Posted December 9, 2008
Power Issue: Bill Baroni
By CAREN CHESLER
How do you become a star in the state’s Republican Party—spearheading John McCain’s presidential campaign here, serving two terms in the Assembly and one in the state Senate, and landing a seat on the powerful Judiciary Committee—by the time you’re 36?
Begin your political career, like Bill Baroni, at the age of 14. Baroni made his first foray into politics in the ninth grade, when a former teacher asked him to volunteer in the campaign office of his local Congressman, Republican Chris Smith. Baroni stuffed envelopes, put up lawn signs, and knocked on doors, trying to get out the vote. By the end of the campaign, he had fallen in love with the people and the process.
Baroni’s political career began in earnest after graduating from college in 1994, in much the way many political careers have been launched: He became a powerful politician’s chauffeur. Baroni drove around Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian during his failed run for the U.S. Senate. He clocked 120,000 miles over eleven months in Haytaian’s Ford Econoline van, which they called the Chuck Wagon. By the end of the campaign, Baroni could find a diner or donut shop in any part of the state in five minutes flat.
After the election, Baroni headed to the University of Virginia School of Law. He also enrolled in Duke University’s weight-loss program. Always a chubby adolescent, he arrived at Duke at 312 pounds. He left 130 pounds lighter. He says the weight loss changed his life.
When he returned to Hamilton Township, Baroni joined a local law firm but was soon on the road again, joining John McCain’s presidential campaign in December 1999, serving as chief counsel for Congressman Bob Franks when he ran for the U.S. Senate, and working for local politicians such as state senator Peter Inverso and Mercer County executive Bob Prunetti. Baroni was the election lawyer for Doug Forrester’s 2002 U.S. Senate campaign, and he pled Forrester’s case before the state Supreme Court when the candidate tried unsuccessfully to prevent Democrat Frank Lautenberg from entering the race. Lautenberg wanted to replace Robert Torricelli, who withdrew from the race following corruption charges.
The following year, at the age of 32, Baroni decided to run for office himself.
“I didn’t want to wake up at 50 and find I hadn’t run for the job I always wanted in the Assembly,” he says.
To win office in a predominantly Democratic district, Baroni used the most valuable skill he learned from Chris Smith—a responsiveness to constituents. His opponents spent about $3 million and had the endorsements of business and labor organizations, so Baroni used the one resource he had: time. From January until election day, seven days a week, he went door-to-door, introducing himself, handing out brochures, and asking residents what they wanted from government. He says he hit 10,809 homes.
It didn’t hurt that his opponent made a critical error. Incumbent Democrat Gary Guear claimed Baroni lied in campaign literature by saying he was a lifelong resident of Hamilton Township when in fact he was born in Jacksonville, Florida. The charge forced Baroni to reveal that his birth mother was an unwed Irish immigrant who only went to Florida to have her baby, and that he was adopted days later by a couple from New Jersey. The revelation only enamored Baroni to the working-class voters of his district. “I still have people coming up to me with their little kids, saying, ‘Senator Baroni is just like you. He’s adopted, too,’” Baroni says.
But Baroni’s appeal goes well beyond his stamina. Aside from being handsome, colleagues say he is witty, exceedingly bright, and can be quite eloquent.
“He’s a wonderful speaker,” says state senator Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon), who was recently elected to Congress. “He’s very logical in his speaking ability due to his training as a great lawyer. And he’s always extremely knowledgeable on the issues.”
Baroni has even made fans across the aisle. Having fought for issues like improving education and job conditions for state employees, he is viewed as having a centrist agenda.
“He talks about issues in ways that make sense, he chooses issues that matter to people, and he avoids the unnecessary confrontations and partisanship that turn people off,” says state Senator John Adler (R-Camden), also newly elected to Congress.
Baroni’s centrist views likely come from his parents, whom he describes as having had a mixed marriage: His father was Republican, his mother a Democrat.
“They would drive to the polling place and cancel out each other’s vote,” Baroni says. And in the process, they nurtured a politician who plays well with both parties.