Barbara Buono: The Interview With Chris Christie’s Democratic Opponent

Between campaign stops yesterday, New Jersey state Sen. Barbara Buono graciously sat down for 14 minutes and 37 seconds to talk about her campaign—you know, the one so written off by national Democrats that they don’t even have a tracker on the likely-2016-candidate opponent she’s running against. We spoke right after Newark-area Sen. Ron Rice gave a rip-roaring speech about the shame of “black clergy and politicians” selling out to Christie. 

Dave Weigel: So you seemed to like Sen. Rice’s speech just now. I noticed that all the action in the room just stopped when he started in.

Barbara Buono: I really wasn’t listening. I tried to listen to a little bit of it—I didn’t want to be rude and talk to people, but you know I had to get around the room. Sen. Rice has been a huge supporter. He’s in it for the right reasons too. Ron and I share our approach to public service is that we’re in to serve the people and not any narrow or political or personal interest. Any narrow political or business interests of the political bosses. I mean, that’s why I got into politics in the first place—I just think that people deserve to have elected leaders who are looking out for them and standing up for their interests and not focus on what’s in the best interest of the political bosses. And I’ve ruffled some feathers along the way, but you know, I can’t change. I’ve talked to my kids about it—I say, you know, I can’t change—I can’t be that way. I’m never going to compromise my principles; I don’t believe that that’s what democracy is all about.

DW: What effect does it have on your campaign, though, when some of the bosses like Norcross align with Christie? The ones who mention they work with him—maybe they’re just trying to get re-elected. But do you see that depressing any of your turnout effort on Tuesday? That some of the county executives, the mayors, etc. are—

BB: Oh no no. Because I’m talking to the people. And the people of New Jersey are very savvy, very smart. And they’re going to make up their own decision on the issues. They’re going to make up their own mind based on the fact that there’s 400,000 people out of work, that the middle class has shrunk, that you know, people are living on a minimum wage that’s—it’s a starvation wage—and they can’t make ends meet, and they’re still living in poverty. Those are the people who are going to be going to the polls, that are paying attention to this governor’s failed economic policies, that have put New Jersey’s job growth in the bottom of the barrel. We should be leading the nation in economic growth. Those are the people I meet on the street and say, “You know, I can’t afford to put my kid through college anymore.” And you know, like Rutgers Law School—I put myself through Rutgers Law School; I couldn’t do it today. It’s over $40,000. Because at least one of the policies—and it is an overarching policy because education impacts the environment—he has disinvested in our institutions of higher learning. He’s cut funding, cut funding for our schools, even though he is disingenuous when he says it is the most school funding that we’ve ever had. It’s not true. 

If you look at the numbers, you will see that over 80 percent of our schools have less in-classroom aid than when this governor took office in 2010. You will also see that we have the highest unemployment every year he’s been in office in our entire region. He complained to his predecessor when he ran against him in 2009, that New Jersey has the highest unemployment in the region. Well, four years later we still do. I mean, the facts are the facts. He may not want to do the numbers, but if you do the numbers, we know that New Jersey has the highest poverty rate that we’ve had in 52 years, people are dropping like flies out of our middle class, the ranks of the poor and the working poor are growing, and this governor’s policies have left them behind. He’s just turned his back on them.

And he’s even said—in the Star-Ledger today—what’s your plan for next year? “My plan is to cut income tax across the board.” Which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. And to institute more charter schools and more private school vouchers. Well, we have a diametrically opposed view of how we improve our public education in New Jersey. I believe that having been a proud product of public schools in New Jersey, that you have to focus on building up our public schools. And we know how to do that: We expand universal preschool, that’s what my school funding reform act envisioned. And just imagine if we had followed the law; he came into office, he dismantled the school funding reform law. In that was a requirement that you would gradually expand universal preschool. He didn’t follow that. Could you imagine how many more students would be reading by the time they were in first grade or in kindergarten if he’d gone along with that? 

So we couldn’t be more diametrically opposed on so many issues. The challenge—the real challenge in this race—has been this governor’s scheduling a separate election for the United States Senate—it was 16 days before ours, it has sucked a lot of the air out of the political discourse—

DW: Beyond the air, materially, has it taken anything else—are there machines that are not revving up the way they usually do, or money that’s not being dispensed the way it usually is? How has it affected the people who you wanted to turn out?

BB: It’s confused people—I will tell you just anecdotally. I went to my poll on Oct. 16, and a lot of the poll takers were saying, “All these people are showing up the day before, on the 15th.” And that’s why three out of four voters didn’t show. I mean, that is bad for democracy. It’s not a true measure of the people—of the voices of people. And since that ended, we sense a real energy, a real interest, just from our calls to our headquarters, people wanting to volunteer, just in terms of online donations, and Booker you know obviously is getting more engaged in the campaign, that’s been very good as a validator, but people across the state—why do you think the polls have closed dramatically, to 18 points—we didn’t do anything. Well, we did go up on TV. We had to wait to go up on TV until after the airwaves were unclogged with the Senate. We went up on Oct. 15–Oct. 16, went up on the 17th, the day after—so we’re up there, people are getting to know—you know people recognize me on the street, they’re saying, “I like your message. Tell me more.” It’s a very confined amount of time. But I’m hopeful because the people of New Jersey traditionally don’t make up their minds until the last three weeks. So we’re running; we’re on a sprint. We’re going all over the place.

DW: I do remember when McGreevey almost beat Whitman, so that’s always in my mind; the last poll was 20 points.

BB: Was it really?

DW: Polling wasn’t as frequent or good back then. But the last poll was a Reuters poll, that had it at around 20, and it ended up being —

BB: When was that?

DW: Oct. 20 or so.

BB: Wow, interesting.   

DW: …That’s why I’m wondering how else has [the Senate race] affected it?

BB: I don’t think—I think they’ve underestimated the strength of the anger at this governor from some that feel he’s really just made them scapegoats. Like teachers. Like yesterday, teachers came up to him. 

DW: If Republicans got the state Senate and he was re-elected, what do you think he would do? Because he was making a big pitch at a couple of the events I’ve been to, saying, “If I win, it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t have the State Senate.”

BB: What that means is he’s going to continue on his quest to remake the Supreme Court in his own image. He broke with precedent and refused to reappoint the only African-American on the court. Not because he wasn’t credible, or intelligent or had integrity. And those are the only reasons why you shouldn’t renominate. But because, he said to the judge, he wanted to take the court in a different direction. And a lot of people don’t grasp the significance of the damage of undermining the independence and integrity of the court system, which has trickled down into other courts. I talked to other judges that don’t have tenure. They’re always looking over their shoulders. And the fact is, we had one of the most revered—our Supreme Court in New Jersey was viewed nationwide as one of the best because it was activist, but it had a lot of integrity, and it was just viewed—we were on a pedestal. Now, if this governor gets into office and he has the Senate majority, that’s the end of the Supreme Court such as it is. As it is now, assuming I win, and have a Senate majority, we can begin to turn back the clock on the damage that he’s wrought on the independence and impartiality of our Supreme Court. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m worried. Because this is a kind of damage that can last generations. If he stacks that court, just to reverse affordable-housing issues, education issues, issues affecting women’s health, there’s no telling where it will stop.

DW: The president’s only campaign trips all year were not in this state. He got involved with De Blasio, and he’s going to Virginia—and I think that’s about it. But did you ask for anything else from national Democrats?

BB: Yes, we did.

DW: And what was the rationale they would give you for not sending more help?

BB: Well, the president hasn’t come in. That’s all I will say. But we did have Gov. O’Malley come in twice. We’ve had Gov. Deval Patrick.

DW: Yes, O’Malley loves to contrast himself with Christie.

BB: Yeah, he said, “If you can’t govern, you sure as hell better be able to entertain.” And he was able to show what he’s done for education. He started talking about tuition going 14 percent higher to go to Rutgers in the four years this governor’s been in office (and that’s where I went). These kids that can go, they’re graduating under a mountain of debt. O’Malley shows it can be done if you have your priorities right. He froze tuitions at colleges and universities. It’s just about priorities. “Well, how’s she going to pay for it?” Well, I’ll tell you. My priorities will be starkly different than his, and it will be walking away—will not be giving $2.1 billion in tax credits to corporations. First of all, they didn’t even bring jobs into this state, a lot of them just kept jobs in the state or moved them a couple blocks. They didn’t create the quality and quantity of jobs we wanted. Just look at the numbers. New Jersey as a good place to do business dropped in rankings since Chris Christie was in office. We were at No. 30, now we’re at 44th?

DW: That doesn’t get a lot of attention, no. The literature I’ve seen when I was covering Christie was all about Corzine—it was all, “Don’t turn back the clock to this mess.” How would you govern differently than Gov. Corzine?

BB: I will continue my path of standing up for what I believe is—I will always stand up for what I believe is the best for the people, and not what’s politically expedient. John Corzine and I didn’t get—we have some pretty major disagreements. I was pushing pension reform; common-sense pension reform. Jon Corzine opposed it. I had some of the teachers unions picketing my office because—I said we have to save these pensions. I went and talked to these teachers. You think these pensions can’t go belly up—they can. There are so many abuses, and a lot of them were from politicians that work for 20 years and like a thousand-dollar-a-year part-time job, then the last three years get a $200,000 job and the pension is based on the $200,000 but not by the payments; the payments have been made on the $1,000 job.

So a lot of these major problems with the pension system have been caused by abuses which I tried to eliminate. Corzine didn’t support it. He wanted to push an early retirement plan, which would let people retire—it was ridiculous—in their early 50s, and then give them a sweetener to make it more beneficial because he just wanted to cut the state workforce. I said, “Absolutely not. This is just going to worsen the problem. This is going to destabilize the pension system even more.” So we disagreed on a lot of things.

So that’s all I can tell you. All I can tell you is how I will govern, and how I will govern is how I have been an elected official, and you know, I think it really just stems from how I was brought up. On my own since 19, drew from the social safety net. It didn’t drag me down, it lifted me up. I had food stamps. I relied on them. I went to Rutgers Law School with a national defense student loan. So my first obligation I believe as governor should be to ensure that everyone has those opportunities. And they’re just not there in New Jersey anymore. I will be the governor that stands up for the middle class, and for the working poor, and that doesn’t turn my back on them. My policies will bolster them, and my focus will not be on millionaires and those on top. And that’s who this governor’s focus is, maybe he thinks that’s where he gets his votes, I’m not quite sure. Maybe that’s just his philosophy of how things ought to be. But we couldn’t differ in a more stark contrast.