Chasing Guadagno, the Woman Who Could Be Christie
Will elusive lieutenant governor, who becomes acting governor when Christie's out of town, ever go from understudy to starring role?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is off in California this week vacationing with his family. That means — as it has for all or part of 62 days so far this year — that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is running New Jersey.
Guadagno has been an elusive presence to the press for her more than four years as the state's lieutenant governor. Although she has a robust public schedule — more than 1,000 public events and speeches — she hasn't done a news conference since Memorial Day...2013. She has never sat down for a complete newspaper profile, where her policy positions and political ambitions could be probed. And repeated requests for a WNYC interview were simply ignored by Christie's office, which handles her schedule.
Guadagno has become an increasingly important story for reporters, because pretty soon, Guadagno could be the governor — full-time. If Christie runs for president, he could resign, leaving her in charge until the next election. And even if he runs and doesn't resign, she'd be running the state while he's campaigning around the country.
So last month I showed up, unannounced, at one of the public events on Guadagno's schedule. The event was a tour of a farm in Lambertville, and it was listed on her schedule the same way almost all of her events are listed: "OPEN, NO AVAIL." That means reporters can come but aren't supposed to ask questions.
"Matt has a crush on me," Guadagno quipped to an aide when she pulled up at the farm and saw me standing there, microphone in hand.
I asked Guadagno if she would sit down with me after her tour of the farm so I could ask her a few questions.
"That depends entirely on what y’all want to ask," she said. "You don’t want to sit down with the Secretary of Agriculture?"
My quest for a one-on-one interview with Guadagno has become something of a joke at the State House. During the Legislative Correspondents Club dinner last year, Guadagno and Christie did a spoof video in which Christie pretended to be Guadagno’s assistant, carrying her hand sanitizer and briefcase.
GUADAGNO: What do we have on the schedule today, Chris? CHRISTIE: Matt Katz wants five minutes. They both laugh.
GUADAGNO: OK, what else?
While Guadagno visited the farm as the acting governor of New Jersey, Christie was in Idaho at the elite Sun Valley Conference, hanging with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg and General Stanley McCrystal.
"You're the governor! Can't you say that?" asked the farmer, Robert Fulper, who owns the land that Guadagno toured.
"Acting governor," Guadagno responded.
Guadagno is the acting governor a lot — for almost a third of 2014, so far — because Christie is traveling so much as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, campaigning for GOP governors and laying the groundwork for his own possible presidential campaign in 2016.
At the farm, I asked Guadagno if she wanted to be governor one day.
GUADAGNO: We’ll see if that opportunity ever presents itself. KATZ: It could be… GUADAGNO: Keep trying. KATZ: It could be sooner than later, potentially. GUADAGNO: Ya know, let’s not deal in hypotheticals. I’m a former federal prosecutor, I don’t deal in hypotheticals. But I did like your question to the governor during his debate. That was very good.
At Christie’s gubernatorial debate last October, I asked the governor about why Guadagno doesn't talk to reporters. He said this: "Matt, let me tell you, I’m really proud of the lieutenant governor and she’s done an extraordinary job. She appears publicly all the time. And if you showed up, my understanding is she answers questions from you guys all the time. My understanding is you guys just never show up to see her."
But the following week, when my colleague Sarah Gonzalez went to a luncheon where Guadagno was speaking, Guadagno wouldn't take even one question.
The governor's office dictates Guadagno's interaction with the press. Documents released in the Bridgegate investigation also show that local officials’ requests for meetings with the lieutenant governor are diverted through the governor's office.
And her daily schedules — endless chamber of commerce luncheons and a ribbon cutting for a new IHOP on Route 36 in Keyport — read like a list of things Christie did not want to go to.
Christie tapped Iowa-born Guadagno, then the sheriff of Monmouth County, to be his running mate in 2009. Guadagno became the first lieutenant governor in state history, the beneficiary of a new law created after former Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned. Christie designated her as both the Secretary of State — overseeing elections and cultural programs — and as his top liaison to the business community, for which she has worked to cut regulations. And so at the farm, she promises Fulper that her office will look into a state permit he is struggling to get to shoot the deer on his property that are eating his crops.
Guadagno answers general questions about this aspect of her job. But I tell Guadagno that I have questions on other topics, like allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, which are now under federal investigation, that she threatened to take away Sandy aid if the mayor did not approve a development deal. When Guadagno made her only public statement denying this, she didn't take questions from reporters.
I would also like to know where she stands on issues important to voters: abortion, climate change and the use of tax subsidies to keep companies in the state.
Guadagno says I need to contact the press office to talk to her further. If Christie's spokespeople give the green light, would she agree to sit down with me?
"I would of course agree to it once you get through the press office," Guadagno said.
That was three weeks ago. I never did get through the press office.