Heavy on underdog imagery, Passaic Democrats embrace Buono for governor

NORTH HALEDON – The going statewide narrative hardly puts state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18) on the same war footing as incumbent GOP Gov. Chris Christie, but the Passaic County Democratic Organization welcomes the role of underdog.

“At this time last year, he met his (rival) right here,” Chairman John Currie said of U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) in the sprawling ballroom of the Tides.

If a humanoid head emerged from white crystal blaze of the main chandelier, no one would do a double take. It hovers over the room like the mother ship in Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

Pascrell sat grinning at the head table beside Buono, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6), who formally backed the state senator for governor in the Trenton Marriott earlier Monday.

“We showed our class and grace, but we also showed from that day forward what we were going to do to be successful,” said Currie, referring to the 2012 Democratic Primary that resulted in Pascrell swamping U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9).

No one objected to the comparison of Rothman to the incumbent Republican governor, or immediately revisited the small but uncomfortably nagging detail that the contest was Democrats versus Democrats.

Pascrell would touch on it later.

“I want to introduce a woman who can put this state in the right direction… our next governor: Barbara Buono,” Currie shouted.

The crowd erupted in a standing ovation, punctuated by several high-pitched shrieks as Buono accepted the microphone from the veteran chairman.

“When you see a diminutive woman up here, don’t let that fool you,” said the gubernatorial candidate. “When I first ran for the Assembly I ran against three other people and I won. I had a plan and executed and was focused. …I will defy expectations now, with your help. People tell me it takes courage. It doesn’t take courage. How can I not run? Look at the state this state is in, with one in ten people out of work.”

Buono vowed to be a governor who reflects New Jersey’s progressive voters.

“The only thing I was worried about was getting through the primary,” she said, on the day she racked up key party endorsements that place her in a strong position to win the Democratic nomination. “We’re going to win the general. Block by block, street by street. We can do this.”

“Let’s get it on,” roared Pascrell, who opted out of his own run for governor this year and publicly backed Buono.

The polls show Christie achieving a lopsided victory over his little-known Democratic opponent who has less than $250,000 in the bank. The congressman acknowledged the added woes of a fractured Democratic Party.

“It’s time for us to step up to the plate,” said Pascrell. “Forget about favorables and unfavorables. ..We created this monstrosity. If we want to continue to have majorities in the Senate and Assembly, we must unite together and we will win in November. No question about it.”

Yet for all the goodwill aimed at Buono and swell of mood over the close-quarters appearance of a statewide candidate, the party’s self-doubt persisted.  When someone mentioned that she could rise to the occasion, an insider, drowsy with politics at the edge of the party, said, “It’s not about her rising to the occasion. It’s about whether the organizations will rise for her.”

Then there were the obvious party rivalries running through the exchanges.

Pallone radiated 2014 vibes.

“This is the best Democratic organization in the state,” he said, and described Pascrell as his best friend in the Congress.

“I’m proud of my friendship with my colleague,” Pascrell offered in return. “Thank you for all the work you did to help us get the healthcare bill.”

The Monmouth-based Pallone’s presence inevitably reminded people of his developing collision course with Newark Mayor Cory Booker for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by octogenarian U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).

PolitickerNJ.com invited the congressman to take a shot at Booker, who has struggled post Sandy Hook massacre to clarify his position on gun control. The congressman demurred.

“We all have to get behind the president’s initiatives,” Pallone said. “I just want us to all rally around that.”

Currie has his focus countywide.

Looking at two freeholder seats up this year on a board his party controls 7-0 and the sheriff’s post filled by incumbent Democrat Richard Berdnik, and mindful of Christie’s strong 2009 showing in Passaic, the party chairman motored Buono from table to table, and from one small group to the next.

He may have to first untangle the intentions of an old political enemy.

“There’s a rumor out there that Jerry Speziale is trying to mobilize support for a primary challenge to Berdnik,” a source told PolitickerNJ.com.

Former Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres was in the room, angling for a 2014 run at incumbent Mayor Jeff Jones, who unseated Torres in 2010. Freeholder TJ Best was present. He’s also running for mayor.

Buono made a good impression.

“Of course,” battleground district state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38), Fair Lawn, said when asked if he expects to support her.

“It’s exciting to see the party coalescing around a candidate who can articulate a contrast with Chris Christie,” added Freeholder John Bartlett, who won last year on the Democratic ticket.

“I’m very proud to run with her,” said Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-36). “She is a great candidate.”

On the same evening that East Orange Mayor Bob Bowser announced his decision to run for another term as mayor, the two District 34 Senate candidates worked the room. A sworn political enemy of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and local Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, Bowser told PolitickerNJ.com he does not expect to get the East Orange party line.

East Orange is the biggest city in the 34th District, and the name on the line in the local race impacts the district ticket.

Bowser is a proven, off-the-line winner.

Incumbent state Sen. Nia Gill (D-34) was a blur among the tables. She’s never been cozy with Currie, say sources, which explains why she comes across in Passaic as a late election year flurry.

“I haven’t started my campaign,” she told PolitickerNJ.com.

Does she back a horse in the East Orange mayor’s race?

I’m the horse in my campaign,” said the senator, favored, say sources to get the Essex County party line over challenger Seton Hall University Law Professor Mark Alexander, former statewide director for Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign.

Currie and Alexander are friendly. If it were up to the chairman he would give his support to the challenger. But sources close to Currie say he won’t buck Essex, which owns the bulk of the district.

So the notion of Alexander as Buono’s candidate for lieutenant governor circulated in the room.

“I’m focused on the Senate race,” Alexander said.

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Late individual endorsements for Buono Monday included U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12), state Sen. Nick Sacco (D-32), and state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14).

"I’m excited as hell about CD 5. We have encouraged Congressman [Steve] Israel to get involved in CD 5."
—Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie