Is Guadagno’s ‘Think Tank’ First Step on Road to Run for Governor?

John Reitmeyer, Lee Keough | April 14, 2016 | Politics
Stepien is back on political scene to serve as new group’s executive director

Credit: NJ Office of Information Technology
Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno has announced an organization that political observers consider her first move as a candidate for governor in 2017. Called Building A Better New Jersey Together, the group appears to be designed to give Guadagno her own identity, one that is separate from Gov. Chris Christie.

The lieutenant governor calls the 501c4 organization a “think tank,” but due to its political underpinnings it seems to be similar to New Way for New Jersey, the organization run by Phil Murphy, an expected Democratic candidate for governor.

“It’s a way for running for governor, while you’re not running for governor,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.

In announcing the group, Guadagno delivered a mixed message. Despite the fact that she has served as the number two public official in the state for the past six plus years, she was adamant that Trenton and state government were “the problem, not the solution.”

This is “not the government people deserve or want — those in Trenton are aloof” from the people, she said. “Insiders and bureaucrats think that they have the answers and that the answers only come from Trenton. We New Jerseyans live in the real world.”

But Guadagno also credited Christie for the state’s resurgent economy, with its 4.3 percent unemployment rate. “We have a lower unemployment rate than even North Carolina.”

Bill Stepien, who managed both of Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns but was later embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal, will serve as the group’s executive director, she said.

Hale called Stepien’s involvement “the biggest political news of the day” and said the recruitment of Stepien was “a pretty good get for Guadagno” despite his ties to Bridgegate. “Many people give him a lot of credit for Chris Christie’s rise.”

Stepien, who was expected to be named the state GOP chairman after Christie was reelected, was Christie’s campaign manager and involved with Bridget Kelly in 2013, at the time of the Bridgegate scandal, which involved lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. He was never charged with any wrongdoing, but he was fired by Christie, who said at the time that he had lost faith in Stepien.

State Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), another Republican rumored to be considering a run for governor, said he didn’t know much about the group. He added that Guadagno is a “good friend” and he welcomed any effort to solve New Jersey’s problems. Asked if the formation of the group could eventually threaten his own chances to be governor, Bramnick deflected the question, saying it would be better asked of Guadagno or a political analyst.