She was born in Newark in 1953. Her father was an immigrant butcher from a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her mother was an office worker and substitute teacher.
She attended public schools in Nutley where by all accounts she received a great public education and was well prepared to take on the rigors of higher education at Montclair State College and Rutgers Law School.
But Barbara Buono wasn’t prepared to lose her father when she was just 19 years old.
Still, the values her father and her mother instilled in her—perseverance and self-sacrifice—sustained her as she put herself through college, and later law school.
Those values sustained her through periods of unemployment, and when she had no choice but to accept food stamps. Without health insurance, she depended on organizations such as Planned Parenthood for routine health check-ups.
Yet today she is a New Jersey senator running for governor of New Jersey.
Sen. Barbara Buono is an example of what can happen in America—and particularly in New Jersey—when hard work meets opportunity.
Equality of opportunity
Today, somewhere in New Jersey, there is surely another teenaged girl who, like Barbara Buono, is learning the value of hard work, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. Those values, no doubt, will sustain her throughout her life despite the challenges and misfortunes that will come her way.
But whether today’s young men and women will have the opportunity to achieve their dreams is precisely why Barbara Buono wants to be the next governor.
When telling her story, Barbara Buono is quick to note that it wasn’t only her parents’ strong values that put her through college. It wasn’t only the great education she received at Washington Elementary and Nutley High schools.
With that strong foundation, she and the students of her generation were also the beneficiaries of accessible federal and state-sponsored grants, scholarships, and loans. They were the beneficiaries of well-subsidized institutions of public higher education that could in turn charge an affordable tuition.
And they were the beneficiaries of a culture that valued education and the men and women who devoted their lives to teaching and serving children.
As Barbara Buono said herself at a meeting with over 800 NJEA local and county association leaders, “I am who I am because of this state. I am standing here because of hard work and opportunity.”
Christie deflects poor record with rhetoric
But under Gov. Chris Christie we are told that education and public investment are too expensive and that teachers, educational support professionals—indeed all public employees—are to blame.
To deflect attention from his own poor record—cutting over $1 billion from public education his first year in office, the region’s highest unemployment rate and slowest job growth—this “tough talking” governor demeans the very people that Barbara Buono’s generation were raised to emulate: teachers, school support staff, police officers, firefighters, and other public servants.
In Christie’s world view, teachers use children as “drug mules,” union workers are “greedy,” and promises such as, “Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor,” are merely campaign promises that are callously broken after the votes are tallied.
A return to opportunity
A Buono administration would be a breath of fresh air. Esteem for working men and women—including those who work in our schools—would return. The needs of the middle class and the vulnerable would once again be on the agenda.
In Barbara Buono we finally will have a governor who will fully fund schools under the funding formula she sponsored as a senator in 2008. She’ll make sure children get the start they need with quality pre-school and full-day kindergarten.
Collective bargaining will be given the respect it deserves—a value Barbara Buono championed when she opposed the governor and even some leaders in her own party, as they passed Chapter 78 into law and diminished bargaining rights and reduced your take-home pay. That stand cost Barbara Buono her position as Senate Majority Leader. But she’d “do it all over again, because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Through her personal story and her stands in public life, Barbara Buono has shown that she understands the struggles of the everyday residents of New Jersey. She is a smart, determined leader who never gives up.
(This editorial appears in the October 2013 issue of the NJEA Reporter.)