Barbara Buono, who became the first woman to serve as Senate Majority Leader today, won her first campaign for the Legislature after the Republican candidate turned out to be deeply flawed.
The Middlesex County-based 18th district went Republican in 1991 and 1993, when Jack Sinagra won a Senate seat and Jeff Warsh and Harriet Derman were elected to the State Assembly. Derman resigned in February 1994 when the newly-elected GOP Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, named her Commissioner of Community Affairs. Joanna Gregory-Scocchi won a special election convention later that month to replace Derman in the Assembly.
To run against Gregory-Scocchi in a November 1994 special election, Democrats picked Buono, then a 41-year-old Metuchen Councilwoman. The political environment in the fall of 1994 was decisively Republican, and Gregory-Scocchi was favored to hold the seat.
The Gregory-Scocchi campaign fell apart that fall after amidst a controversy involving illegal immigration and a temporary employment company owned by the new Assemblywoman. A van owned by Gregory-Scocchi’s husband and used by her business to transport temp workers was stopped by local law enforcement, who found undocumented workers in the vehicle. A few weeks before the election, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization (INS ) agents raided Gregory-Schocchi’s place of business.
Illegal immigration was an issue the previous year after President Bill Clinton was forced to withdraw two U.S. Attorney General nominees after revelations that they employed undocumented workers as nannies. Whitman’s 1993 gubernatorial campaign nearly fell apart because of a similar issue; she was saved when it was disclosed that her primary opponent, former state Attorney General Cary Edwards, had a similar problem.
Fifteen years later, some Republicans remain convinced that then-State Sen. John Lynch, the Middlesex County Democratic leader, played a role in exposing Gregory-Scocchi’s illegal immigrant problem — although there has never been a confirmation of his role.
Buono beat Gregory-Scocchi 27,229 to 23,436, a 54%-46% margin. In 1995, Buono was the top vote getter and Warsh lost his seat to Democrat Peter Barnes.