As we move into the dog days of summer and gubernatorial polls continue to show a lopsided race, all eyes are on state Sen. Barbara Buono’s choice of a running mate.
Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, must announce the candidate by July 28, but has so far kept her short list a tightly held secret.
So what do we know so far? Not much.
Sources told PolitickerNJ early on in the process that Buono preferred an African American running mate and conventional wisdom held that she would pick a male to check the “diverse ticket” box.
We also know that any sitting legislator who joins the Buono ticket would give up his or her seat, an unlikely – but not impossible – scenario in a campaign where the challenger is consistently behind by 30 points and out funded by as much as three to one.
So who is on the short list? So far, Buono’s not saying. In stark contrast to 2009, when then GOP challenger Chris Christie faced incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine and both camps floated trial balloons and made their short lists public, Buono has been completely mum.
To date, only three names have surfaced, but at least one has already taken himself out of contention.
Earlier this month, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly was said to be the front-runner to join Buono. He was reportedly favored by campaign advisor and state party chairman John Currie and would help the once and future Passaic County chairman down ballot in the county.
But Thursday, Wimberly said he had taken himself out of the running owing to time and family concerns.
“Basically, I have a young family and the time I would have to commit would make it difficult,” Wimberly said in an interview Thursday.
Also said to be in the mix is Montclair Councilman Sean Spiller, who also is secretary treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association and president of the Wayne Education Association.
Spiller, a science teacher in Wayne, was elected to the council last year. Two sources say Spiller is in the mix and might be the last man standing if Wimberly is out.
Another name that has surfaced since June is that of Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor, who was on Buono’s “short list” and has appeared with the nominee at some of her campaign events.
Critics say Minor is too unknown to fill the spot and would offer little to the ticket.
Whether any of the three will ultimately join the ticket or if the campaign has other names in contention is a closely held secret.
Nothing official, or unofficial has come out of the campaign and the only news has come from candidates who have pulled themselves out of the mix. It’s a strategy that has some politicos scratching their heads.
“I don’t know why she wouldn’t float a few names if nothing more than to create some buzz around the pick,” said one Democrat with no ties to the campaign. “There’s no buzz and trial balloons help with the vetting process.”
But Buono is likely trying to avoid a repeat of the debacle that enveloped her campaign for nearly two months after PolitickerNJ reported that she planned to name Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell as state party chairman.
“Whoever she floated would be shot down before she was able to name the person, just like Jason O’Donnell,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “They’ve been stabbed in the back already, so I think that’s the game they are playing.”
Several high-level Democrats, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, balked at the pick and openly attacked Buono. Sweeney and company convinced Sen. Ray Lesniak to challenge O’Donnell for the post and hours before the committee vote a compromise was reached.
Buono named Currie – an ally – to the post, but the damage was done.
There is also the Randal Pinkett affair to consider. In 2009, then-Gov. Jon Corzine floated the name of the one-time Apprentice winner as a possible choice for LG. Pinkett, who had no experience in elected office, was not well received and Corzine was slammed for considering him.
But some point to Pinkett as the reason to float names.
“You have some ideas and sometimes they aren’t good ones,” said one Democrat. “Floating the name let’s you know quickly if it’s a bad idea.”
Whoever the pick, Murray said it’s unlikely to matter to the overall prospects of the campaign.
“The lieutenant governor is window dressing, so unless she gets a really rich person who hates Chris Christie and is willing to kick in a lot of money, it’s not going to get her any votes,” Murray said.
On a recent conference call with county chairmen, Buono reportedly said the announcement would be packaged with fundraisers surrounding her birthday, which falls on July 28, the deadline for naming her pick.