Opinion: Did Guadagno Just Cut the Ribbon on Her Own Campaign?

Carl Golden | April 15, 2016 | Opinion
One of the lieutenant governor’s first challenges, open up space between her and the administration without sounding disloyal

Carl Golden
In taking the first tentative steps toward pursuit of the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno acknowledged the politically sensitive and potentially perilous path that lies ahead of her — creating space between her and the administration in which she serves while coming out from beneath the shadow of Gov. Chris Christie.

The rollout earlier this week of Building A Better New Jersey Together and her role as honorary chair characterized the nonprofit as an “issues-based entity focused on developing policy solutions to secure prosperity for New Jersey’s families.”

The organization’s mission statement went on to decry “decades of political divisiveness in Trenton that has left our state at a crisis point.”

The 501c4 has become the best friend of a candidate in waiting, providing a mechanism to raise money, set a policy agenda, and deliver a message to further that agenda. All, of course, without the regulatory baggage that comes with an announced candidacy.

As Christie enters the final 20 months of his term, it was widely anticipated that Guadagno would move toward building a possible campaign infrastructure and begin to position herself as the strongest candidate to succeed Christie.

While several Democrats — convinced New Jersey voters are eager for a change — are in a scramble to head their party’s ticket next year, Republicans have maintained a low profile and kept speculation to a minimum.

Should Guadagno decide to mount a campaign, her severest challenge will not come from potential opponents in a primary contest — it’s altogether possible she’ll have the field to herself — but in making a convincing and credible case that she is not seeking a third Christie term.

Achieving a measure of independence will be difficult but crucial. Her role as Christie’s second in command requires loyalty — as a practical matter, it cannot be otherwise — but her successful candidacy demands crafting an image as someone who can look past the service she’s rendered and present a vision of a future that voters can relate to and support.

It’s tricky, to be sure.

She will be able to share in the credit for the state’s economic recovery, its reasonably strong and steady job growth, and its decline in unemployment to a point under the national average.

Her case will be strengthened by her identification with efforts to attract business development and her support for a more favorable tax and regulatory climate.

Her critics have sneered at her as little more than a ribbon cutter, but the fact of the matter is, there have been ribbons to cut. The scissors haven’t grown rusty or been packed in mothballs.

At the same time, she is inextricably a part of an administration whose leader is held in low esteem at the moment. Christie fatigue has begun to set in, giving Democrats optimism that New Jerseyans are thirsty for change, for a different and fresh approach to overcome lingering problems.

It will be the task of Guadagno the candidate to quench that thirst by presenting herself as an agent of change, one able and qualified to chart a course leading to a healthy economy, a fiscally responsible government, and one that actively seeks outside views and opinions rather than merely relying on insiders whose ideas are often self-serving and non-responsive, if not stale and unworkable.

She demonstrated her grasp of the need to look beyond the governmental establishment with her characterization of the new nonprofit she heads as one committed to the belief that “the best solutions to our state’s challenges will come not from Trenton but rather by bringing together the brightest minds from all around the state. Too many elected officials think that every good idea is their own.”

At the risk of overdriving the point, she said: “Too many New Jerseyans are scared for their future and they have grown tired of seeing politicians running around the state trying to score political points instead of focusing on tackling the issues affecting our state’s families.”

The “politicians running around the state trying to score political points” was a not-so-subtle jab at Senate President Steve Sweeney, who’s used the platform of his office to crisscross the state commenting on everything from the lousy condition of the railroad tunnels beneath Penn Station to the lack of adequate testing for lead-based paint in schools and homes.

Cynics, of course, pointed out that Guadagno’s boss spent a great deal of his time running around the country trying to score political points as well.

While Democrats can and will run against Trenton, Guadagno obviously cannot; she’s been a part of Trenton and any effort to mimic Democratic attacks will lack credibility.

She can’t come across as an apologist for the Christie Administration. Her challenge, rather, will be to emphasize her record, her experience, her ideas, and her vision.

Building A Better New Jersey Together — as noble an endeavor as the name implies — will require an enormous amount of rhetorical lumber and nails.

But, it’s Guadagno who needs to be the job foreman.