Who’s the Governor of New Jersey When the Governor’s Out-of-Town?

John Reitmeyer | February 1, 2016 | Politics
Guadagno’s frequent pinch-hitting role turns spotlight on second-in-command job created by a voters a decade ago

Credit: NJ Office of Information Technology
Acting Gov. Kim Guadagno, with NJ DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, view the effects of winter storm Jonas in North Wildwood.
When Gov. Chris Christie left New Jersey to return to the presidential campaign trail immediately after a major winter storm walloped the state last week, it was Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno who personally visited barrier-island communities where the storm’s floodwaters had caused the most damage.

And while Guadagno toured places like North Wildwood, Christie faced questions during a town hall event in New Hampshire about why he wasn’t still in New Jersey helping and consoling storm victims.

“What do you want me to do,” Christie shot back at his questioner. “You want me to go down there with a mop?”

The exchange — and the backlash it triggered back home — largely overshadowed Guadagno’s efforts in the wake of the storm. It was also just the latest example of Guadagno assuming a responsibility as the state’s acting governor that likely would have been handled by Christie were he not seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.

And it also exemplified just how much having a second-in-command has changed the face of state government, a decade after voters here decided to rewrite the state constitution to create the new position of lieutenant governor.

That change has established a clear line of gubernatorial succession within the executive branch, and has also provided women and minorities with a new high-profile leadership opportunity. Those were two key goals, according to sponsors, of the original constitutional amendment.

But it’s also had an unintended consequence, enabling Christie’s frequent absenteeism as he pursues a the GOP nomination. A recent report by WNYC political reporter Matt Katz said Christie was away from New Jersey for 261 days in 2015.

[related]Under the succession rules that were in place before Christie and Guadagno, both Republicans, took office in early 2010, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) would be serving as acting governor today with Christie again out-of-state. And that would have left Sweeney, as both acting governor and Senate president, free to adopt his own legislative priorities, such as tax hikes on millionaires or larger public-employee pension contributions, without Christie having any say.

“If we had not created the position of lieutenant governor, Gov. Christie would face some very significant challenges by being out-of-state so much,” said Ben Dworkin, a Rider University political science professor and director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

Approved by wide margin

New Jersey voters approved the ballot question creating the lieutenant governor role by a wide margin in the 2005 general election.

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), a primary sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment when she was in the Assembly, said the new position was intended to address “separation of power” concerns that were prevalent at the time.

Those concerns were being raised following several tests of the previous gubernatorial-succession process, which had been in place for decades.

For example, from late January 2001 to early January 2002, then-Senate President Donald DiFrancesco (R-Union) assumed the role of acting governor without having to step down from his legislative post after then-Gov. Christie Whitman resigned to take a position in President George W. Bush’s administration. A few years later, Sen. Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) served as governor from November 2004 to January 2006, in the wake of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation following a sex scandal.

Without a lieutenant governor already in the executive branch, having a Senate president serve as acting governor meant that person had immense power without direct authorization from voters, Greenstein said.

“It was the idea that the person who got it was really running two parts of the government at the same time,” she said.

But there was also a desire, Greenstein said, to create a position that would provide new opportunities for women and minorities in a state whose politics have long been dominated by white males. And the sponsors, she said, wanted more than just a “window dressing” role. Thus, the constitutional amendment also gave the winning governor the power to appoint the lieutenant governor to a cabinet-leadership position and take on other important duties.

On ballot with Christie in 2009

Christie went on to pick Guadagno, then the Monmouth County sheriff, to run on his slate in 2009, the first year the lieutenant governor position was on the ballot. Incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine selected longtime state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) as his running mate.

After the Christie-Guadagno slate prevailed, Christie selected Guadagno to serve as secretary of the Department of State. Guadagno has also spearheaded the administration’s efforts to stimulate economic development and trim bureaucratic red tape throughout her six years in office.

Guadagno is now considering running for governor herself as Christie will soon reach the state’s gubernatorial two-term limit. Last spring, the Wall Street Journal reported Guadagno’s interest in the job, adding that several state GOP officials and donors were hoping she would decide to run.

Greenstein said she’s not really certain just how much of a player Guadagno is in Christie’s administration, particularly during the periods when the governor has been out-of-state pursuing political missions.

“I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes,” Greenstein said. “It’s certainly an impression of mine that she is just holding down the fort and not really doing much.”

The governor’s office didn’t respond last week when offered a chance to comment on Greenstein’s observations or on Guadagno’s stepped up responsibilities during Christie’s frequent absences.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, said his organization 10 years ago pushed for a slightly different constitutional amendment on gubernatorial succession. Under that version, the governor and lieutenant governor candidates would have run not on the same slate, but as individual candidates. Electing them that way, Tittel said, would have reduced the likelihood that a governor could be absent as much Christie has been while running for president.

“Christie would be less likely to be running all over the country. We’d have acting Gov. Loretta Weinberg,” joked Tittel, suggesting Weinberg would have beaten the lesser-known Guadagno in 2009.

But Dworkin, the political science professor, said the issue has as much to do with who controls the positions of governor and lieutenant governor as who is holding the Senate president job. It’s a much smaller concern if the same party holds all three positions, something Democrats think they’ll achieve after the 2017 gubernatorial election.

“If there’s one thing that could be said about the legislative Democrats, it’s that they fully expect their party will win the next governor’s election,” Dworkin said.