The Republican candidate for governor talked with Bill Barlow, who generously contributed this story to Route 40. You can support Bill’s work here.
For the past eight years, Kim Guadagno has been Gov. Chris Christie’s right-hand woman, serving both as the state’s first lieutenant governor and as secretary of state. She’s crisscrossed the state with a mandate to build business and cut regulation. She also served as acting governor when Christie was campaigning in 2016, first for himself and then for Donald Trump. Guadagno said that puts her in a unique position in this year’s race.
In a phone interview in March, as a coastal storm seemed poised to slam the state with snow, flooding, wind and more, she said she’s been involved with 17 or 18 declarations of emergency since taking office.
“I like to say I’m a turnkey operation, not a startup.”
But is also ties her to a controversial figure.
Once hugely popular, Christie’s reputation took a hit from his support for Trump in blue New Jersey and from his administration’s role in the “Bridgegate,” scandal in which Christy appointees are accused of deliberately causing crippling traffic tie-ups on the George Washington Bridge as political payback for the Fort Lee mayor. Although Jersey is known for roughhouse politics, residents take traffic very seriously.
Guadagno said voters know the difference between her and Christie.
“I’m running on my record. The people will have to make their own decisions,” she said.
Part of that record includes building strong connections with disparate areas of the state. Over the past eight years, Guadagno has become a familiar presence at business conferences, ribbon cuttings, tourism meetings and other events. As a speaker, she would often give her cell phone number from the podium, saying she could be reached, and if she could help with issues she would.
That’s translated into political support. In deep red Cape May County, the local Republican organization gave her their nomination in the June primary election with an overwhelming majority over the three other announced candidates.
While she’s well known among business leaders and the party faithful, does that translate to the average voter?
In February, a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found her at the top of the Republican field with 18 percent support, well ahead of announced candidates Steve Rogers and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, and slightly better than support among Democrats for the poll’s top pick on that party’s side, Phil Murphy, who came in at 17 percent.
But an entertainer and former Saturday Night Live comedian who has suggested he may consider a run as a Republican or Independent is not far behind. Although he has not announced, Joe Piscopo got 12 percent. The poll showed 13 percent supported “someone else,” according to results announced Feb. 9.
Asked if she was concerned, Guadagno said Piscopo is not in the race. But doesn’t he have far better name recognition?
“Does he?” she responded, before asking the writer how old he was. Piscopo was cast on SNL in 1980.
If elected, Guadagno would be New Jersey’s second female governor. Christine Todd Whitman, also a Republican, held the position for much of the 1990s, and later headed the EPA under President George W. Bush.
Guadagno believes women govern differently, suggesting women are more likely to build coalitions, to communicate on issues, and less likely to present ultimatums or try to insist on a single solution. “I’m collaborative. For instance, on pensions, I’d say let’s look at a problem we all know exists, sit down with all sides and see what solutions we can come up with.
“I think that’s a very different way of doing things than we’ve seen in the recent past.”
Guadagno faces a balancing act heading into the primary. She won two statewide races on a slate with Christie. How far should she go to create distance between herself and her boss? While Christie was actively campaigning for Trump, Guadagno was critical of the GOP candidate, especially after recordings emerged of his boasting about conduct many said amounted to sexual assault. She also supports abortion rights, while Christie has said he is pro-life.
One area in which she was plainly dismissive of Christie during a phone interview was his plan to spend $300 million to renovate the statehouse in Trenton, which he described as long overdue, at one point referring to the historic building as a deathtrap.
“I would stop it. I think it should be stopped,” she said. “I’ve lived in that statehouse for eight years. So far, no bruises.”
New Jersey does not have the money for the project, she said.
“You do what you can with the money that you have. You don’t start with luxuries.”
So far, Christie has not endorsed his former running mate. Guadagno said he won’t until after the primaries.
Many New Jersey observers expected Guadagno to be sworn in as governor this year. The thinking was that after campaigning hard for Trump, Christie was certain to see a plum job with the new administration. But no job was offered. Christie has said repeatedly that he’ll serve the rest of his term.
Originally from Iowa, Guadagno attended high school in Michigan, earned a degree in political science from Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and later received a law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law. She worked as a federal law clerk in New York City before litigating cases for a private law firm.
She later served as assistant attorney general for New Jersey, from 1999 to 2001, according to her posted biography, and in 2005, she was elected commissioner in the borough of Monmouth Beach. In 2007, she became the first woman elected sheriff of Monmouth County,
In 2010, she was sworn in as New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor, a position created by constitutional amendment in 2005. Before that, the state senate president would have become governor if the sitting governor left or died in office. But after Whitman early to head the EPA and Governor James McGreevey resigned amid scandal, Jersey voters decided they wanted a new system.
According to Guadagno, the role was undefined after the referendum. It was decided she would be in charge of economic development. She said it seemed like she had nowhere to go but up.
“We had almost 10 percent unemployment. New Jersey was virtually dead last in any measure of the economy,” she said.
“In addition to keeping jobs here, I was put in charge of cutting the red tape businesses face.” She said she helped dramatically cut regulation in the state, leading to seven and a half years of continued job growth.