Remember Baroni’s surprise debate with Dan Benson?

Bill Baroni has been involved in New Jersey politics since he was a teenager, working on U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith’s 1986 re-election campaign.  He was Chuck Haytaian’s driver in the 1994 U.S. Senate race and worked as an advanceman for Steve Forbes’ 1996 bid for the GOP presidential nomination.  In 1999, at age 28, he lost a bid for Hamilton Township Council – his only electoral defeat – and spent 2000 as a top strategist for Bob Franks’ U.S. Senate campaign, where he became the resident expert on Jon Corzine and Goldman Sachs.  He joined a nationally prominent law firm, and argued the Republican side in a 2002 New Jersey Supreme Court case after Democrats sought to replace Robert Torricelli as their U.S. Senate candidate with Frank Lautenberg.  Later, he became a Law Professor at Seton Hall University.

In 2003, Baroni launched a bid for State Assembly in the politically competitive fourteenth district.  He knocked on nearly 10,000 doors and unseated two-term incumbent Gary Guear by a massive 5,733 vote landslide.  In Hamilton, also Guer’s hometown, Baroni won by 6,426 votes.  That campaign – the only one to oust a Democratic incumbent that year — was managed by Bill Stepien, who managed Christopher Christie’s campaign for governor last year and is now Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff.  His consultant was Michael DuHaime, who played the same role for Christie for Governor.

Baroni won re-election in 2005 by 7,327 votes over then-Hamilton Council President (now Mercer County Freeholder) Dan Benson.  Benson’s October State House news conference, meant to attack Baroni on property taxes, turned into a surprise debate when Baroni showed up to answer the attack. Baroni questioned Benson in his own property tax record as a Hamilton Township Councilman. One Assembly Democratic staffer was heard in the hallways saying “we’ve got to get him (Benson) out of here.” Soon after, a seemingly flustered Benson (that description came from a Democrat in the room) left his own press conference, leaving Baroni alone standing alone at the podium — the apparent winner of the impromptu debate. 

When Republican Peter Inverso announced in 2007 that he would not seek re-election to sixth term in the Senate, Baroni moved quickly to lock up key labor endorsements that scared Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein out of the race.  In the general election, he beat Seema Singh, a former state Ratepayer Advocate, by a 62%-38% margin in a publicly financed race where individual contributions were capped at $10.

For Republicans, Baroni is something of an enigma: pro-life and pro-labor.  He dominated labor endorsements in 2005 and 2007, but also won backing from business groups. He was one of a small group of New Jersey Republicans to work for John McCain in the 2000 presidential race, and chaired McCain’s state campaign in 2009. He is a prominent behind-the-scenes player in GOP politics: Christie picked Baroni to play Corzine in his debate preparations; Baroni also played Corzine in Franks’ 2000 debate preparation, and played U.S. Senator Robert Menendez when Republican Tom Kean was preparing for his 2006 debate.