Sources say the stark battle lines in the Middlesex County Democratic Party and her reluctance to starkly and publicly choose a side reveal state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono’s timeless political problem: her inability to radiate power out of her own district – let alone muster credibility as a statewide figure.
Buono has had to pretzel her way through this fight, for former Assemblyman Peter Barnes was her running mate, after all. Now he’s running for county party chairman against young upstart Kevin McCabe, a labor leader who has the backing of powerful Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac.
The vote is tomorrow night.
Sources say it would be easy enough for Buono to politely tell the 83-year Barnes that it’s time for a change, but there’s more trouble. Barnes’s son, Peter Jr., is now Buono’s running mate, making it, again, that much harder for the senator to commit to someone running against anyone named Barnes.
Buono first tried to stay out of it, then attempted to quietly support McCabe, then – this past week – inched into the sunlight with her support, making phone calls and lending her name to the McCabe effort, acording to sources.
An ally gave her credit, noting that as a resident of one of New Jersey’s doughnut holes, Metuchen, Buono has to be careful in the context of county politics. With no power base underfoot, she cannot easily go to war. Yet while she has generally tread cautiously in the overgrown thicket of Middlesex politics, her support for McCabe in recent days has been unmistakable, said two sources close to the process. Another source said that while the senator’s support among county committee people may not be as deep as Smith’s or McCormac’s, for example, she wields progressive strength outside the traditional auspices of the party structure.
Her backing of McCabe puts Buono in league with McCormac, state Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge), and Edison Mayor Toni Ricigliano. Those forces take heart in the combination of the county’s two biggest towns, while the opposition consisting of state Sen. Bob Smith, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Mayor Richard Pucci and Mayor Dan Reiman starts with the respective building blocks of Piscataway, Sayreville, Monroe and Carteret. And New Brunswick.