Speaking at the Cooperman JCC on Oct. 18, State Sen. Barbara Buono offered the outline of her personal story, along with her commitment to reinvigorating the New Jersey-Israel Commission, her support for transportation for seniors, and her determination to challenge the status quo as the Democratic candidate in November’s gubernatorial election.
The event was cosponsored by the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and the Jewish Community Relations Councils of the Jewish federations of Northern NJ and Southern NJ.
About 50 people representing Jewish federations from around New Jersey, as well as various community relations organizations and other agencies, attended the event.
Gov. Chris Christie has also been invited to address the Jewish leadership, but has yet to confirm a date and time.
Buono spoke a bit to the group about her conversion, before her marriage to her first husband, from Catholicism to Judaism, including her dip in the mikva with her infant daughter. She shared the dream she had the night before of letting go of the baby in the water and not being able to find her.
In describing her attitude toward tzedaka, Buono said, “Everyone talks about tzedaka and how it’s important to give back to the community. I believe this not just as a person of faith but as an elected official.
“It’s what defines me.”
Buono said her father arrived in America from Italy with no money and no English. A butcher by trade, he died when she was in her teens.
“My mother didn’t cope well,” she said. “My adolescence ended abruptly.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University, she couldn’t get a job and lived in a basement with five other people. When she applied for food stamps, she remembers the woman in the office asking, “Are you sure you have no other source of income?”
Although she eventually managed to attend Rutgers Law School and earn a juris doctor, she did so only with the help of financial aid and a loan from a friend to cover the last $500 tuition. “I came ‘this close’ to not going,” she said. “I was able to do it because I grew up in a New Jersey that created opportunities.”
She said she isn’t so sure that is still true. “Knowing this state made me who I am, I want to give voice to the voiceless and make sure all children have the same opportunity I had. I know my mission is similar to yours,” she said, referring to the collective mission of the federations and their partner agencies. “You look out for the vulnerable, and that has been my priority.”
Buono criticized Christie for declining funding from the federal government and the Port Authority for two new rail passages under the Hudson River, which she said would have created many permanent jobs on top of the construction jobs. (In turning down the project, Christie cited high costs.)
According to a Quinnipiac poll released Oct. 18, Christie was leading by a formidable 26 points. “But it’s a challenge to the whole boss system in New Jersey,” she said. “I’ll be very frank. I’m not here to service narrow business interests.”
Still, Buono believes she can win.
“People say, ‘Wow, it takes courage to run against Christie.’ I don’t see it that way. In ’94 people said I couldn’t win,” she said, referring to her successful bid for a seat in the State Assembly. “The next time I ran, they said it was a fluke, but I ran again. I was the first woman to chair the budget and appropriations committee, and the first woman to be State Senate majority leader.”
“As a woman in politics, I’m used to being underestimated,” she said.