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Ask Barbara Buono about N.J.'s 'Christie Culture'

Monday, January 13, 2014

The politician who was clobbered last fall by Gov. Chris Christie should be given a chance to put her sour grapes on the table and make some wine out of it. Her enemies, after all, paved an open road to the traffic snarl of "Bridgegate."

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Barbara Buono
Barbara Buono

Credit: Facebook page of Barbara Buono for NJ

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(WOMENSENEWS)--"I'm nobody!" the poet Emily Dickinson exclaimed from the obscurity of her cloistered life in 19th century New England. "Who are you? Are you nobody too?"

Bridgegate may be turning the gray days of winter neon-bright with political intrigue as the news media tries to fathom how and why Republican Gov. Chris Christie's staff managed to create a massive traffic jam at the entrance of the busiest bridge in the United States.

But so far, the scandal is leaving aside that essential second-sex question "who are you?" that should arise out of all this for Barbara Buono.

Who is she? She's the one who dared to challenge Christie's political juggernaut last year. And lost, predictably enough, given Christie's huge popularity.

The fact that I even feel compelled to introduce Buono, as I just did, speaks to the "who are you?" issue.

Usually a politician who braves a long-shot effort against a behemoth of an incumbent can at least win better name recognition. Just think of Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis's filibuster challenge in Texas late last year as a current example.

But Buono, it seemed--until right now at least--did nothing but lose.

Her political defeat turned her into a no-name joke for, among others, Jon Stewart. The New Jersey-raised host of the "fake-news" "Daily Show" on cable TV swirls his eyes around Marx-Brothers-style when trying to recall her name. When he remembers, he rattles off "State Senator Barbara Buono" so fast and like such a boring footnote, that we are all comically cued to forget her right away.

"Bridgegate" is her chance to stop being forgotten. So far she's been brought onto a few TV shows and asked to comment on the scandal, but not yet in the integral way she deserves.

David v. Goliath

The search for a political David to Christie's Goliath has mainly led reporters to Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the suburban New Jersey town across from northern Manhattan that was turned into a parking lot by lane closures on the George Washington Bridge last September.

At the time, Christie's campaign was vigorously courting Democratic officials and notifying reporters of fresh conquests, The New York Times reported Jan. 12.

But Fort Lee's Sokolich didn't turn into such a conquest. As the Time's writer N.R. Kleinfield put it, one reason was that he thought it would "be rude" to Buono.

While Sokolich may have considered Buono's feelings, few other Democrats did. Last November Buono used her concession speech to lambast state Democrats for ditching her campaign and their party.

Now would seem a good time for media outlets to invite Buono to put some of those sour grapes on the table and make some wine out of it.

Buono dramatizes the extent to which the Christie campaign was willing to throw its weight around and damage disloyal Democrats. Her campaign, after all, was the target of all that effort by the Christie campaign to create a mandate befitting a GOP White House contender.

'Culture Question'

Christie will be in really hot water if he knew something about Bridgegate and covered it up. That's the conventional wisdom now, chanted by national pundits. And whatever happens, they also say, the scandal raises the "culture question" about Christie.

On that Buono must be treated as some of an authority, for suffering, at least some of the harshest consequences. When a political party is so intimidated by possibilities of payback--good and bad--that it abandons its own candidate in a nationally prominent race, as she claims, that speaks volumes about negative atmosphere.

Yes, Christie won hearts with the bi-partisan heroics he displayed after Superstorm Sandy; welcoming President Barack Obama, the opposing party's incumbent on the brink of a tough reelection vote, to the ravaged beaches of his state.

But this scandal goes beneath the photo ops and headlines, gives lie to Christie's so-called bipartisan victory and dredges up signs of a political operation capable of callous indifference to the people caught on the bridge.

We are hearing now about a wife caught in the traffic jam who couldn't get to the hospital where her husband was undergoing major surgery; an out-of-work guy who finally landed a job and couldn't get to his first day of work until he was way past late.

In that light, the scandal smashes up at least some of Christie's humanitarian rep, turning it into so much flotsam on the Jersey shore.

Meanwhile, the first, most conspicuous head to roll is that of Bridget Anne Kelly, a top aide to the governor who was fired on the spot, the governor says. It's funny that her first name sounds like a bridge, but it's not so funny if her firing is another case of a male big shot turning a female underling into the most convenient fall guy.

We will see how many other careers tumble. But already we know that there is a tendency for women--by no means more moral or superior to men as a rule--to get jumbo portions of scandalous downside.

This past weekend a friend cynically wondered aloud to me about what deals might have been cut with Kelly to keep her quiet. We were sitting in a house in Nyack, N.Y., just a few miles from Fort Lee. This is the kind of question that arises in a political climate where the chances of any Christie challenger may have been zero to start with.

But in the case of Buono there is a gender factor to weigh as well. Only a handful of women lead state governments, a percentage even lower than that of women in Congress. Her example isn't likely to encourage many more women to give this kind of run a try unless she gets a chance to talk about what happened and become a real "somebody" in the political landscape changed by the scandal.

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