State senator Barbara Buono, who represents New Jersey’s 18th Legislative District, is the Democratic candidate for governor. She will face incumbent Chris Christie in the Nov. 5 election.
The Daily Princetonian: What do you see as the biggest issue in this election?
State Sen. Barbara Buono: Jobs and the economy. New Jersey has 400,000 people out of work. For the last four years we have had the highest unemployment rate in the region, higher than New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut, and one of the lowest rates of job creation in the nation. And, you know, people are suffering. This governor’s policies have hurt the middle class, and he’s turned his back on them, and they need somebody to go to bat for them, and I understand the struggles because I’ve lived them.
DP: Why would you make the best governor for the state?
BB: When people ask me, “Why are you running? It’s going to be a hard race,” my response is always the same. I always say, “How can I not run?” … I think that passion comes from the fact that when I grew up in New Jersey, it was a very different New Jersey. My father [emigrated] from Italy when he was three. His parents and he came here for opportunity, and a big piece of that is education. My father wanted to become a doctor, but he had to sacrifice that and drop out of high school to support the family. And he became a union butcher, and my mom was a substitute teacher. We lived in a very modest apartment — a second-floor walk-up — in Nutley, which is a suburb of Newark in Essex County. My father and mother slept in the living room on a foldout couch so my two sisters and I could have a bedroom, and we didn’t really have a lot, but we had everything that we needed. My parents taught me the values of hard work, sacrifice, self-discipline and education. My dad died very early – he was only 61. He died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 19. And I had to grow up very quickly. I was living on my own at 19, and I had to figure out a way to stay in college. I put myself through Montclair State and Rutgers Law School because back then tuition was affordable, and there were jobs to pay off those loans when I graduated. And I relied on my father’s veterans benefits – you know, the social safety net: social security death benefits, tuition assistance, work study – and I was able to make it through Montclair State. [...] I was able to do it, and education was my ticket out of not exactly poverty, but the very lower end of the middle class. And that’s why I feel so strongly about New Jersey – because the opportunities that I had simply aren’t there anymore. You should just start with tuition – it’s gone through the roof. It’s far exceeded people’s paychecks. I’m running because I want to create that opportunity. I want to create good-paying jobs in New Jersey so that families can stay together if they choose, students can go to college here. And so I have a whole economic plan that really builds on the middle class, builds on investing in our students, making sure they have the resources they need, making sure that we invest in our institutions of higher learning so that they’re affordable so kids can go here and stay here.
DP: What are the first things you would do if elected?
BB: The first thing I would do in my first 100 days, I would work to make sure that we put as many of the 400,000 people who are out of work back to work by passing legislation that this governor has vetoed. I have one of the bills in mind. It partners universities with business in the emerging markets like biotech and pharmaceutical and renewable energy. It creates research partnerships to draw those businesses to New Jersey with the promise of a ready-made workforce and an opportunity to have the research conducted at a university, and then gives the students the opportunity to learn the skills so that they are marketable upon graduation and then they can get the good-paying jobs in the new markets. [...] We need to ensure that hard-working middle class families are not left behind, and this governor’s policies have not focused on them. And that would be the difference – that’s a major difference between this governor and the Buono administration. In terms of legislation, I would sign the marriage equality legislation, which this governor has vetoed, as you know, and the legislature’s been trying to override it, but he’s been conducting what amounts to a campaign of intimidation by trying to intimidate the Republican members of the Senate not to vote their conscience, [not] to override his veto in the wake of the [Defense of Marriage Act] ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States. So that would also be major. Also, one of my major initiatives will be to make sure the public’s education is once again a priority, and not a whipping boy as this governor has made it.
DP: What efforts has your campaign focused on the most?
BB: You know, this is truly a grassroots campaign. We are building the Democratic Party and progressives across New Jersey from the ground up. And the way you do that is not complicated. [...] It takes spending time meeting people, speaking before groups, having them become aware of who I am, particularly in areas in the far reaches of New Jersey. So it’s been a campaign about grassroots, about connecting with voters, about listening to what’s on their mind and I have to tell you — when we talk, and they hear my story and they hear my vision for New Jersey’s future, people get excited. They want to get engaged.
DP: What do you want New Jersey voters to think about as they’re heading into the voting booth on Nov. 5?
BB: I trust the people of New Jersey to make the right decision because the people of New Jersey are smart. They’re savvy. They make a decision based on what’s in their family’s self-interest. And so, there’s one thing I would ask them: to study the issues, to make sure that they’re well-informed. And I know it’s hard, because everybody’s struggling to make ends meet, to figure out a way to pay their property taxes, to put [their] child through college if they’re so lucky to have their parent doing that. [...] I think they’ll see just if they read a little bit about me that I’ve shown political courage in the past, that my decisions are always made with an eye to what’s best for the people I represent, and that’s it. So hopefully they’ll take the time, and do a little research in their spare time.
DP: Finally, do you have any connection to Princeton?
BB: Well, I have a lot of friends that live in Princeton. I lived in Princeton for about a year after law school. A number of us rented a house. [...] I’m a runner, and can I tell you, my favorite place to run that I’ve ever run is in Princeton on the towpath. [...] I would actually stop, run, get in my car, drive to Trenton and take a shower in the State House. And I’d also do it on the way home, but as I said, I have a different route now – I take the turnpike: it’s faster, less traffic. But I have a soft spot in my heart for Princeton, especially the towpath. I love McCarter Theatre too.
Republican candidate Chris Christie did not respond to requests for comment.