Christie's new foe is a Latina labor leader

EAST RUTHERFORD -- Gov. Christie’s challenger in the fall, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), officially introduced her running mate this morning – a female labor leader named Milly Silva – marking just the third time in American history that an all-female ticket has run in a gubernatorial election and the first time in memory that a sitting labor leader has sought statewide office.

Silva, a mother of three from Montclair, walked on stage to chants of “Milly! Milly! Milly!” and delivered punch after punch against Christie in a direct appeal to women and minorities.

She began her remarks in Spanish – "buenos dias" – and in the middle of her speech she broke into an extended discourse in Spanish that ended with “no mas.” That prompted a “no mas” chant from the crowd.

The Spanish indicated that Buono and her Latina running mate hope to make inroads in the Hispanic community, which Christie has heavily courted. “On the issues that most affect Latinos, Chris Christie has failed,” Silva said.

The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, Silva was born in the Bronx and came up through the ranks of organized labor. She is now the executive vice president in charge of New Jersey for SEIU 1199, the largest health care union in the country, with nearly 20,000 members who live or work in the state.

In that role, union officials said, she represents mostly nursing home workers – from dietitians to housekeepers – negotiating contracts, lobbying the state Legislature for health care funding and raising political donations for campaigns.

Silva’s remarks focused on bread-and-butter Democratic issues, like Christie’s veto of a minimum-wage increase, his cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, his repeated rejection of funds for women’s health clinics and his inaction on gun-control legislation.

“We live in a New Jersey where whatever Chris Christie says goes,” said Silva. “That’s not a leader – that’s a bully.”

Buono, who celebrated her 60th birthday yesterday, beamed as she stood next to Silva, 42, in a packed hotel ballroom near the stadium where the Giants and Jets play. The event was perhaps Buono’s most energized and crowded campaign event so far, with about 300 mostly union members screaming and waving signs -- injecting some much-needed enthusiasm into what has so far been a long-shot campaign.

Buono is down more than 30 points in the polls, and has failed to move the needle after announcing her candidacy last winter.

Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University political scientist who attended the announcement, said that Silva’s strength is that “she’s good in front of a crowd” – maybe better than Buono is – but “that’s about all we know about her.”

He said Buono’s choice is not about winning the election – he believes she has no chance of beating Christie – but about elevating Silva to prominence. Murray said it’s “a no-hope campaign, so why not make a statement?”

“Buono really wants to put her stamp on the future face of the Democratic party, and that’s what this is all about,” he said. The choice, he said, is a rejection of the kind of politics played by male party bosses who are accustomed to picking candidates.

Silva may also cut into Christie’s support in the Hispanic community. In 2009, Christie won about a third of the Hispanic vote, but Murray said he wants to increase that number so he can put that on his resume in advance of an expected 2016 presidential run.

“This is kind of an in-your-face move to that,” Murray said.

The novelty of the all-female ticket may bring some new attention to her campaign. Buono stressed the female element in her remarks, noting that Silva “has demonstrated her commitment to the state of New Jersey.”

Both Buono and Silva struck Christie on his political aspirations and national conservative affiliations, with Silva linking Christie to controversial right-wing U.S. Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), whom the governor has raised money for.

“Instead of resolving problems we have here in the Garden State, he’d rather stay focused on his road to the Rose Garden,” Buono said. “Instead of building a road to prosperity for your future, he’s so blinded by the national limelight that the only future he’s planning for is his own.”

The Christie campaign blasted Buono’s pick, calling into question Silva’s experience and fitness for public office. Silva has only worked at SEIU and the community-organizing group ACORN, which is despised by conservatives, and has never worked in government or what the Christie campaign described as the "private sector."

“For the most important decision Barbara Buono will make as a candidate, she has chosen an activist from a well-funded labor union who is wholly unqualified with no experience in government or public service,” emailed Christie campaign spokesman Kevin Roberts. “Most importantly, this pick shows the desperate lengths Barbara Buono will go to in order to prop her flailing campaign with special interest support.”

The Buono campaign would not make Silva available for interviews with reporters today, but her boss, 1199 SEIU President George Gresham, praised the decision and vowed to raise “a lot” of money for Silva from the union’s considerable war chest.

“We expect we will be able to raise considerable funds to make this campaign meaningful,” he said, adding that “the sky is the limit.”

“I think it’s going to have the same effect on the broader labor movement, [which] finally sees someone who symbolizes working people.”