Barbara Buono. (Wikimedia Commons)
State Senator Barbara Buono may be the only New Jersey Dem with the cojones to run for governor against the formidably popular Chris Christie, but she gets no respect from the media. And given the electoral chaos Christie’s whipped up with a $24 million special election to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, she’ll probably be getting even less.
Buono, 59, a progressive who was the first woman majority leader in the state senate, is underfunded and thirty points down in the polls. And so for months, the national media have tended to bring up her name only to joke about how little they bring it up. When Politico’s Maggie Haberman said on The Daily Rundown, “Barbara Buono is barely registering in the polls right now against [Christie],” the substitute host Chris Cillizza cackled, “Barbara Buono thanks you for mentioning her on national television.”
The Beltway media have been so enthralled with Christie since he embraced Obama and barked at Fox News after Hurricane Sandy that they seem to wonder why Buono even bothers to challenge him when powerful players, like Newark mayor Cory Booker and state Senate president Stephen Sweeney, backed down. An emblematic interview came in April when Chris Matthews interrupted Buono fourteen times, mostly to ask about Christie, as the chyron at the bottom of the screen read “DAWN QUIXOTE.”
Still, you might think she would have gained some traction after Christie, angering both Republicans and Democrats, called for a special Senate election in October, just twenty days before he and Buono face off in the general on November 5. He could have simply merged the two elections and saved $24 million in taxpayer money—but that would put popular Cory Booker, the likely Democratic nominee, at the top of the November ballot and increase Democratic and African-American turnout, helping Buono and a whole legislature’s worth of down-ballot Democrats. Christie’s calendar so reeks of voter suppression—coming just weeks after he vetoed a bill to allow early voting, complaining of the $25 million price-tag—that you might think it would create a groundswell for a Christie-slayer.
In fact, just the opposite is happening. Right after doing a superb takedown of Christie’s special-election hypocrisy last week, Jon Stewart turned the punch-line on Buono:
The idea was to make Christie seem all the more absurd: You, tough guy, you’re afraid of this little lady? This lady who’s so low on the Jersey totem pole that to get name recognition she has to compare herself to a pop-culture clown like Sonny Bono? Stewart only has to make one of his I-can’t-believe-this-idiocy faces and the audience razzes her on cue. (Shades of Stewart bullying former CNN host Rick Sanchez for being uncool.)
Of course, if you watch Buono’s ad in full, you get a different message:
By equating herself with Cuomo, she suggests (as she details in other ads and her website) that the New York governor and she are in sync, while he and Christie are miles apart—on vital regional issues like climate change and transportation (she supported building the ARC tunnel and the thousands of jobs it would have created, while Christie made it the signature act of his first term to kill the project), as well as abortion rights, gun control, education funding, a minimum wage increase, a millionaire’s tax and marriage equality.
All good liberal issues, in line with the majority of voters in New Jersey, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000—and all good reasons for Christie to lose. But the media know he won’t, so all that disappears in wide-eyed amazement at Christie’s cojones.
He’s a showman who’s always given the media the good YouTube they want: melodrama, blood feuds, unhinged bullying and a sense, as long as they don’t dig too deep, of “bipartisanship.” As Star Ledger columnist Tom Moran writes, “National pundits who have obviously never been to New Jersey proclaim he has created a new heaven on earth where everyone works together under his wise leadership.”
And now, Moran adds, Christie’s timetable ensures that the media will ignore Buono even more. In the Senate primary in August, Democrat Booker and rival candidates Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and US Congressmen Rush Holt and Frank Pallone
will be competing, all scooping up money from liberal donors that might have gone to Buono. They will buy TV ads, argue in debates and shake hands at train stations. And that clatter will make it even harder for Buono to send a clear message through the din.
To be fair, it’s not just the media that heart Christie. Democrats in and out of the Jersey statehouse do, too. Major Democratic donors are “flocking” to him, and, beholden and/or fearful of him, many of Jersey’s establishment Dems have sided with Christie against Buono’s pro-union politics. Others are only nominally supporting her. Today, powerbroker Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo outright endorsed him. (See them literally holding hands here.)
Still, Buono’s not as alone as it may seem. Saying the special election’s October date will suppress voter turnout in November’s gubernatorial election, Somerset County Democratic Party Chairwoman Peg Schaffer’s law firm filed suit to move it to November 5. And as John Nichols details, State Senator Shirley Turner is calling Christie’s bluff by introducing legislation to move the entire November election to October. UPDATE: A coalition of watchdog groups is now also trying to block the October election.
As for Cory Booker, who has campaigned with Buono, he admits he won’t be up in his good friend Chris Christie’s face over his very special election. After formally announcing his Senate run on Saturday, Booker told reporters that as a mayor he “obviously would have preferred” not to spend the money on an extra election, but that he doesn’t intend to do anything about it.
Ari Berman writes about John Lewis's long fight for voting rights.