NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, lagging far behind Gov. Chris Christie (R) in polls, said she remains confident she can defeat the popular incumbent.
Buono, a state senator from Metuchen, said polls that show her trailing Christie by 35 percentage points reflect her low name recognition compared with the universally known Christie. Buono said her travels around the state and the growth of her campaign infrastructure have positioned her to improve her poll standing.
"It is a slow process, we are seeing a groundswell building," Buono told The Huffington Post, sitting in a Starbucks blocks from the Rutgers University campus. "We are in the field already."
A Quinnipiac poll from late March showed Christie leading Buono by 35 percentage points, less than the 43-point lead the incumbent held at the beginning of January. The fiercely independent Buono spent most of January fending off reports that Democratic Party leaders were looking for an alternative. Several Democratic mayors have backed Christie for reelection.
Buono credited Emily's List, the Washington-based group that backs pro-choice women candidates, for help. Buono, the first woman state Senate majority leader, is an Emily's List priority. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan is the nation's only Democratic woman governor and Buono is the only Democratic woman seeking a governorship in this year's election. New Jersey has only had one woman governor, Republican Christie Whitman in the 1990s.
"We bring a different set of skills to public policy," Buono said about women. "We are more deliberate, we are more likely to put ego aside."
Buono said she believes "pocketbook issues" will be the key to defeating Christie. She pointed to New Jersey's unemployment rate, hovering just below 10 percent, and criticized Christie's signature plan to cut the state's notoriously high property taxes. While Christie has capped local property taxes, he eliminated the state property tax rebate program, in effect raising taxes.
Buono said Christie vetoed a Democratic economic development package and funding for women's health programs. Christie also failed to embrace a school funding plan she and other Democrats crafted under former Gov. Jon Corzine (D), which she said would have reduced property taxes and created a fairer funding formula for suburban school districts. She has also criticized Christie for awarding a Hurricane Sandy cleanup contract to a company with GOP ties.
Christie campaign spokesman Mike DuHaime rejected Buono's criticisms and turned the table, citing her role as Senate budget committee chairwoman.
New Jersey "has gained 120,000 jobs in the last two years, the best job growth years in the state in 2000," DuHaime said in an email. "Unemployment is lower now than when he came to office. Senator Buono was the architect of Jon Corzine's budgets, where she raised taxes, increased spending and added debt, all of which resulted in unemployment doubling on her watch."
Buono, traveling the state by herself, said she hasn't given much thought to a lieutenant governor running mate. She said she'll make a choice after the June primary election. Speculation has centered on Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr and Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley.
Buono said she is working to boost the state Democratic Party for the fall campaign.
"This election presents a great opportunity to begin rebuilding the Democratic Party from the grassroots up," she said. "It is a great experience. That is my favorite party of running."