A Revealing and Exclusive Interview with Barbara Buono









She is faced with limited name recognition and hears every would-be pundit with a blog telling her that she has no chance defeating New Jersey’s popular incumbent governor.

And? So what?

Unwavering perseverance is the essence of New Jersey’s vibrant and very determined Democratic State Senator, Barbara Buono, who has the herculean task of convincing voters why Christie doesn’t deserve reelection. New Jersey’s brash and forceful governor may wear his “Jersey Guy” image more often than that oversized fleece during the Superstorm Sandy. Buono, who also has deep Jersey roots, may want to call herself a “Jersey Gal.”

But Governor Christie, now the Patron Saint of Hurricanes, was at one time a mere mortal faced with daunting challenges. In 2009, then candidate Christie lacked the personal fortune and vast war chest of Democratic Governor Corzine and of his star endorsements, including President Obama, who appeared with Corzine at a major rally in the summer of 2009. So crazier things are known to happen – especially when a politician can be brought down in an age of instant media. Although Christie may seem untouchable on the surface, he has vulnerabilities, too. Moreover, vulnerabilities that Buono will have to pounce on like a Samoan Sumo.

In an effort to get to know the Democratic opponent who many say is committing suicide by running against Christie, I spoke with State senator Buono over the phone. Senator Buono spoke with great vigor about her plans to address some of the state’s more pressing woes, her personal background, unique ties to New Jersey and its middle class, and if she prefers Bon Jovi’s music to Bruce Springsteen. You know, the real hardball question that most Jersey voters may want to know.

MH: I think it’s pretty safe to assume that batsh*t crazy is the new moderately intelligent in the GOP. It seems that in order to get any financial assistance or representation, one has to hang out on street corner holding up a sign that reads “former fetus”. It really has just been a nasty assault on women and reproductive rights. I always thought they were against big government, but now it seems they’re against “big uterus”. Although Gov. Christie hasn’t come close to mirroring some of the more brazen statements and attacks on women like Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, he hasn’t been great, either. For example he’s vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood. But yet according to a Quinnipiac poll released in April, Christie had roughly 66 percent of support among women voters.

SENATOR BUONO: I don’t know about that particular poll, but some of the polls I’ve looked at consistently show that people don’t know that he’s anti-choice or anti marriage equality. So part of our task is to make sure that voters are informed about the reality of this governor’s record and actually how far to the right he is on social issues.

MH: Well that’s a nice transition into my follow-up question. I think with Christie it’s more about style than policy and the Republican mantra of “do as I say, not as I do”. That said, I just don’t think a lot of female voters are familiar with his record. So is this something that you plan on confronting Christie with in the debates, assuming he agrees to them?

SENATOR BUONO: These issues are very important to me and New Jerseysians. New Jersey is overwhelmingly pro-choice and pro marriage equality, and I think it’s important that people are informed as to this guy’s real record. The facts are the facts. We just need to make sure that people know what they are.

MH: Ever since the economic meltdown of 2008, it seems that the GOP has relentlessly scapegoated the middle class for the criminal mistakes of Wall Street. Would you agree that Christie has exploited the almost sibling rivalry that exists between public and private sector workers in order to garner national attention?

SENATOR BUONO: I don’t know about a sibling rivalry, but what he has done–and this is his MO–he pits people against one another. That is, public worker against private worker, parent against teacher, He scapegoats, vilifies, and demonizes and does turn people against one another. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not leadership.

He also really misrepresented the School Funding Reform Act during the campaign and afterwards he kept talking about Abbot Districts and again–the urban versus suburban - he really sought to exploit that and create a rift. And he said that all the money was going to the urban districts and the Abbot districts when the fact is the reform did away with the Abbot designation. We found that more than 40 percent of at-risk kids, or ones that would require more support to receive a quality education, didn’t live in the 31 Abbot districts anymore. So Christie’s talking about sending all the money to all the Abbot districts because it’s something that generates controversy and, worse than a rivalry, pits people against one another in order to achieve his own ends.

MH: Well, New Jersey does have a notorious history of spending money like NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones in a strip club. But I sort of think Christie could’ve addressed this better than say going full blown Tony Soprano meets Ralph Kramden on public employees. Governor Christie is about as subtle as a chainsaw, but I do think he cleverly shifted the burden on teachers who aren’t exactly living the life of a Kardashian. For example, I just wrote an article on how many of them all pay out of pocket for their supplies, which is something that always seems to go unnoticed in these debates. So what is your plan to address the woes of the middle class and the state’s most pressing economic concerns and chief complaints? I just read an article that ranked New Jersey like 42nd in one of ten or more states to do business in, so obviously the state hasn’t gotten more business-friendly under Christie.

SENATOR BUONO: Yes, 42nd in one of ten or more states to do business in. We have the highest unemployment in the region and one of the lowest rates of growth nationally, so whatever he’s doing, it isn’t working.

MH: Right. So I was wondering what you intended to do. I was reading some of your ideas on improving the economy and jobs situation. So, do you mind elaborating more on some of those ideas?

SENATOR BUONO: At its core, my plan builds up the middle class. We have to go back to what we know works, and that is investing in a skilled, educated workforce and make sure that they have the resources they need in order to succeed. And that includes ensuring that our kids from K-12 get the STEM (Science, Engineering and Math) curriculum that will prepare them for the jobs that are in demand. Some of them will require post-secondary education but not all of them will. So we have to make sure we invest in our community colleges and vocational schools as an affordable way to ensure that people get the training for those good paying jobs, like the tech jobs. You look to other states and they have done it. What my bill did was it invested in existing economic development authority, with the power to facilitate those partnerships by creating this web portal to act as a clearinghouse to partner colleges and universities interested in a kind of research with the appropriate private industry. This is something that needs to be done in New Jersey. For example, the governor of Arkansas was telling me that they have done something like this a few years ago and how successful it was.

MH: I’m sorry, so you’re saying that Arkansas is kicking Jersey’s butt?

SENATOR BUONO: (Laughter) Well, we should be doing this in New Jersey but the Governor vetoed it and many similar job bills.

MH: You support raising the minimum wage. Do you think that’s something that’s good for small business?

SENATOR BUONO: It’s good for the economy. A Nobel Prize winning laureate sustained the proportion that when you increase the minimum wage, people in turn have more money to spend since most people living on minimum wage can’t afford to be saving. People are working but barely have enough to subsist in one of the states with the highest cost of living in the nation, so they have to rely on food stamps.

MH: I think that Republicans secretly love food stamps. Look at companies like Wal-Mart, for example. Wal-Mart now receives between 25 and 40 percent of all food stamp spending. It’s really a low-cost orgy of irony since the whole reason workers go on them in the first place is because the retail giant doesn’t pay them a living wage. And Republicans support that scenario, including Christie who vetoed the bill that sought to raise the minimum wage.

SENATOR BUONO: I feel very strongly about those programs. Even though the Republican mantra is to slam the social safety net and that it creates a dependency, I’m living proof that doesn’t happen. When I was between college and law school, I had to rely on food stamps when I couldn’t find a job. It freed me up by being able to take the risks and achieve my version of the American dream, and I did it by going to law school.

MH: The state trusts you on social issues. New York, Maryland and Delaware all have legalized same-sex marriage, meaning that New Jersey is the lone bigot amid a sandwich of tolerance. How can Christie say we’re the garden state when he treats fruit so badly. But seriously, this no longer an untouchable, third-rail issue; this is now very mainstream. You obviously have embraced it. In fact, I read that wonderfully written op-ed by your openly gay daughter and I think at this point it’s no longer “Oh, it’s just the goofy, wacky gay neighbor in sitcoms”. Basically, I think we all have a close relative that’s gay and this really is a civil rights issue. And it’s really not cool to have people vote on civil rights, which is what Governor Christie wants to do with gay marriage.

SENATOR BUONO: I think New Jerseyians have to ask themselves why this governor has this campaign of intimidation against Republicans in the state senate who want to vote to override his veto, but Christie’s holding them back. But then there are those who say, “Why don’t we just wait until after the election?” And just think of where we would be in our country if we only voted to support civil rights when it was politically expedient. We probably wouldn’t have any civil rights.

MH: My next question is on property taxes. It’s one of those issues that remind me of Mark Twain’s wry observation about the weather when he said “everybody talks about it but does nothing about it.” A new report showed property taxes hitting an all-time high. For example, For example, last year the state’s average property tax bill grew by $7885 and the net property tax burden is up 18.7 percent since Christie took office in 2009.

SENATOR BUONO: More than 18 percent in his first 3 years of office has to be some sort of a record. Candidate Chris Christie promised that he wouldn’t cut property tax rebates, but he came in and he decimated property tax rebates that are vital relief for most people. He actually misled people and tried to cover it up. For instance, in the last budget that we just came out of he said that he was ‘delaying property tax relief’. But he didn’t delay property tax relief to the tune of more than $440 million; he skipped a year even if he said he was delaying it. So not only did he decimate property tax rebates, he also skipped a payment and misled people into thinking that they were being delayed for another fiscal year. Essentially, he skipped them for a year.

MH: Now is this just an issue that both Republicans and Democrats just can’t do anything about? I feel like how NYC had the “rent too damn high” mayoral candidate, New Jersey should have a “property taxes too damn high” candidate. So what are your plans to alleviate property taxes.

SENATOR BUONO: I think it takes leadership and courage. Back in 2008, I showed courage when I was the budget chair when I broke party ranks and, after reading the Murphy report on public employees benefits and pension, was one of the first people to reveal that it we did nothing, that they were just going to collapse under the weight of their own debt. I led the charge and actually had unions picketing my legislature.

MH: I read about that. Wasn’t that the time where then Governor Corzine was pandering to them outside?

SENATOR BUONO: Yes. So I showed real leadership and that I’m willing to do what’s right and not what’s politically expedient. On property taxes, people need immediate relief. We need to reinstate the property tax rebates that the governor cut. Secondly, we need to fully fund our public schools according to the Public School Reform Act that actually was starting to tack down property taxes. When the governor cut education by a billion dollars, it forced to taxpayers to make up the difference, because property taxes are inextricably linked to funding our public schools. And reform since there’s no silver bullet or we would’ve found it by now. I also believe in consolidation, which was up for a ballot vote and people supported it. We really should help towns devise a cost-benefit analysis.

MH: And you really do have political courage because if you don’t win, isn’t this it for you?

SENATOR BUONO: Yeah wait, what happens (laughter)

MH: A reality show I don’t know about? Is that the plan? Well as long as I can make a cameo in it.

SENATOR BUONO: (laughter)

MH: Now, last question—and this is a real tricky, hardball one too. In fact, this may be more polarizing than Roe V Wade. Are you pro-Springsteen or pro-Bon Jovi? Which of the two do you like more?

SENATOR BUONO: (laughter) Bon Jovi. I like them both musically. But Bon Jovi is definitely my preference.

MH: Okay. You definitely are a strong, independent-minded leader since you made the tough decision and didn’t just take the safe “I like them both”. Thanks for speaking with me and best of luck.


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Michael Hayne is a comedian/VO artist/Columnist. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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commented 2013-12-21 13:41:23 -0800
Thank you