The odds were always going to be long and tall for any Democrat who dared challenge inimitable New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But for state Sen. Barbara Buono – the surprise presumptive nominee in waiting – just getting to this point seemed unlikely a few months ago.
Anticipating the herculean effort necessary to defeat Christie in November, party powerbrokers kept their fingers crossed for popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker and wooed outgoing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. Neither took the plunge. Then, two grizzled state senators also passed on the 2013 campaign.
That left the 59-year-old Buono – who has a history of clashing with the pooh-bahs in her own party – as the standard-bearer. Or as the political chattering class frequently dubs her, “overwhelming underdog.”
But Buono seems to relish her David versus Goliath role and much of her life story has been propelled by perseverance.
“I’m used to defying the odds and resisting the status quo,” she said in an interview between campaign stops.
Born to first-generation Italian immigrants, she grew up in a cramped second floor apartment in Essex County where the living room doubled as a bedroom. Her father died when she was just 19, forcing her to work multiple jobs to put herself through college and then law school. After a fire claimed her apartment, she was once forced to apply for welfare, but never collected.
“I identify with [people] because I’ve been there,” she said.
Her political career is equally defiant.
She ran for office against the wishes of party bosses, winning four General Assembly elections before capturing a state Senate seat in 2001. She climbed the ladder to become majority leader but was unceremoniously dumped from the post in 2010 after refusing to sign onto a bipartisan pension and health care reform plan because she said it "eliminated collective bargaining for health benefits" (a disputable claim).
Tensions with top brass continued to simmer into last summer, when The Star-Ledger reported that the state party chairman blocked Buono from staying at the same hotel as the New Jersey delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
“Are some of the party guys winking and nodding at [Christie]? Sure,” said Garden State Democratic consultant Brad Lawrence, who acknowledged not all top Democrats are overly enthused by Buono.
The numbers explain why. Less than nine months before his reelection, Christie’s approval rating tops 70 percent. A recent horserace poll put the governor ahead more than 40 percentage points. He also begins with a gargantuan fundraising advantage, raising about ten times as much money as Buono, according to a January campaign finance report.
The little-known Buono, a mother of six, only has room to grow. Her challenge is framing the debate around the state’s less the stellar economic picture – unemployment hovers at 9.6 percent – as opposed to a referendum on Christie’s colorful persona.
Lawrence also believes Christie’s often brutish demeanor could prove to be off-putting if leveled against a woman.
“That presents some challenges to him how he treats her. He’s not going to be able to belittle her intellectually. He’s got to be careful how he talks to her. You could imagine a scenario where he’s in a debate and says something sexist or cavalier,” Lawrence observed.
Buono dismisses the campaign will be centered on gender, but she did speak passionately about the “boys club” mentality of Jersey politics.
“I believe as a woman you have to be tougher, you have to be smarter, you have to be more tenacious just to get your foot in the door,” she said.
Ironically, it was a speech by a Republican at a League of Women Voter’s event two decades ago that inspired Buono to pursue public service. Christie Todd Whitman won a nail-biter campaign that year against incumbent Jim Florio, all while smashing the glass ceiling, becoming the state’s first female governor.
It’s not far-fetched that Buono will find herself making a similar pitch.
“I’ll never forget the speech. She said, ‘You know, if you’re serious about electing women to higher office, if I’m right on your issues, then you should support me,’” she recalled. “It really stayed with me.”
David Catanese is a reporter from Washington DC who used to work at Politico. You can find him at @davecatanese.