Cities have become a central front in Governor Chris Christie’s drive to win a second term in New Jersey, where shopping malls and leafy subdivisions have been the seat of political power for 50 years.
Christie, the first Republican elected governor of the Garden State since 1997, in the past month has gone to Paterson, Jersey City and Atlantic City, places where he got 11 percent or less of the 2009 vote. State Senator Barbara Buono, a suburban Democrat, is backed by Newark’s mayor and four council members.
With his approval ratings at record highs, Christie, 50, wants to become the first Republican to win more than half of the statewide vote in a quarter-century this November. Cities, where his party’s voters are vastly outnumbered by Democrats, have become contested territory as the governor tries to outflank his opponent and peel away core supporters.
“Republicans aren’t playing to win here, they’re playing not to get crushed” in the cities, said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors’ races as senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Barbara Buono has to inspire the urban vote. And I think the jury’s out on whether she can do that.”
Buono’s support from Mayor Cory Booker and other leaders in Newark, the state’s biggest city, underlines a weakness for Christie, even as a March 26 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 44 percent of Democrats say he deserves re-election. Although Buono, 59, trailed Christie by 35 percentage points in the survey, the governor is seeking to shore up his urban support by taking the fight to the opposition’s strongholds.
“I’m going to try and campaign everywhere and I’m going to try and pick up every vote we can pick up and I’m going to be very aggressive,” Christie said last week in Stone Harbor.
Paterson bus driver James Ramsey, 59, who said education is a top issue for him, shows how the governor’s strategy may be working among lifelong urban Democrats. Although Ramsey said he didn’t vote for Christie in 2009, the governor’s handling of hurricane recovery efforts since October has changed his view.
“It’s historic for a Republican governor to come into this city,” Ramsey said in an interview in Paterson during a Christie visit. “As a Democrat, I believe now that he’s been so impressive over the past four years that he has won me over.”
In the Quinnipiac poll, Christie’s lead over Buono narrowed to 12 percentage points among urban voters. Christie drew his strongest support along the Atlantic shore, hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy in October, and from northwestern areas.
Coming from the New Brunswick suburb of Metuchen, Buono has set her sights on making the election a closer contest by boosting her urban support while retaining her suburbanite base.
“The cities, as large population centers and economic drivers, are certainly someplace where we’re going to be investing enormous time and resources,” said Jonathan DuCote, Buono’s campaign manager.
Booker, a popular 43-year-old Democrat who stepped back from challenging Christie and may run for U.S. Senate next year, is at the center of the urban battle. In 2010, he partnered with Christie when Facebook Inc. co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced he’d donate $100 million to Newark’s struggling, state-run schools. The two again teamed up to modify teacher tenure rules and expand charter schools in the city.
Speaking to reporters last week with Buono in a Newark diner, Booker called Christie a “friend.” Yet the mayor was among the first to officially endorse Buono and said he agrees with her on the “totality of the issues.”
Booker said he sees an effort to boost turnout taking shape in his city and other urban centers. Doing so will be central to his party’s strategy to win back the governor’s office, he told reporters in Newark’s Andros Diner.
“By October, you’ll see a real horse race,” he said.
Yet the poll this week from Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac showed that 79 percent of the 1,129 registered voters surveyed by telephone March 19-24 didn’t know enough about Buono to form an opinion. The results had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Buono has touted her life story during the campaign: Born in Newark to Italian-American immigrants, her father died when she was 19. She combined safety-net programs and hard work to make her way through college and law school, then fashioned a political career. She has said Christie’s record on issues such as women’s health care as well as state funding for education and social services is out of step with city voters.
“The governor has had the wrong policy choices, wrong priorities and has really done nothing for the cities,” Buono said during her appearance in Newark with Booker.
“It’s not about what’s crucial to win the election,” she said. “It’s about not having voters disenfranchised.” Urban voters, she said, “feel this governor has ignored them and his policies have hurt them.”
Both sides have two elections in mind as they plot a strategy to win votes in the cities: Christie’s 2009 ouster of incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, aided by Democratic power brokers who are mostly out of this year’s fight, and the 2012 presidential rout. Barack Obama, a Democrat, beat Republican Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points in New Jersey last year.
The state’s five most-urban counties, Hudson, Passaic, Essex, Camden and Union, collectively account for 1.8 million registered voters, or about a third of the 5.5 million on the statewide rolls, according to Elections Division records. About 1.23 million people, or 14 percent, of the state’s 8.8 million residents live in the 10 biggest urban centers, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
This week, Christie announced a state takeover of the failing school district in Camden, an impoverished and crime-ridden municipality across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. He has also worked to expand urban charter schools. The governor recently held his 102nd town-hall meeting in Paterson, a city of about 146,400 in northern New Jersey where, as in Newark and Jersey City, the state also runs the public schools.
Christie told about 750 people at Paterson’s St. Luke’s Baptist Church that he traveled there because “it’s hard to hate up close.” Corzine beat him 8-to-1 in the city in 2009, even as Christie won, 48.5 percent to 44.9 percent. As governor, Christie said he needs to represent every part of the state. As a candidate, he said he’ll take any vote he can get.
“I’m going to try and improve everywhere over last time,” Christie said in Stone Harbor. In 2009, Corzine drubbed him by more than 10-to-1 in Newark, with just 30 percent of voters casting ballots, according to state data. Three years later, 57 percent went to the polls there as Obama beat Romney by 20-to-1.
“If she can get 60 percent turnout in the cities, she’s in business,” said Phil Thigpen, 87, chairman of the Essex County Democratic Committee. The key for Buono will be finding strong advisers who can help her navigate urban politics, said Thigpen, a Newark native. He said she has “gotten off to a good start.”