The Woman In Chris Christie’s Shadow

Running against the popular, no-nonsense governor was always going to be tough business. But inside and outside New Jersey, Sen. Barbara Buono can’t catch a break.

Julio Cortez / AP

Barbara Buono, known more widely as the woman Democrats put forward to run against Chris Christie after Cory Booker took a pass, is asked her first question early, before the cameras go live and the set falls silent for the countdown to air. The state senator is in Hardball’s Washington studio for a national television interview — her third-ever — and a rare chance to get her name on the screen and into the living rooms of Chris Matthews’ tens of thousands of MSNBC viewers.

But first — before any talk about New Jersey, where Buono has experience two-decades-deep in the state legislature — a query from the cable news vet, as his guest later recalled it:

“Can I say you’re attractive?” Matthews asks.

“No, you can’t,” Buono remembers responding.

She slogged to Washington for this?

When the segment begins, the talk, as it often does, centers on Buono’s opponent — the popular, blustery incumbent Republican governor, whose approval rating hasn’t seen the other side of 60 percent since a hurricane swept up the Eastern seaboard and lay waste to parts of the state last October, after which the straight-talking Christie picked up the pieces and shame-on-you’d federal lawmakers when they wouldn’t vote on a funding relief bill before leaving the capital for recess in January. New Jersey voters have been thanking him since.

And on the set of Hardball, even with Buono on-site, Christie doesn’t lose his hero’s shine. He is, says Matthews, “outspoken” and “no-nonsense”; he is “wildly popular”; he is “blunt” and “in-your-face”; he is, most simply, the “big guy,” who seems, the host adds, “like a shoo-in” for reelection.

“So who would stand a chance of beating him? Well, presumptive Democratic nominee Barbara Buono hopes to.” Matthews turns to his guest: “I admire your courage.”

But a chyron on the bottom of the screen — “DAWN QUIXOTE” — spells death on arrival for the campaign, a quest as foolish as impossible.

The rest of the interview doesn’t go much better: Matthews interrupts Buono mid-sentence 14 times, spends a hefty chunk of the five-minute segment on a nasty political ad that then-governor Jon Corzine ran against Christie in 2009 (“Didja like that ad?”), and when it comes time for a commercial break — Matthews extends a hand across the anchor desk. “You’re very nice, senator.”

Off the air, the host makes a sort of peace offering: “Oh, I was tough on you.”

Buono disagreed. “I wasn’t gonna give him the satisfaction,” she later recalled, two weeks after the April interview. “I said, ‘No you weren’t.’ And he said, ‘But don’t worry, people will all just be talking about how you were on Hardball.’”

“That’s what this ass said,” Buono added, standing outside a campaign event in Bayonne, N.J., just about six months out from Election Day. “It’s early in the campaign. I’ll remember that. But it’s hard to know how to handle it, particularly as a woman. It’s just hard. I keep thinking how I would have done it differently.”

It may be the only interview Buono gives Hardball, but it won’t be the last time she is interrupted or questioned or cast as a hopeless, forgotten cause.

The characterization is frequent, and not for reasons all that wrong. Recent poll numbers show Buono trailing the governor by what counts, in a state with two Democratic U.S. Senators, as an astonishing 32 percent spread. (Christie may be popular, but New Jersey has been and still is a blue state: Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the state legislature; voters haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972; and the state was one of just four in which Obama did better in his second presidential campaign than in his first.)

And even though Buono, 59, has been a fixture in the legislature since 1994, serving recently as the first woman majority leader in the state Senate, the number-two spot, she is all but unknown inside the state — forget outside. In Trenton, she has been a vocal and spirited Democratic voice, a progressive contrast to Christie’s first term, pushing issues like marriage equality, education funding, gun control, and environmental protection. But for five straight months, more than three-quarters of voters have said they don’t know enough about Buono to form an opinion one way or the other, though she has steadily chipped away at that figure by one or two points each month. It doesn’t help that she represents Middlesex County, a political bellwether smack in the center of the state, and a tough place to get yourself known, unlike the political hotbeds in the North and South.

“Outside of central Jersey, I’m not well known,” she said, sipping hot tea during an interview at the Broadway Diner in Hudson County. “The gap in the polls between Christie and myself is a direct function of the name identification.”

But how many times can one person answer the same question — No, but, do you actually think you can beat Chris Christie? Actually? Buono got it twice in one interview on another MSNBC show, Now with Alex Wagner, the week before her appearance with Matthews. Her response was simple, and pointed: “Can I beat Chris Christie? I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I could.”

For Buono, the campaign is no light matter. She said she’s done defending the seriousness of her candidacy — which appears, by most measures, to be very serious. (She is collecting the early backing of constituency groups and unions across the state; she is staffed up, with several operatives fresh from Obamaland; she has an operational campaign office in the old Rutgers Bookstore in New Brunswick; and she is risking her state Senate seat, which she has held for more than 10 years now, to run this race.)

“I’m not answering those questions anymore, just so you know. I’ve just decided time’s up on that one,” Buono said. “I think I’ve answered it enough times.”

“You’re probably gonna say I shouldn’t say this,” said Buono, turning to an aide in the diner booth. “But I mean, as a woman, I think I’ve been underestimated my entire life. And so you get used to it, and you just forge ahead and you just have to have a lot of faith in your ability to do the job, and that’s the reason I am where I am now.”

Cory Booker, the famous, telegenic mayor of Newark who was considering a bid for governor himself, has now become Buono’s biggest surrogate inside and outside the state, by virtue of one public appearance, a campaign email, a fundraising conference call, and tweets about the senator from his well-followed account. Booker, who has a close relationship with Christie, is making the rounds for Buono, with whom he has also become friendly. (“They text!” an aide offered.)

“People will make a serious mistake by underestimating Barbara Buono,” Booker said. Asked if gender has played a role in the response to her campaign, the mayor said, “I think we live in a world that has a long way to go before we see gender equality. That’s a reality that Senator Buono is going to deal with.”

But Booker doesn’t buy the suggestion that gender is moving the dial one way or the other in the Buono-Christie race.

“I don’t think that her gap in the polls right now has anything to do with gender issues,” he said, adding that any candidate running against the incumbent governor would have “come out the block” with a polling deficit.

And those who know Buono well say that, regardless of the odds stacked against her, the state lawmaker has never been afraid to stare down a gap in the polls or play the lone soldier within her own party.

“Barbara’s always been a bit of a maverick,” said Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale, who has known his colleague in the legislature for more than 20 years. “She always expresses her views and speaks her mind, but thoughtfully — she’s not just glib, and she won’t say something just to score points.”

In a well-documented scrap with with Democratic leaders last year, she refused to vote for a pension and benefits plan supported by Senate president Steve Sweeney, a position that ultimately cost Buono her post as majority leader. During Christie’s first year in office, she called a meeting for state progressives — not just lawmakers, but environmentalists and labor unions and college students — to talk about the direction of the state, in the basement of Tumulty’s Pub in New Brunswick, where a hundred people ended up coming. The meeting, said Buono, was “clarion call” to consider a possible campaign for governor.

Buono said she doesn’t have much of a relationship with the governor. The senator chalked it up to an early disagreement over Christie’s declaration of a “fiscal state of emergency” in 2010, an executive order that allowed him to make broad cuts to resolve a $2.2 billion deficit. Buono claimed publicly at the time that the budget move was “akin to imposing martial law.”

“He declared a fiscal state of emergency, and the first place he went to cut was public education, and I called him out on it,” said Buono. “And he didn’t like it. He doesn’t take well to criticism.”

It was because her willingness to issue a challenge, said Vitale, that Buono emerged as the unopposed Democratic candidate, skirting a primary altogether. “She’s the only one that would step up within the party to make this challenge — all the others couldn’t or wouldn’t for whatever reason, god bless,” he said.

Still: That the presumptive nominee is so easily dismissed as a “Dawn Quixote” candidate is a fact that not only frustrates the Buono campaign, but depresses state Democrats who aren’t quite willing to throw in the towel on the race. Some question privately whether New Jersey is getting the same support and attention from the national party apparatus as this year’s gubernatorial contest in Virginia, where polls are tighter between the longtime Clinton aide, Terry McAuliffe, and the state’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.

One New Jersey Democratic official suggested that the any potential to curb the political rise of Christie, whose name is floated for the next presidential race as much as any Republican’s, should be reason enough to put more national Democratic muscle behind the Buono campaign effort.

“Why wouldn’t national party leaders want to use this race as ground zero and cut this off before it gets started,” said the state official, of Christie’s growing national platform. “He wants to carry the state by at least 55 percent or better, and if he performs like that in November, the sky is the limit for him.”

The Democratic Governors Association, the main body charged with fundraising for and electing blue heads of state, has been visible in both races, sending daily messages over email and social media to supporters about New Jersey and Virginia. But in the months closer to Election Day, when the group places its first television ad buys, it’s all but inevitable that Virginia will get more money than New Jersey, according to a Democratic strategist with ties to the DGA.

“It’s clear that the ‘Christie comeback’ is a complete fantasy,” said the source, citing New Jersey’s unemployment rate, which has been stuck at or above nine percent since 2009. “But he was up 30 points three months ago, and he’s up 30 points now. With that in mind, it just makes sense to target a state like Virginia more aggressively when you’re up against a highly flawed candidate.”

(The scales may also tip toward Virginia, because getting on the air in New Jersey, a state that doesn’t have its own media market, is simply expensive. Campaigns have to purchase airtime by way of New York City and Philadelphia, both more costly markets than Virginia.)

But in an interview earlier this month, the chair of the DGA, Vermont’s Gov. Peter Shumlin, said the group’s efforts were being split down the middle.

“We’re making equal efforts in New Jersey and Virginia,” he said. “No question that you can read the polls as well as we can. We know right now that if the election were held today, we’ve got a better chance of winning Virginia than New Jersey, but we think that could change.”

Buono and her aides say they have no complaints about the level of national support they’ve received so far, and they’re in the process of courting more. The state senator had former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland on a fundraising call last week, and she met earlier this month with another former governor, Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell, who told her she had his support. “I came in, and he said, ‘You don’t have to sell yourself, I like you, I think you can do it, I want to help,’” Buono said of their meeting. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is nice.’”

EMILY’s List, the Washington-based group that recruits and works to elect pro-choice women, gave the campaign its endorsement early — in late February — to help combat the widespread sense that Christie was “unbeatable,” said Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president.

“I think she will get more national support. We got in early because we knew that there was going to be this view that he was unbeatable,” said Schriock. “We knew if we could start laying some groundwork, that it would open up the door for other national organizations to get it, and I think that’s going to happen.”

The group says it has spent the last two months promoting Buono and educating supporters about Christie’s record on women’s health. On multiple occasions, EMILY’s List has appealed to members online to donate directly to Buono’s campaign, though the group did not provide information as to how much money its directed to the race. Buono, for her part, said the organization has been “enormously supportive” with the “formidable resources that they bring to bear.”

Cory Booker — another substantial wing of Buono’s national-level support — has vowed to spend the year “crisscrossing the state” for her candidacy. In an interview Thursday, Booker said he couldn’t understand “how people think this is gonna be a blowout. We haven’t seen that in New Jersey in decades. It’s just not gonna be the case.”

“The national support is going to come. That doesn’t worry me right now,” said Booker. “She’s already raising money from outside the state.”

But Buono, who has opted to participate in the state’s matching funds program, has raised just under $700,000 since December, and is expected to fall short of the state’s maximum matching benchmark — a first for any Democratic nominee. It’s a sign of the factions in the state party that have splintered around Buono, ever since it became evident at the end of January that she would become the prime candidate, whether Democrats in the state liked it or not.

The Essex County boss, Joe DiVincenzo, is one big-name Democrat who has refused to endorse Buono, and was instead seen palling around and posing for photos with his friend Christie earlier this month at the Turtle Back Zoo sea lion exhibit.

And while Buono’s name recognition is slowly increasing across the state, it’s implausible she’ll cross the threshold into Chris Christie territory. One of her biggest news days on the campaign trail came on the heels of a minor car crash, with Buono in the backseat, when a campaign statement disclosed — in a subordinate clause, tucked between two commas — that the candidate hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt. Buono hasn’t seen too much ink since then.

The plan, then, for the six months is to get Buono “in front of as many people as possible,” said her campaign manager, Jonathan Ducote.

“When they see her, they come to her, and they come to her fast, and they stay,” Ducote said. “We need as many advocates as we can find, day in and day out, to help us talk about her vision and message.”

As unlikely as her chances seem, six months out from Tuesday, Nov. 5, Buono doesn’t seem worried by the slow-moving name-ID numbers, by the still wide gap in the polls. She doesn’t seem weary, and she doesn’t seem shaken by the knocks against her campaign — “If I focused on all the chatter,” she says, “I wouldn’t be able to do my job” — but it’s hard to know.

At a campaign event outside Bayonne High School last Tuesday — where Buono is set to receive an endorsement from the New Jersey Environmental Federation, a group that favored Christie over Corzine in 2009 — a cold drizzle comes down over three campaign staffers, twelve reporters, three television cameras, three environmentalist and one candidate.

Buono stands alongside NJEF members who sing her green praises as the rain comes down cold and heavy in front of the school — “The Home Of The Fighting Bees” — chosen as the press conference site for its solar panel roof installation.

The senator, speaking last, cuts her remarks short because of the rain. “I can see everybody’s being food soldiers here,” says Buono. “You’re shivering. I’m gonna be very quick.” But she doesn’t leave the podium before mentioning Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — “my friend!” — for showing that green jobs do benefit the economy. “It can be done,” says Buono.

When the event is over, the crowd thins, the press packs up their gear, the senator is ushered under a green umbrella, and an attending state official can be heard telling a staffer, “I know, man. It’s not easy.”

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