By Angella Santi
A half-dozen Latino elected officials stood Monday with Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democrat challenging Gov. Chris Christie, saying she should be the state's next governor.
The leaders, who included a mayor whose city is 72 percent Latino and five Hispanics in the state Legislature, said Christie's economic and education policies have failed to improve the lives of the people they represent.
Latinos make up 18 percent of the state population and about 10 percent of the voting public, Census figures show.
"Gov. Christie has not done anything to address these issues,'' said Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, a Democrat who represents the 36th District, including Passaic.
``Recently, when the campaign started, he wants to be a friend. That's not what you have in Barbara Buono. She's been there for the Latinos since day one.''
Coming out on top among Hispanics is seen as important in the election, as both candidates have been actively courting Latino civic, elected and religious leaders who may influence voters. Christie is hoping to win Hispanic support to show crossover appeal that would boost his chances in a 2016 Republican primary. Buono, who trails Christie by 20 points in public polls, needs traditional Democratic groups including Hispanics to support her candidacy.
Christie opened a campaign office in Paterson and produced a Spanish-language television commercial before the June primary. Buono's running mate, labor leader Milly Silva, is Hispanic.
On Monday, Passaic Mayor Alex Blanco said Latinos are struggling to make ends meet and send their children to college. He said Buono's support of a ballot question raising the minimum wage and a bill easing tuition bills for struggling families would provide tangible benefits to Latinos.
Blanco called Buono "the right choice'' for governor because, he said, "she cares and knows our needs.''
Christie rejected legislation raising the minimum wage by $1.25 per hour, to $8.50, with annual automatic adjustments, in favor of a smaller, phased-in wage increase and outright rejection of automatic adjustments.
Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr., who represents Hoboken and teaches in Paterson, said he felt confident Buono would make education and public safety priorities if elected governor.
Like Buono, Christie has devoted campaign time to the state's 1.5 million Latinos. Both politicians have received endorsements from Latino political groups.
The progressive Latino Action Network endorsed Buono, while a coalition of churches and civic groups that make up the Latino Leadership Alliance endorsed Christie.
Sen. Nellie Pou, a Latina Democrat who represents Paterson, said Christie has overplayed his Hispanic support by publicizing what were essentially personal endorsements as organization-wide support.
One endorser, LLA President Martin Perez, was nominated to the Rutgers University Board of Governors by Christie in 2011. When the Legislature stalled the nomination, Christie bypassed lawmakers and named Perez directly to the board. Senate President Steve Sweeney has since sued to void the appointment.
But Lydia Valencia, who co-chairs Hispanics for Christie, said Democrats are distorting Christie's gubernatorial record.
"Gov. Christie has strongly and consistently been a partner with the Hispanic community to make historic progress in the fight for educational opportunity, in helping to empower our small businesses and in creating job opportunities,'' she said in a statement released by the Christie campaign.