PRINCETON, New Jersey — Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Barbara Buono agree the state was an economic mess when Christie took office in January 2010, but are at odds over how it got that way — and how to sustain a robust economy.
The two candidates in the November governor's race outlined their economic visions during their first joint appearance Wednesday night, a state Business and Industry Association event. Buono was received politely by the 450 people in attendance; Christie was greeted enthusiastically.
Buono spoke first and defended her tenure as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, saying that the worst economic recession in modern history had a firm hold on the state during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
The Metuchen senator, who is trailing badly public opinion polls, said she is proud of how Democratic leaders handled the crisis.
"In fact, the January 2009 issue of NJBIA magazine — looking back at the legislative accomplishments of the past year — said, 'there is nothing typical about what is happening in Trenton right now,'" she said. "You had praise for legislative leaders at the time, saying that we 'reacted quickly and forcefully to the economic crisis confronting New Jersey.'"
Christie set the scene by describing the over-regulated, over-taxed business community he said he inherited three-and-a-half years ago, then detailed the ways in which his administration created a more business-friendly climate by cutting regulations and providing tax incentives. Additionally, he touted a state workforce that has shrunk by 5,200 employees and 25,000 fewer public employees across the state.
"Four years ago, we were a despondent state — rudderless, leaderless, drifting toward continued decline," he said. "Four years later, the people again have hope."
Christie said the most telling measure of the state's turnaround is how residents feel about their state. Sixty-one percent in a recent poll believe the state is moving in the right direction, compared with 26 percent who felt that way the week before the '09 election.
Earlier Wednesday, Buono received an expected but major union endorsement. The New Jersey state AFL-CIO's support comes in the same week that Christie received support from some high-profile Democrats.
The AFL-CIO, meeting in Atlantic City, said it supports Buono, in part because she supports a minimum wage increase that Christie vetoed. The minimum wage issue is now headed to a ballot referendum.
Union president Charles Wowkanech said Buono will do more for middle-class families than Christie does.
"She is the only candidate who understands that in order to grow our economy we need to work from the bottom up — ensuring access to a quality education, family-sustaining jobs, and economic opportunities to achieve a middle class lifestyle," he said.
Christie received endorsements Tuesday from several Democratic Essex County leaders, including County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, the top elected official in the county government. Christie said at a news conference in Monmouth Beach on Wednesday that he expects to announce more endorsements from Democrats in coming weeks.
In another development Wednesday with a bearing on the governor's race, Buono and other Democratic leaders reached a compromise designed to mend a rift in the party over who should lead it.
Usually, the gubernatorial candidate gets to choose the state party chair. But other leaders objected to Buono's choice of Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell and were instead supporting state Sen. Ray Lesniak.
Both those lawmakers rescinded their candidacies Wednesday as Buono and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced a compromise choice for the job, John Currie. He's also the chairman of the Passaic County Democratic Committee.
There has not been such excitement over the chairmanship of the state Republican organization. The party unanimously re-elected Saddle River Mayor Samuel Raia to another term Tuesday.