Gubernatorial hopeful Barbara Buono stuck to familiar themes in a campaign stop at a Ridgewood candidates forum Monday night.
The Democratic state senator, who is trailing in the polls to incumbent Gov. Chris Christie, made a brief appearance at a forum on jobs sponsored by Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a support and networking group for the unemployed, hosted at the Ridgewood Elks Lodge.
During the forum, candidates were questioned solely on jobs, in a Q&A moderated by the staunchly nonpartisan Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder John Fugazzie.
In her allotted speaking time, Buono highlighted her biography as a perennial “underdog,” both as a candidate and as a struggling law student relying at times on a social safety net and affordable tuition at Montclair State University and Rutgers Law School.
“I couldn’t do it today,” she told a small crowd gathered in the nonprofit’s back room, referring to what she characterized as tuition opportunities lacking for today’s generation of students. “That was the difference between me and poverty.”
“Tuition has gone through the roof, and it far exceeds people’s salaries,” she added.
Buono championed themes common in the talks given by other candidates for Bergen County freeholder and state senate from both parties during the forum, including a need for more programs to retrain older workers displaced by structural changes in the economy and higher education programs more closely attuned to the skills needed by corporations already present in the state.
The effect of tax rates on job growth were proven less consequential than often claimed, she said, by the loss of New Jersey jobs to places like New York and California – “hardly tax havens,” she noted.
“What these states have in common is a strong research partnership between the private sector and academia,” she said.
Buono left without taking questions from the audience, who were able to question other candidates participating in the forum.
State Assemblyman David Russo, a surrogate dispatched to the forum by the Christie campaign, called Buono an “excellent candidate,” but disputed the claim by the challenger that Christie’s economic policies represented a “trickle down” approach.
Tax credits for corporations, he said, are part of the solution. But he also stressed that property taxes, kept down with the state’s 2 percent cap, supplemented the approach with relief to the middle class.
“Property taxes have been killing the middle class,” he said, arguing that the governor’s business initiatives, which have been endorsed by many Democrats, have produced growth in employment far beyond the economic climate in the state when Christie took over in 2009.
Still, he remained candid about the continued challenges in the state economy, something that Fugazzie had said he hoped would resonate with candidates after meeting with members of his group.
“It is very difficult to turn things around in four or eight years,” he said.
And Russo emphasized bipartisanship, a theme Christie himself has touted especially after partisan gridlock in Washington resulted in a shutdown of the federal government.
“If it weren’t for people like Buono and [Democratic state Sen.] Bob Gordon, you wouldn’t have anything getting done,” he said. “[Republicans] don’t have nearly enough votes.”