Monday, July 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Christie's Democratic embrace

NEWARK, N.J. - To begin his last full week before Election Day, Gov. Christie sat in the front row at a ceremony honoring the semiretired Democratic political leader of Essex County, Steve Adubato Sr. He made a joke about Adubato's alleged corruption, he said the 80-year-old reminded him of his late mother, and he lifted the veil from a large bronze statue depicting Adubato seated on a bench.

Christie's Democratic embrace

This story ran in Sunday's Inquirer.

NEWARK, N.J. - To begin his last full week before Election Day, Gov. Christie sat in the front row at a ceremony honoring the semiretired Democratic political leader of Essex County, Steve Adubato Sr. He made a joke about Adubato's alleged corruption, he said the 80-year-old reminded him of his late mother, and he lifted the veil from a large bronze statue depicting Adubato seated on a bench.

The moment epitomized Christie's reelection campaign - and the years leading up to it.

On the way to what polls indicate will be a landslide reelection victory Tuesday over Democrat Barbara Buono, the Republican governor is touting bipartisanship by spending more time with Democrats than with politicians of his own party.

"It's been several years he's been working on these relationships," said Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political scientist.

Over his first term Christie has sidled up to members of the state's powerful Democratic establishment with unprecedented ardor - and they to him.

Consider:

  • Sixty local Democratic elected officials have endorsed Christie.
  • Democratic Essex County Executive Joseph "Joe D." DiVincenzo, who runs one of the largest governmental and political operations in the state, has campaigned with Christie like a running mate.
  • Sen. Cory Booker, the state's best-known elected Democrat, supports Christie's opponent - but the day after his election to the U.S. Senate he joined Christie at a groundbreaking for a ShopRite in Newark and praised the governor for bipartisanship.
  • Last month, Christie watched the Cowboys-Eagles game from a luxury box at Lincoln Financial Field with Democrat George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey power broker, business executive, and part-owner of The Inquirer. Although Norcross has not endorsed Christie, for the first time in nearly 30 years this prodigious fund-raiser has not gotten involved in a governor's race on behalf of the Democrat.

Little help for Buono

This new political paradigm has spelled disaster for Buono, a Middlesex County state senator.

She is left without the connections, money, and organization to be competitive, and she has had few well-known surrogates campaign with her or for her. The problems extend all the way to the top - President Obama, whom Christie befriended after Sandy, has done nothing for the Buono campaign. (On Friday, Democrats reportedly sent out an e-mail blast from Obama about various elections on Tuesday; he mentioned Buono's name.)

Christie's reasons for hanging with Democrats are clear: He needs them in an overwhelmingly Democratic state where Democrats control the Legislature. He is also setting himself up as a pragmatic national problem-solver - a potential GOP presidential candidate who governs with the other party, unlike politicians in Washington.

Democratic motivations for not supporting Buono are more complicated.

Buono says that some Democrats sidelined her over her liberal, pro-union, and independent approach - and because of a hostility toward female leaders.

'A different way'

"She has never been beholden to any party boss her entire career," said Buono spokesman David Turner. "She has been seen as someone who is challenging the establishment and doing things in a different way to reinvigorate the party to make it more about the grass roots . . . than party bosses."

Turner said Christie and Democratic leaders have a "transactional" relationship: Christie gives you something, and you return the favor. Pro-Christie Democrats have admitted that the promise of state aid - such as Department of Transportation funding for a road project, for example - is part of the reason for their support.

But the turn toward Christie is also tied to disenchantment with Buono. Inner-circle Democrats privately complain that Buono failed to pay her political dues over two decades in the Legislature. They say she has not raised enough money for other Democrats or built relationships with party leaders.

"You want to be part of the party, then you have to stick with the party," said one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named to avoid further animosity.

Buono has said she did not want the support of "corrupt" leaders like DiVincenzo, who was recently cited for campaign-finance violations. But a spokesman for DiVincenzo said she was being disingenuous in criticizing him because earlier this year she asked for his endorsement. Buono denies this.

Sources also say Buono repeatedly violated a political rule by making campaign stops in the district of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) without letting him know beforehand so he could show up and support her.

Turner, the Buono spokesman, said that allegation was untrue, because local Democrats are contacted before all visits.

Regardless, though Sweeney hosted a fund-raiser for Buono early in the campaign, he has not been seen with her all fall. Meanwhile, Christie has twice come to Gloucester County to attend public ceremonies with Sweeney, where they praised each other.

On Oct. 2 at Rowan University, for example, Sweeney and Christie broke ground on an engineering building. The timing of the groundbreaking, a month before the election, was curious, though, because construction will not begin until next fall. An architect has not even been hired for the building; a backhoe was brought in as a prop.

Sweeney and Christie spoke from the podium about working together as bipartisan partners. "This is why government works," Sweeney said.

'Historic candidate'

Democrats cautioned against framing Sweeney's appearance with Christie as traitorous. Sweeney has his own tough reelection campaign to run in a district where Christie is popular, so highlighting his alliance with the governor on issues such as college construction may be more about Sweeney than Buono.

"Obviously he has his own race," Turner said. "But you would think the first female Democratic [nominee in state history], a historic candidate like this, would have received more support."

In Newark last week, Christie was the final speaker at a ceremony honoring Adubato, who for decades has run schools and social service programs in Newark at the North Ward Center he founded. From that perch Adubato has been a Democratic power broker with sway over selecting politicians and driving turnout on Election Day.

Visiting Adubato has long been required of New Jersey Democrats - but it was Christie, not Buono, who befriended Adubato. Christie told the crowd that he met with Adubato before he first ran for governor, when he was the state's U.S. attorney.

Then he made a joke alluding to recent investigations of Adubato's political operation. "I wasn't here with agents or a taping machine or anything like that," Christie said, to laughs.

Looking at Adubato, Christie indicated that his inroads into Democratic politics won't end soon.

"As long as I'm in public life," Christie said, "you and I will continue to be partners."

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