EDISON – The sight of Gov. Jon Corzine and state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) conferring at the front of the room, by turns smiling and serious with flashbulbs popping, conjuredimages of some future press conference – not too long from now – in which the governor unveils Buono as his running mate.
It’s a gubernatorial election year and she’s on his short list, after all, as a seven-year senate veteran with organizational ties to South Jersey, who last year landed the chairmanship of the powerful Budget Committee in a state where women outvoted men in last year’s presidential election: 54 to 46% and where Catholics make up 48% of voters.
“I would definitely consider it,” said Buono, who lives in Metuchen, one of New Jersey's municipal donut holes, surrounded by the bigger and more politically potent Edison, making Buono no stranger to intra-party turf warfare in this Democratic county, whereRepublicansperennially threatento reawaken the suburban Reagan Repubican vote – and last year lost to Obama by a margin of 60.1 to 38.5%.
Ultimately backed bythen-Democratic Party boss John Lynch, she knocked off an incumbent Republican assemblyperson in 1993 in her first foray into Trenton politics, and is currently serving her third term as a senator.
"I think she's ideal for the position," state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) said of Buono in reference to the LG job. "She's articulate and well-respected, she's from Central Jersey and she has experience with budget issues."
With state unemployment close to 7% – lower than the national average, the governor noted, but unacceptable – Corzine joined Buono in the cafeteria here today at Middlesex County Community College for the street-level task of getting constituents acquainted with social services as part of Buono’s first Family Assistance Fair.
Amid stalls of private and public sector social workers and tables filled with state and county commissioners, including Department of Community Affairs Chief Joe Doria, and Deputy Chief of Staff for the Dept. of Health Carl Rathjen, the governor and senator briefly took turns at the podium in front of the crowd, each mutually singing the praises of the other, before turning to the issues.
“Gov. Corzine has made significant strides to increase the reach of these programs through expanding eligibility for the senior freeze, legal assistance and homeowner counseling,” said Buono, 55, an attorney who was born in Newark, grew up in Nutley, and volunteered for Legal Services while going to law school.
“Let me congratulate you,” Corzine told the 18th Legislative District audience. “Barbara has made sure there is a safety net that is there to help people in these troubled times.”
The programs are there for people – 72 weeks of unemployment benefits at $584 per week, jobs training and re-training, a $3,000 cash grant for anyone who creates a job, foreclosure moratorium extensions from 12 to 18 months, healthcare for every child, earned income tax credits, paid family leave, Corzine reminded the crowd.
“We have the programs,” Buono added. “Now we have to get people to use them.”
Incidentally, the governor said today in the lead-up to his March 10 budget address, “I’m not changing any of the programs with regard to property taxes seniors need to be able to stay in their homes. We’re not going to change the terms and conditions for seniors.”
There were some hand claps among the audience of about 150 people, mostly consisting of seniors.
Now the Republican frontrunner for governor, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, has repeatedly chastised Corzine and the Democrats for blaming New Jersey’s budget crisis on a global economic mess, and today Corzine seemed to again underscore the broader ranges of an economic crisis when he said, “We can’t turn the tide on the problems that exist around the globe, but we need to work together.”
Movement conservative Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota running second to Christie in GOP primary polls, meanwhile, calls for the detonation of Doria’s Department of Community Affairs, with some of those services placed under the purview of the Secretary of State’s Office.
Backing up the senator and the governor, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) told the crowd, “I know this man takes a hit in the paper all the time, but it’s better to be right than popular.”
When she lingered to talk to constituents later after the governor had departed, Buono was buried: Hispanic outreach workers, veterans, gadflies, seniors, local historians, local candidates for council, Section 8 workers, Catholic Charities AIDS outreach workers, hands, concerns, faces.
“I have a feeling were going to be having these fairs on a regular basis, said Buono. “It’s important that people are aware of the services that are out there, to put people together face-to-face when they feel they are approaching panic mode.”
Mobbed, Buono said to a follow-up question about lieutenant governor, “I feel lucky and fortunate to have the position I have now. I’m focused on these conditions right now.”
“People underestimate Barbara Buono, and this is an asset for her. She’s a sharp legislator and a good campaigner who originally ran as a reformer taking on the county organization,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
One potential statewide downside forthe senatorcould be her roots in the Middlesex County Democratic Party, whose longtime overlord was Sen. John Lynch before Christie busted him on mail fraud and tax evasion charges in 2006.
Eligible for parole in November of 2009, Lynch now sits out his term in a federal pen and remains one of Christie’s crowning knockdowns as U.S. Attorney. However, Dworkin doesn’t believe the association would work against Buono, who has a complicated, on-again, off-again history with her party in Middlesex.
“The corruption issue is out there for Chris Christie but the dominant issue is the budget and the economy,” said Dworkin. “Can some allegation be made or not made about someone who was friends with or politically connected to someone else? Perhaps. But in Barbara Buono’s case, this is a supremely qualified woman.”