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Kim Guadagno: The Unknown Lieutenant Governor

Jon Hurdle | October 31, 2013
kim guadagno: The Unknown Lieutenant Governor
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

For a woman who’s only a heartbeat, or a presidential campaign, away from the governorship of New Jersey, not much is known about Kim Guadagno.

For the past four years, the lieutenant governor has cultivated an image as a staunch adjutant to Gov. Chris Christie, appearing dutifully -- but silently -- at his side at press conferences but leaving voters without much of a clue as to who she is or what she does.

Advisories for her appearances at ribbon cuttings, awards presentations, and school visits routinely state that the events are open to the press but that there is no “availability,” meaning she won’t take questions from reporters.

Her reluctance to speak to the media extends even to the current gubernatorial campaign, in which she is running for another four years as Christie’s second in command, a position that would take on increasing importance if, as widely expected, the governor decides to run for president.

With the Republican governor’s apparently unassailable lead in the polls, that would leave Guadagno as New Jersey’s chief executive for the extended periods when Christie would be out of state.

Guadagno’s campaign staff declined two requests for an interview with NJ Spotlight for this story, saying only that her schedule was too tight to allow time for a discussion in person or by phone.

Asked instead to respond to a list of emailed questions about her achievements in office so far, and her hopes for another term, her office provided only generic campaign material.

“As you would expect, with the Sandy anniversary and a campaign bus tour on the horizon, scheduling is extraordinarily tight,” Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for the Christie campaign, wrote in an email on October 24.

Roberts accused NJ Spotlight of imposing a “very abbreviated timeline” on its request for the interview, and denied that Guadagno is trying to avoid publicity.

“Your premise of someone who is not well known, I would hope would be given appropriate context,” he wrote. “Not only with respect to other figures in state government leadership, but also with the amount of public events and initiatives she has in fact been a part of.”

Asked why Guadagno does not normally make herself available to the press at her public appearances, Roberts said those events “are not press conferences or do not lend themselves from a logistical perspective for taking questions from the press.”

Although her appearances don’t usually allow time for a formal question-and-answer session with the press, Guadagno “often” speaks informally to reporters at public events, Roberts said. He said he has responded similarly to other news organizations that have “furthered this odd narrative of nonavailability.”

But there's nothing odd about the narrative to Sarah Gonzalez, a radio reporter for WNYC/NJPR. When asked about Guadagno at the last debate, Christie said that reporters simply don't turn up at her events. So Gonzalez attended an event and asked a question, to which the lieutenant governor replied, "No availability means no availability."

By contrast, campaign events by Democratic challenger Barbara Buono and her running mate Milly Silva routinely include press availability. On October 22, for example, their schedule included six events in six counties, all of which had press availability.

But it’s not only the media who are starved for information about the woman who could become the de facto governor.

At the only televised debate of the lieutenant governor’s campaign, the 54-year-old former prosecutor and mother of three sons was asked by a student at Kean University to tell the TV and studio audiences something personal about herself.

“Most New Jerseyans don’t know who you are, as we should,” the questioner said in a video. “What should we know about you to help us make a wise decision when we go to the polls?”

Rather than talking about her beliefs, her family or her aspirations for a second term, Guadagno, who lives in Monmouth Beach and previously served as Monmouth County sheriff, responded only by reiterating her administration’s record on job creation, and accusing Buono of voting to raise taxes 154 times during her 18 years in the legislature. Guadagno’s husband, Michael, is an Appellate Court judge.

The debate, on October 11, was Guadagno’s best chance to raise her public profile. She highlighted the fact that she has spent the last four years heading up economic development and offering tax incentives to businesses to set up or expand in New Jersey.

She said she has “helped to create” 143,000 private-sector jobs in her four years as lieutenant governor, and argued that the state now has the fastest rate of job creation in 12 years.

Among the companies she has helped to attract or retain in the past four years are Lockheed Martin, Campbell Soup, and Burlington Coat Factory.

But she quickly deflected the credit for job creation and other policy successes to Christie himself. “The first thing you have to know is that it’s not my vision, it’s the governor’s vision,” she said.

Despite her low-profile, Guadagno has made some missteps. In 2011, Guadagno alienated some members of the state’s arts community by saying that the New Jersey State Council on the Arts had improperly awarded $300,000 worth of contracts for public art projects.

The council’s former executive director, Steve Runk, resigned after Guadagno called for his dismissal. Runk, who now works for Princeton University, declined to comment on the events, saying only that he didn’t want to relive the “terrible things that were done.” But Guadagno’s accusations never came to anything after a state investigation. Many in the arts community believe that Runk was unfairly demonized and damaged for reasons unknown.

Others are more supportive. Caren Franzini, former director of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, who met with Guadagno on a weekly basis, praised the lieutenant governor’s work with the agency, saying she recognized what business needed to come to or stay in New Jersey, and worked hard to achieve that.

“She knew how to be very responsive to their needs,” Franzini said, in an interview. She described Guadagno as “forceful in a positive way.”

By contrast with Guadagno’s strong pro-business agenda, Silva strives to create a populist image by calling for a minimum wage hike, higher taxes on the wealthy, property tax relief, and more state funding for schools.

In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Silva said a Buono administration would reintroduce the so-called “millionaire’s tax”, which would have raised the rate on people with incomes over $1 million to 10.75 percent from 8.97 percent, generating some $800 million for property tax relief. Christie vetoed the plan for the third time in July 2012.

“We do believe that the wealthiest in New Jersey should pay their fair share,” Silva said.

She also backed the campaign -- to be put to voters as a constitutional amendment on the November 5 ballot -- for the minimum wage to be raised to $8.25 an hour from the current $7.25, a measure supported by 65 percent of registered voters in a recent Monmouth University poll.

But Buono and Silva’s support for such popular causes isn’t likely to help their chances much because their campaign is underfunded, argued Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Buono doesn't have the resources she should to get her message out,” Dworkin said, shortly before the latest Monmouth poll, published October 15, showing Christie leading by 24 percentage points, up from 19 points in early October.

Born in the Bronx, NY, to a single mother from Puerto Rico, Silva highlights a career advocating for the poor. For the last decade, she has been an executive at local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union where she said she has helped negotiate some 200 employment contracts for healthcare workers, worth a total of around $1 billion.

“I want to make sure that the people who are struggling the most are getting a hand up,” she said in the interview.

She dismissed speculation that she was brought in to the Buono campaign in a last-ditch effort to build support from the party base -- particularly among Latinos, union members, and women – at a time when even some Democratic officials have said they will vote for Christie.

“Those charges are preposterous,” she said. “Barbara Buono wants to do something about the horrible unemployment rate. Her asking me to run was because she understood that I also understand that struggle. I am proud to be a Latina and a labor leader and a woman but I am prepared to represent all of the people of New Jersey.”

Silva, 42, lives in Montclair with her husband, John, and their children ages four, eight, and 10. She is a Columbia University graduate who was the first in her family to earn a college degree after receiving loans, grants, and, in earlier years, a middle-school scholarship.

The scholarship offered her an opportunity that was not available to other children in her neighborhood, and inspired her later work for economic equality, she said.

She conceded that she and Buono agree with Christie that the state should give tax incentives to attract job-creating business to New Jersey, but argued that tax breaks alone are not enough to drive down unemployment.

“We do not believe that it’s a one-trick pony that should be used to make sure we have a strong New Jersey economy,” she said. “That has been Chris Christie’s strategy and we have seen the consequences.”

Saying she is qualified to become governor if required to, Silva called herself a “fair and tough” negotiator who seeks to ensure both that workers get “a fair shake” and that the businesses that employ them remain competitive. “I know what it means to partner,” she said.

On Sandy recovery, Silva attacked Christie for spending $2 million of federal money on the “Stronger than the Storm” ad campaign.

In the debate, Guadagno conceded that the state still has “a ways to go” before all victims are back in their homes, but argued that all roads, schools and water-treatment plants that were closed by the storm have been reopened.

She defended the administration’s record on Sandy recovery but again deflected the credit to Christie himself.

“There was no playbook for Sandy,” Guadagno said. “The governor wrote that playbook. There’s no time for talk, we need to act, and that’s what this governor is doing.”

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