Buono misses two chances to hit Christie

Did Democrats -- advertently or inadvertently -- hurt the Barbara Buono gubernatorial campaign not once but twice last week? My take in today's Inquirer: 

TRENTON - Barbara Buono can't catch a break.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state senator from Middlesex County had two opportunities last week to battle Republican Gov. Christie in front of New Jersey voters and liberal campaign donors nationwide.

But Democratic legislative leaders sidestepped both fights, leaving Buono outside the ring.

First, the $33 billion budget was negotiated by Democratic leaders and Christie's team in advance, behind closed doors, and was approved relatively quietly. In past years, Democrats have had protracted high-profile budget confrontations that they have used to slam Christie as a coldhearted conservative.

After that fizzled, Buono asked for a vote to override Christie's veto of a same-sex marriage bill in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. But Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney decided against an override vote.

Various political and policy considerations went into both decisions, Democrats said. In a year in which every legislative seat is up for election, Democrats didn't want to risk losing a gay marriage override vote and a budget showdown (which could have led to cuts to priority programs).

But several insiders also say that Buono's strained relationships with leaders of her own party factored into both decisions. Buono was booted out of her role as Senate majority leader in 2011 and has not enjoyed the kind of fund-raising support past gubernatorial candidates have gotten from Democratic power brokers. Last month, she had a public dispute with Sweeney over her pick for state Democratic Party chairman.

"I would have liked to have seen Democrats as a party draw positions with more contrast and more outspokenness," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union), who joined Buono in voting against the budget. "And I absolutely believe our gubernatorial candidate would have been better served with that."

In closed-door meetings among Democratic Assembly members and senators last week, Buono's allies said they pushed for a fight with Christie on both the budget and gay marriage in order to help their candidate.

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am that she didn't have an opportunity to get up and show a sharp contrast to the governor," said one Democratic legislative source who didn't want to speak publicly about internal party politics. "The politics were perfect for the senator, and for whatever reason, we didn't do it."

The gay marriage measure would have had to pass the Senate first before moving to the Assembly, but Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (D., Bergen/Passaic) said his calls for an override vote fell on deaf ears.

"I thought that we could strike while the iron is hot," Eustace said. But "leadership for some reason didn't feel the time is right."

Asked whether an override vote would have been held if the Democrats were actually unified behind Buono, Eustace said: "Absolutely. That's just my opinion."

"Not enough Democrats are behind Barbara Buono, that's for sure," he said.

Insiders said Democratic leaders cited pragmatic reasons for not seeking a gay marriage veto override - like a lack of votes - not animus toward Buono. And they noted that gay rights advocates didn't want to rush into a vote, either.

Still, the result was the same: Buono lost the chance to capitalize on the issue by, for example, arguing for gay marriage on the Senate floor.

Such a video clip could have appeared on MSNBC, exposure the Buono campaign covets. She has a deep fund-raising disadvantage and is down about 30 points in the polls, so exposure to anti-Christie, Democratic-leaning audiences could only have helped.

A budget fight between nationally known Christie and the Democratic Legislature might have also elevated Buono's profile.

But Sweeney, the Senate president, approached Christie in the spring to say that this year, he wanted to negotiate the budget in advance instead of fighting over it until the June 30 deadline.

Christie recounted that anecdote last week during a news conference in which he called Buono "the most partisan member of the New Jersey state Senate." That's an apt description Buono didn't refute: She has opposed Christie more vociferously and consistently than Democratic leaders of the Legislature.

In a statement, Sweeney explained why he negotiated the budget.

"This budget does not accomplish all that we had hoped, but by negotiating with the administration, we were able to provide much-needed funding in areas critical to New Jersey's seniors and our schools," he said.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) agreed.

"This governor has vindictively slashed and burned when budgets were presented to him in previous years, so at least for this year, the thought was to negotiate," Oliver said in a statement. She said the negotiated budget helped increase aid for nursing homes, affordable housing, and schools.

For his part, Christie touted the budget, which he signed Friday, as a "bipartisan example" for Washington. "Working together, we were able to put the people of New Jersey first and pass this budget early," he said.

Buono opposed that "bipartisan" agreement, though, and delivered perhaps the most animated speech from the floor of the Senate attacking the $33 billion spending plan. She cited lack of funding for universal preschool, rising taxes, and cuts to women's health funding.

"It goes well beyond politics for me," she said on the floor. "It goes to the point of realizing that New Jersey taxpayers are tired of the fiscal gimmicks and the political posturing that really makes their lives hard to live."

But as budget approval was a fait accompli at that point, her remarks drew little attention.

With the Legislature largely absent from Trenton until after the November election, Buono may not get a another opportunity to display her leadership as a legislator and land high-profile punches against Christie.

An override vote on gay marriage is expected this year, but it may not come until after the election, when legislators in tough races have less at risk.

By then, though, it may be too late for Buono.