Plumeri answers the call of government

Barbara Plumeri finds it hard to resist the lure of government.

In the course of a 37-year career, Plumeri has worked with the AFL-CIO union, for her own bid reporting service and in marketing for law firms and small businesses. She’s enjoyed the private sector just fine, but there’s just something about government that keeps her coming back. And back. And back.

Her political and governmental experience has brought her across New Jersey and to every level of government. She has worked with the likes of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio and former governor and U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine. She has campaigned locally for figures like former Hamilton mayor Glen D. Gilmore and former Mercer County sheriff Sam Plumeri, her husband.

In recent years, Plumeri had taken something of a break from the political scene to care for her mother-in-law, Josephine Plumeri, the matriarch of the Trenton Thunder baseball club. A planned comeback in early 2012 working with state Sen. Linda Greenstein was put on hold when Josephine died on Plumeri’s first day. Plumeri left the job to attend to family matters.

But nearly two years later, she’s back in it yet again, albeit in a capacity Plumeri never imagined chasing. For the first time, she has thrown her own name into a race for elected office. Plumeri is one of three candidates for the remaining two years of John Bencivengo’s unexpired term as mayor of Hamilton Township. Voters will make their choice on Election Day, Nov. 5.

Plumeri, 55, credits her family for introducing her to government and politics. She grew up in and around influential Democrats in Hudson and Passaic Counties. Both her father and grandfather were active in politics.

Plumeri’s father, Robert Jablonski, served as the head of the New Jersey Highway Authority in the 1980s, and was well-known in the state’s Democratic circles, particularly in northeastern New Jersey. (According to The New York Times, Jablonski also was one subject of a federal government investigation surrounding kickbacks in the mid-1990s. The investigation cost Joseph C. Salema, who later pleaded guilty to taking more than $200,000 in bribes, his job as Florio’s Chief of Staff. Salema’s business partner, Nicholas Rudi, was acquitted of all charges. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jablonski allegedly paid Salema $90,000 in kickbacks. He was never charged with a crime.)

Plumeri said it was only natural to go into politics after growing up around politically active people. It’s what she knew.

“It was probably my family’s activities with the local party,” Plumeri said. “It was just a natural progression. Everyone in my family had been very involved with politics.”

Plumeri attended Edward Williams College—then associated with Farleigh Dickinson University—after high school, but found she had more interest in government than school. She left to find political work. Plumeri has taken classes here and there since then, but has never cashed in the credits for a diploma.

“It was fine and everything else, but I wanted to go work in government,” she said.

Plumeri started her political career right away. In 1977, at 19, she worked on U.S. Rep. Bob Roe’s campaign for governor. Roe was one of a number of Democrats to challenge incumbent Brendan Bryne in primary. Plumeri impressed enough that, within a few years, she already had advanced to organizing a campaign.

In her first major role, Plumeri helped a fellow member of the Passiac County Young Democrats to run for U.S. Senate, taking control of the campaign’s field operations. In a stunt to raise awareness, Plumeri planned to incorporate the candidate’s affinity for long-distance running into the campaign. She mapped out an 8-day route for the candidate to run, spanning from Paterson to Cape May and hitting every county in-between.

“We got absolutely no press at all,” Plumeri said. “He came in dead last in that primary. But, apparently, some of the people in field operations over at the Lautenberg campaign were quite impressed with the field operation and the design of how I coordinated that trip down New Jersey.”

The Lautenberg campaign hired Plumeri after the primary as the deputy field operator. It was Lautenberg’s first campaign for U.S. Senate. He would go on to win, and serve until his death June 3. Not including a short break from office in the early 2000s, Lautenberg spent 28 years in the Senate.

Lautenberg kept Plumeri with him during the transition from candidate to senator. Plumeri worked on Lautenberg’s staff for most of his first term in office, from 1982 until 1986, as the director of administrative services in his North Jersey district office. She also spent two weekends each month driving Lautenberg to various events around the state, picking the senator’s brain on governmental issues.

Plumeri said she became addicted to working in government during those years with Lautenberg, and they influenced the way she approaches government.

“Having people call with problems and sometimes being able to solve them … I found great satisfaction in finding my way through government,” she said. “Realizing the labyrinth of government, and realizing it’s a challenge to get through it, but when you get there, you find someone else at the end of the line who says you can shake things up a bit. Wow, it’s a great feeling.”

Plumeri left Lautenberg to take a job with the AFL-CIO. After four years with the AFL-CIO, she transitioned back into government, joining the staff of John Russo, who was then president of the state senate. After working with Russo, Plumeri took a role with a nonprofit in Hudson County and then went into the bid reporting business with her father. It was back into government a few years later when Gov. Florio called Plumeri to run his North Jersey field office in Newark.

It’s been in and out like this for most of Plumeri’s life, and she said her résumé has also served her well locally.

Assemblyman Dan Benson has known Plumeri since 1998, when both became involved in the township’s Democratic Party. At the time, Plumeri had lent her expertise to Glen Gilmore’s mayoral campaign. Benson said he came away impressed not only with Plumeri’s knowledge, but also her leadership abilities.

“She was someone who had a lot of governmental experience, and she was someone who wanted to bring a change to Hamilton,” Benson said. “She brings a unique perspective to the township with that experience and that vision.”

Plumeri has lived in Hamilton for more than 20 years now. She has worked as a consultant for small businesses, and helped out the local Democrats.

In the past year, as she geared up for the mayoral campaign, Plumeri walked around the township in an attempt to introduce herself to voters. But even if they didn’t know her, Plumeri said they should be assured that she knows two things vital to the job she’s running for: government and Hamilton.

“The minute I moved here Hamilton was my hometown,” Plumeri said. “I love this place. I know the township very, very well.”