Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono stood alongside four fellow Democrats running for Senate on Tuesday to bring attention to the state's foreclosure problems, a rare showing of broad support for her in what has sometimes seemed like a lonely campaign against popular Gov. Chris Christie.
"You are going to be seeing more'' of the Democratic unity, Buono said. "The issues are much bigger than the Democratic Party _ minimum wage, social issues, highest property taxes in the nation, and the list goes on and on. We get past our family fights.''
On Monday, Christie picked off another in what has become a string of Democrat defections in the race for governor. He was endorsed by the influential black church leader Bishop Reginald Jackson, who based his choice on school vouchers. Christie, like Jackson, supports using taxpayer funds to allow children in failing schools to attend other schools, including private or parochial schools, and Buono does not.
The issue of housing foreclosures caused no such split among the Democrats running for statewide offices this fall. At Tuesday's event, they took turns empathizing with homeowners who owe more than the properties are worth, scolding big banks for refusing to renegotiate mortgage loans that should not have been made and criticizing Christie for not doing more to help struggling homeowners. Most had attended a unity breakfast late last month to heal intraparty rifts and get Democrats on the same page.
"You've not heard Gov. Christie talk about mortgage foreclosure,'' said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the only woman in the Democratic Senate primary. "He has not issued one commentary during his campaign about unemployed people, about people facing foreclosure.''
"Sen. Buono said it aptly,'' Oliver added, "The Democratic Party is the party in New Jersey that addresses and cares about this issue.''
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the Democrats are "mischaracterizing and politicizing the issue.''
The Democrats had gathered outside the home of Grace Alexander, a health care worker and SEIU member, who has been in her two-story home for 13 years and has been struggling to keep it since her balloon-type mortgage payments began to rise four years ago. After much persistence, she said she got the bank to agree to refinance her loan, but that deal made her monthly payments increase by an unmanageable $300 per month.
Buono, who was endorsed by SEIU 1199 in February, called out the Christie administration for sitting on $300 million in federal housing assistance meant to help homeowners like Alexander.
The administration Christie added several dozen staffers to process applications for the aid after media reports last year that just 10 percent of the funds had been disbursed. Drewniak said Tuesday that half the money had been disbursed and the rest is earmarked from people who have already applied.
Oliver said Christie has vetoed foreclosure-related Democratic bills, including that may have helped neighborhoods by allowing others to buy up already foreclosed properties, while Buono said Christie's inaction has resulted in New Jersey retaining its slot as the state with the second highest foreclosure rate.
"We can provide the funding on the federal level to the state of New Jersey, but if we have a governor who sits on his hands and doesn't do anything to push this money out and get these people's mortgages renegotiated, that's what Barbara is talking about,'' said Rep. Frank Pallone, one of the Senate candidates.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the clear frontrunner in the Senate race, urged reporters to focus on the foreclosure issue, not the candidates. Rep. Rush Holt, the fourth Senate candidate, called members of Congress who voted to underfund pro-homeowner legislation "hard hearted.''