat who calls Christie “my good friend.” DiVincenzo had invited Christie to speak. He also had invited Buono—to sit and watch. She declined the invitation.
Buono, a 59-year-old attorney from Metuchen, mother of four and stepmother of two, is taking on a literal and figurative media heavyweight. Christie has hugged Bruce Springsteen, munched a doughnut on late-night TV with David Letterman and appeared on Saturday Night Live in his Superstorm Sandy battle gear: a navy-blue fleece jacket emblazoned with his name and office. Even President Obama returns his calls.
After Sandy, Christie’s “reelect number”— the percentage of voters who think he deserves another term—shot from 44 percent in September to 64 percent in February in a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
Buono, on the other hand, faces a bi-partisan chorus of political prognosticators who give her little chance of success. Some predict a one-sided defeat reminiscent of the 1985 gubernatorial race, when incumbent Thomas H. Kean Sr., a Republican, took nearly 70 percent of the vote in a blowout of Peter Shapiro, the former Essex County Executive.
The temperatures of political match-ups today are taken early and often. For Buono, the early readings are chilling. A Quinnipiac University Poll in mid-March had her trailing Christie by 35 percentage points, 60 to 25, with the governor earning an approval rating of 70 percent.
“It’s hard to imagine how a guy with sky-high approval ratings will come back to earth,” says Terry Golway, director of the Center for History, Politics and Policy at Kean University.
Buono first campaigned for public office in 1991, losing in her bid for a seat on the Metuchen borough council. That year, Democrats were chased off doorsteps because then governor James J. Florio and a Democratic-controlled Legislature had raised sales and income taxes to close a budget deficit and increase state aid to public schools.
But Buono tried again for a council seat in 1992 and won. “I figured I had a life lesson for my kids. Don’t pack your bags and run away if you lose,’’ she tells New Jersey Monthly. And she hasn’t lost since. In 1994, she won a special election to fill an Assembly vacancy. In 2001, she won the state Senate seat in her Democratic-leaning district that includes such middle-class Middlesex County communities as Edison, Highland Park, East Brunswick and her hometown of Metuchen.
Buono started thinking about running for governor as early as spring 2010, when Christie had barely settled into office. She says she was upset by early Christie moves, including his creation of a Red Tape Review Group that could give him cover to weaken environmental regulations. She says she also was concerned about the governor’s attacks on the independence of the state judiciary, his cuts in state spending for schools and his elimination of state funding for Planned Parenthood.
In 2010, Buono’s Democratic colleagues made her the first woman majority leader of the state Senate. But her tenure was short-lived. Buono refused to go along with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s support for Christie’s plan to reform public employees’ pension and health insurance benefits. Buono supports pension reform, but was opposed to lumping together pensions and health care. She is adamant that health care benefits should be hammered out only through collective bargaining.
In response, the Democrats stripped Buono of her Senate title, replacing her with Senator Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck. “It wasn’t a hard call,” Buono says of her stance. “I’d do it again.”
Weinberg, an expert at navigating New Jersey’s political minefields, says Buono’s loss of the majority leadership was a hard lesson, but she supports Buono’s candidacy. “Barbara is in a very different position now,” says Weinberg. “It takes courage, guts and discipline to do what she’s doing.”
Buono says she wants voters to view her as someone who “stands up for what she thinks is right and is not afraid to stand up to people in her own party.” Her stance has brought her strong support from public-employee unions, including the Communications Workers of America. Buono also has the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association, the main teachers’ union in the state. But Christie believes he has the taxpayers at his back. When he unveiled his proposed 2014 budget during an address to the Legislature in late February, Christie pointedly looked straight at Buono as he reiterated his stance on pension reform. Buono says she didn’t notice the governor’s stare down.
“Christie never allows himself to be caught on the defensive,” says state Senator Richard Codey of Livingston, a Democrat who served as governor for 15 months after James McGreevey resigned in November 2004. “He always turns things around and goes on the offensive.”
Codey, Sweeney and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were among those touted as potential challengers to Christie, but all chose not to run. All three have endorsed Buono’s candidacy, and Assembly Speaker Oliver has appeared publicly on her behalf.
Why none of the Democrats wanted to take on Christie is not a topic that interests Buono. “I’m not going to speculate why others decided not to run,” she says. “I’m focused on building New Jersey out of this economic morass.” She likes to say there is “always a lot of drama in the Democratic Party”—drama that is likely to heighten after the June 4 primary when she picks a running mate for lieutenant governor.
The candidate says Christie’s “bluster and bravado” distract people from key economic issues. She intends to concentrate on “pocketbook issues.”
Despite private-sector job growth, unemployment in New Jersey remains stubbornly high and well above the national average. Property taxes remain the highest in the nation and the rate of foreclosures is one of the highest in the nation. Buono contends that Christie is blind to the plight of middle-class and working-class families. “This governor is in denial about our economic problems,” she says.
With a hint of North Jersey accent—she grew up in Nutley—Buono speaks quickly, as if she hears a clock ticking away her allotted time on the public stage. She attributes her style to her training as a trial attorney—always prep your witnesses. In her campaign, she’s the star witness, and she has her points down pat. But the cross-examination will come this fall when she and the governor, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, are expected to debate.
Buono chaired the Senate Budget Committee before her turn as majority leader, and she takes credit for cutting $4.5 billion out of former governor Jon Corzine’s last budget when the global recession took hold. She co-sponsored the constitutional amendment—passed in June 2008—that gives voters direct input on increasing state debt. She was also a prime co-sponsor of the anti-bullying legislation that Christie signed into law in January 2011.
To have any chance against Christie, Buono needs to hold the Obama coalition: women, African-Americans, Hispanics, young voters and those who favor marriage equality. Last year, Obama carried New Jersey with 58 percent of the vote. In recent history, the state has been thoroughly blue: There are 702,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, no Republican presidential candidate has carried New Jersey since 1988 and no Jersey Republican has been elected U.S. senator since 1972. Although Christie blunted the blue tide to defeat Corzine in 2009, Buono believes that this year the governor will not be able to buck a stronger tide: the GOP’s right-leaning presidential politics.
“His decisions are guided by what plays well on the national scene,” she says.
Other early endorsements for Buono came from major women’s groups—the Women’s Political Caucus and Emily’s List—and from Garden State Equality, the largest and arguably best-organized advocacy group for marriage equality in New Jersey. Christie vetoed the bill that would have legalized gay and lesbian marriages in the state. There is also a clear distinction between the candidates on abortion rights; Buono is pro-choice.
Buono is a strong advocate for women in politics, and her advocacy appears to have started long before she entered public life. In her Nutley High School yearbook, the note under her portrait says: “Barbara, who would like to practice law, fears the continued repression of the female.” It was 1971. Today, she sponsors a Young Women’s Leadership Program—for high school seniors and juniors.
Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, says Buono might be able to build on the persistent gender gap among voters.
“Nationally women are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than men are,” says Walsh. “We would expect to see that gender gap in this election. But it is still very early and hard to know whether that will happen.”
Unfortunately for Buono, in early polls, Christie’s huge lead among voters included a clear preference for him among women. The governor enjoys a big lead in fundraising as well. For the primary season, he decided to forgo the state’s 2-to-1 matching fund program, and is expected to do the same for the general election. By not taking public funds, a candidate is freed from what otherwise is a $5.6 million spending cap for the primary election and a $12.2 million cap for the general election.
For her part, Buono is accepting matching funds; in order to receive the maximum $11.7 million, she will have to raise a little more than $6 million on her own. By late winter she had yet to crack $1 million in private donations; back in January, Christie’s campaign reported it had $3 million in its coffers.
Buono grew up in a working-class family, the youngest of three daughters. Her father, James Buono, born near Naples, Italy, immigrated when he was 3 and became a butcher and later a district manager at Shop Rite. He died at age 51, when she was 19. Buono’s mother, Marie, a Newark native and lifelong Nutley resident, was an office worker and later a substitute teacher. She died last October.
Juggling part-time jobs, Buono paid her way through Montclair State College (class of ’75) and Rutgers Law School in Camden (class of ’79) with the help of grants and loans. She says she bridged a rough patch the year between college and law school partly by taking food stamps for a couple of months. At one point, she says, she made an appointment to visit the county welfare office but didn’t have to follow through, thanks to friends and relatives who stepped in to help. She moved in with her paternal grandmother, Angelina, in Newark.
After law school, Buono married a fellow attorney and worked in the public defender’s office and in private practice with her husband. To raise their children, she dialed down to occasional part-time work. She converted to Judaism, her husband’s religion, and their children—three girls and a boy—were bat or bar mitzvahed. The couple divorced in 1997. Her children now range in age from 22 to 30.
For the last 11 years, Buono has been married to Martin Gizzi, a neuro-ophthalmologist. Her two stepdaughters are 19 and 21. Closing in on 60 years of age in July, she says she runs regularly—three miles every other day, which is down from five a day since injuring a hamstring.
Tom Byrne was Democratic state chairman when Buono first ran for the Legislature.
“She was a tough, gutsy candidate,” he says. “As a betting person you get odds now, and you never know.”
But Republicans have won five of the last eight gubernatorial elections, with Governors Kean and Christine Todd Whitman winning second terms.
How will Buono fare in her quest? Shapiro, the former Essex County Executive who was buried in the Kean landslide, offers this thought from Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
David Wald is a former Star-Ledger political reporter and columnist.