An un-Christie for 2013?

State Sen. Barbara Buono says there's "almost a visceral reaction" to Christie.
State Sen. Barbara Buono says there's "almost a visceral reaction" to Christie.

While governor's ratings are high, Democrat sees an opening with women.

Posted: April 29, 2012

Democrats who believe they should be governor of New Jersey are banking their donors' dollars in the hope that eight years is far too much Chris Christie for the Garden State.

The Republican governor's approval ratings are still stellar, but voters are also increasingly telling pollsters that he's "arrogant." Will there be a tipping point? Will Christie yell at one constituent too many? Will he belittle one legislator too many? Will he deliver one knockout punch too many at a news conference?

If so (and if Christie doesn't end up in Washington, working in a Romney administration), there's a stable of potential Democratic candidates rumored to be considering a run against him next year. Among those, one stands out not for name recognition or access to deep-pocketed political power brokers, but for contrast.

Barbara Buono is as much an anti-Christie as you can get.

The Middlesex County state senator contrasts with Christie's larger-than-life personality - and conservative politics - more than any other potential challenger.

Buono is a 58-year-old mother of four and stepmother of two with a law degree and a congenial personality. She voted against Christie's health and pension benefit plan last year, bucking most of her party leaders and staking out a decidedly more liberal, pro-union stance.

Unlike another possible gubernatorial candidate who voted against the bill - party chairman and Assemblyman John Wisniewski - Buono's the only female among the would-be Christie replacements. As such she's in a niche that touches squarely on Christie's statistical weakness: female voters.

In the latest Monmouth University poll, Christie's disapproval rating rose from 28 percent among men to 42 percent among women.

"The women that I talk to - there's almost a visceral reaction to this governor," Buono said in an interview. Citing Christie's elimination of $7.5 million in the annual budget for family planning clinics, she said there's a "war on women" nationally and in New Jersey.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that Buono was "pushing a false attack narrative" and that she'll always be remembered as part of the Democratic team "that nearly bankrupted our state."

Compared with Buono, others on the Democratic team may have a harder time drawing contrasts with Christie. National political superstar and Newark Mayor Cory Booker has aligned with Christie on education reform, and they rarely criticize each other publicly.

In the southern part of the state, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) is the majority leader and former chairman of the powerful budget committee. He is a regular foil of Christie's, and Greenwald sent out press releases last week challenging Christie to a debate over their competing tax-cut plans. Christie has yet to accept.

Asked twice on NJTV on Monday if he was running for governor, Greenwald said: "I am trying to be the best majority leader I can be."

That sounds like a definite maybe. But Greenwald is in the South Jersey Democratic camp, which has worked with Christie on key issues - particularly the most significant and controversial law Christie has signed: pension and health benefit cuts for public employees.

The Senate president, Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), delivered the votes on that bill and so carries the same baggage. He once cursed out Christie, but of late the governor has been showering Sweeney with praise on his leadership abilities, honesty, and tax-cut plan (more conservative than Greenwald's).

That relationship could be used against Sweeney in a Democratic primary.

Buono, though, has legitimate outsider cred when compared with what has been deemed the "uni-government" of Christie and Democratic "Christiecrats."

Last year she was booted out of the Senate leadership - where she was second-in-command to Sweeney - after voting against the pension and health benefits bill.

Of course, elections mean money, and her fraught relations with some Democratic leaders could make fund-raising tough, even if public unions help her out.

A potential candidate, Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex), has fund-raising chops and wide name recognition for having served as governor after Jim McGreevey resigned. He also may be even farther outside the Democratic inner circle than Buono, since his political nemesis is powerful Democratic leader George E. Norcross III (who is part-owner of The Inquirer).

Codey remains popular, and has shown he can spar with Christie, but if New Jerseyans want change, a former governor who has been in the Legislature since 1974 wouldn't necessarily offer a stark alternative.

That leaves Buono, who says she is "seriously considering" entering the June 2013 gubernatorial primary.

So far, Christie has rarely attacked her by name, which could indicate he either believes she's irrelevant or a formidable opponent whom he doesn't want to legitimize.

"Physically, they see that I'm a woman, I'm petite," said Buono, who jogs every day.

But don't be "misled," she warns: "I grew up as a tomboy, and I've never been afraid to stand up to arrogant bullies."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217- 8355, mkatz@phillynews.com,

or follow @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly. com/christiechronicles.

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