TRENTON - Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), the first prominent Democrat to enter New Jersey's 2013 governor's race, offers obvious contrasts to the Republican governor she wants to challenge in November.
"New Jersey is hurting," Buono said Friday, three days after she announced in an e-mail she would seek to challenge Gov. Christie, whose popularity and job approval numbers hit record highs after Hurricane Sandy hit the state in late October.
Buono, 59, who has earned credibility with progressives for supporting gay marriage and won points with public-sector unions by arguing that changes to health-care plans should be collectively bargained rather than legislated, seems eager to point out differences with Christie and uninterested in parsing phrases.
The state economy shrank last year while those in bordering states grew, said Buono, the first woman to chair the Senate Budget Committee. Unemployment remains higher than in surrounding states and above the national average. New Jersey ranks 47th in economic growth. Property taxes are still the highest in the country, averaging nearly $7,800 last year, even after Christie enacted a 2 percent cap.
"The middle class and the poor - the governor has turned a deaf ear to them," she said.
Republicans responded as expected.
"I think Barbara represents all the failed tax-and-spend policies of the McGreevey and Corzine era," Christie political strategist Michael DuHaime said. "She has voted for $5.5 billion in tax and fee increases over the years."
Buono, who isn't well-known outside Middlesex County, must give up the Senate seat she's held for 12 years to run for governor because both races are in November and the law bars candidates from campaigning simultaneously for two elected offices. After having been replaced as Senate majority leader for bucking Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) too often, she's philosophical about the choice: The chief executive gets a far greater say in shaping the state's economic and social policies, and she wants in.
Buono grew up in a second-floor apartment in Nutley. Her parents were working-class poor, she said, so the family often had to make do. Once, she said she and a girlfriend shared a pair of roller skates, each lacing up one skate and gliding down the street together, because Buono's parents couldn't afford to buy her a pair.
Buono said Christie had "made some pivotal errors" that had hurt New Jersey's economy in his first three years. For example, she said his decision to cancel construction on a multibillion-dollar rail tunnel into Manhattan squandered a $3 billion federal investment in the project and hundreds if not thousands of construction jobs, while derailing a much-needed mass-transit improvement. Christie said the rail tunnel had the potential to go billions over budget, leaving New Jerseyans on the hook.
Buono said she also disagreed with the governor's decision to pull New Jersey out of the multistate greenhouse gas reduction pact known as RGGI. Buono said the state lost thousands of green jobs because of the governor's action; he said the pact was flawed and ineffective.
Recent public opinion polls have shown Christie handily beating every potential Democratic candidate, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who could announce this week whether he will enter the race. But even Christie acknowledged that his job approval ratings, which one measure had at 72 percent after Sandy, were bound to drop as the race unfolds. Christie said he was seeking another term partially for the chance to oversee storm recovery, which he said wouldn't be finished by November.