Republican Kim Guadagno was at her most animated at a get-out-the-vote rally of about 200 Republican faithful earlier this week in prime red country, Warren County, just over the border from Hunterdon.
She struck a pose as local Assemblyman John DiMaio said, “It’s time we had a governor with substance and style.” She riffed on Democratic opponent Phil Murphy’s statements that he will raise taxes by more than $1 billion, saying, “That’s when I knew we had a race, ‘cause what idiot … promises to raise taxes on the most taxed people in this country.” And she played to the issues bound to rev up the conservative crowd: Murphy will stop the annual bear hunt; Murphy will limit gun rights. Then she walked to the flag positioned behind the podium and held it in a partial embrace.
“The Supreme Court says you can spit on this flag, you can even burn this flag, but that doesn’t make it right,” the current lieutenant governor said, condemning Murphy for supporting some football players’ kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. “If you want to be the leader of the state of New Jersey, you have to set an example.”
Guadagno got the crowd fired up as she confidently bellowed that she knows she can win, as long as Republicans and unaffiliated voters get to the polls next Tuesday, even though hours earlier, another poll — this one by Suffolk University and the USA Today network of news outlets — showed the GOP nominee trailing Murphy by double digits. A Monmouth University Poll released Wednesday has Murphy still up by 14 points.
That Guadagno, a 58-year old Monmouth Beach mother of three, is running hard to become New Jersey’s second female governor is not surprising, given she has played second fiddle for the past eight years to Gov. Chris Christie, once wildly popular but now the state’s most unpopular governor since the onset of polling.
To the outside world, Guadagno has played the dutiful supporting role to the governor who once had presidential aspirations. Much of her job as lieutenant governor has been attending conferences, speaking at luncheons, and cutting ribbons at small-business openings — all tasks viewed as relatively innocuous — and almost never taking questions from the press.
“When people call me a ribbon cutter, I’m proud of that, because it took a lot of work to get those ribbons cut,” Guadagno told a gathering of New Jersey Business & Industry Association members in a post-primary address last June.
Those who know her more closely and have worked with her during this administration say she is a tough fighter who deserves the credit she has been taking on the campaign trail for bringing businesses into New Jersey, or at least keeping them from moving out in the post-recession years.
“She has been extremely effective in her role as lieutenant governor, the most attentive person to businesses, in my estimation, in the history of New Jersey,” said Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
What Guadagno says herself is partially a mystery, as her campaign did not make her available to NJ Spotlight for an interview, despite more than a half dozen requests made via email and in person over the past five weeks. Her story, then, comes from comments she has made on the campaign trail and other public appearances, as well as news reports and other documents.
On the move
Guadagno was born Kimberly Ann McFadden in Waterloo, Iowa and has said on the campaign trail that her family — parents and four siblings — moved “20 times before I went to college” and lived in seven different states and the District of Columbia because of her father’s job in sales. She settled in the Garden State in 1991.
“It impacted the entire rest of my life,” she told an audience earlier this month at The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I couldn’t begin to tell you the name of my elementary school teacher. That’s fun now because during some of these debates they always want to ask you those hard questions, like who was your favorite high school sweetheart? I’m like, I don’t remember the high school I went to, forget about my sweetheart.”
Guadagno walked around the room packed with students and supporters, rather than stand at the podium in front of the Rider backdrop, because she said it’s a habit she picked in the eight years leading up to her assuming the lieutenant governor position while teaching legal research and writing for at Rutgers University Law School in Newark at night, when not all students were at their most attentive.
She graduated with a political science degree from Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, then got her law degree from American University Washington College of Law in D.C. She worked as a federal law clerk in New York and in a private firm before joining the U.S. Organized Crime Strike Force, working out of Brooklyn, in 1988.
“Imagine going home and telling your mom, ‘I’m going to try organized crime,’” Guadagno quipped to a gathering of New Jersey Business & Industry Association members in a post-primary appearance last June. She quickly added that she enjoyed the work.
It was there that she met her husband, Michael, who was most recently an appellate division judge until his mandatory retirement last March at age 70.
With the downsizing of the task force, Guadagno became an assistant U.S. Attorney for New Jersey in Newark. Her campaign states that she was awarded the U.S. Department of Justice’s highest honor for her prosecutions of two public officials’ corruption cases. These high-profile cases were of Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas Bissell and former Essex County Executive Thomas D’Alessio.
But there was also controversy. Shortly before Guadagno left that office in 1998, a federal judge said she and other prosecutors had violated federal criminal procedure rules for posting on the department’s website secret grand jury testimony from a case involving a manager at the GTECH gaming corporation. During both her 2007 campaign for sheriff and 2009 campaign as Christie’s running mate, Guadagno said she was never disciplined and stood by her actions, according to news reports.
She served as an assistant state attorney general from 1999 to 2001, responsible for criminal investigations, and deputy director of the state Division of Criminal Justice.
Her first foray into elected office was her successful run in 2005 in her hometown of Monmouth Beach’s nonpartisan municipal elections. One in a field of 10 candidates, Guadagno ran under the “We Serve Monmouth Beach” banner and won one of three seats on the borough’s board of commissioners. Guadagno, who at the time had been serving on the planning board, was the second-highest vote getter for a four-year term. At the time, she was teaching part-time at Rutgers and raising three sons.
She would not complete that term, though, deciding two years later to pursue higher office. In February 2007 she announced a run for one of two open state Assembly seats in the 11th District. According to press reports, she campaigned as an anti-corruption candidate and called for cutting state spending and preserving the environment.
Seeking the sheriff’s seat
A month later, when then-Monmouth County Sheriff Joseph Oxley announced he would not seek re-election, she sought the sheriff’s seat. The Asbury Park Press wrote in October of 2007 that Guadagno “was talked into seeking” the sheriff seat by Monmouth County Republican leadership. The GOP gave her the party line and she beat a primary challenger. She went on to win the general election by besting Belmar Police Chief Jack Hill and became Monmouth’s first female sheriff.
The APP did not endorse her that year, saying in the same October editorial that it had “serious concerns about the way she has conducted her campaign.” Specifically, it cited a website created by the Monmouth GOP that Guadagno approved that was named Jackhill-lied.com and attacked her opponent. That, the newspaper wrote, “sent the campaign into a negative spiral.” The editorial cited two other attacks she leveled at Hill, and one he threw at her.
Guadagno was an activist sheriff.
Within her first six months in office, Guadagno had gotten a state senator to sponsor a bill to relieve sheriff’s officers from inspecting private beach clubs at the beginning of each summer season because it was duplicative of inspections done by county health officials. She also started a program to teach senior citizens what kinds of “emergencies” merit a call 911, and which do not.
In contrast to her tax-cutting pledge in the current campaign, Guadagno spearheaded an effort to get Monmouth municipalities to buy into a $21 million upgrade to the county emergency-radio communications system. In her first year, she also requested a $900,000 overtime increase for jail guards, with the freeholders giving her two-thirds of that amount. In her second year, she fought, and lost, the freeholders’ decision to lay off corrections officers, as well as other county workers, to close a budget gap.
Probably her most controversial action was to put Monmouth County into the federal 287(g) program, in which local law enforcement acts as federal immigration agents. Guadagno had promised to do this during the campaign and she began the program, which continues today, by having jail officers check the immigration status of prisoners when they are booked and then agree to detain undocumented immigrants, with the federal government providing reimbursement for those beds.
At the time, Angel Matos, secretary of the Monmouth County chapter of the Latino Leadership Alliance, wrote in what now seems a prescient letter to the APP that Guadagno’s immigration platform “proved so successful in her run for sheriff that she would go ahead with the application as a campaign strategy for statewide office.” The letter charged that she had made mistakes on the application to ICE, had not asked the county freeholders about it, and had not submitted it to the state attorney general’s office. “Having sidestepped these important checkpoints confirms that Guadagno is prone to employ any tactic, regardless of its human or financial cost, to further her political career,” Matos concluded.
Opponent Phil Murphy’s statements that he would make New Jersey a sanctuary state that would not detain undocumented immigrants for ICE have become one of Guadagno’s major campaign platforms, spawning a Willie Horton-esque ad that distorts Murphy’s statements on undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes. At Monday night’s Warren County rally, Guadagno said she “wrote a personal check” to purchase 2,900 of the signs reading “Vote Republican. Don’t Make New Jersey a Sanctuary State” that local Republicans were taking to display at their homes.
Targeting the lieutenant governor slot
Guadagno did not finish out her three-year sheriff term, either, trading it for the lieutenant governor job.
Christie announced Guadagno as his pick in July 2009. Political pundits at the time saw the decision as wise both because Guadagno’s being a woman could help the GOP court more female voters and because it was playing to Monmouth, which had the fourth-largest Republican voter registration at the time and was in South Jersey — Christie was from Morris County in north Jersey. Guadagno held a countywide office and had been a relatively high-profile and energetic sheriff. There were likely some personal ties, as well. Before being named a judge in 2005, Guadagno’s husband had worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office under Christie, who held the top federal law enforcement spot in Newark from 2002 through 2008.
At an event last January, Christie responded to a reporter’s question about his relationship with Guadagno, saying, “Kim and I have been friends for 15 years. I’ve been friends with her husband for 15 years.”
The position of lieutenant governor was approved by voters in 2005 following the early exits of two prior governors. While the legislation that put the question on the ballot allows for a salary for lieutenant governor, and for the person to perform duties specific to that position or lead a department or both, Christie decided to name Guadagno to head the Department of State and provided her a salary only for that position — $141,000. The staffing structure is also unclear. A Christie spokesman punted the question of staff to the state department, where a spokeswoman said Guadagno has a lieutenant governor staff of nine. Her campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said the lieutenant governor staff is part of the state department and she shares scheduling and advance staff with the governor’s office “to maximize savings for the taxpayer.” She also will get no public pension from the state or her other public employment as all those jobs provided only defined-contribution plans.
As the new administration came in at the official tail end of the Great Recession, Christie charged Guadagno with improving economic growth, falling under the auspices of the New Jersey Partnership for Action that she oversees. Her other major charge was streamlining government as head of the Red Tape Commission.
The latter group quickly made a number of recommendations and its most recent report, issued in April 2014, points to dozens of successes. Among those was the amendment by the state Department of Banking and Insurance of a number of regulations to conform to national laws or standards, “reducing confusion, time-wasting paperwork, and fees,” the report states. It uses as its overall measure of success the drop nearly in half in the number of pages in the New Jersey Register, where all regulations must be advertised as part of the adoption process, from about 4,800 in 2009 before Christie took office to 2,600 in 2013.
The bipartisan commission has sparked changes in state law, too, from the simplification of the process by which nonprofits receive raffle licenses to the elimination of several executive boards and commissions. The commission continues to meet three times a year, though no recent agendas or meeting minutes appear on its website.
Business officials have praised its work as improving efficiency, while critics have said that cutting some regulations, particularly those protecting the environment, has had a negative impact on the state.
There has also been some criticism of the state’s efforts at attracting and keeping businesses in the state. These complaints center on the state’s generous tax incentives being a misplaced use of funds that have, in several cases, given companies as much as $100 million to move a few miles from one New Jersey community to another.
The progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective has railed for years against what is now up to $8 billion in total incentives, which it termed an “enormous financial reward to very few corporations and an equally enormous long-term cost to Garden State taxpayers.”
But business leaders like Bracken say such incentives are necessary today. He gives Guadagno high praise for the relationship she has built with businesses and her personal efforts at keeping companies in state.
“I have gotten to know her very well over the last seven years,” said Bracken, whom Guadagno made a point of greeting personally at the Rider talk. “She has been extremely effective in her role as lieutenant governor, the most attentive person to businesses, in my estimation, in the history of New Jersey. She has done exactly what was asked of her. She has talked with businesses, she has helped recruit businesses. She has done a good job using all the tools available. I think the business community is very appreciative of what she has done.”
Several legislators also said that Guadagno helped businesses within their districts and has been accessible to them.
Staying in touch
In an April 2016 appearance on the NJ 101.5 morning show with Bill Spadea, Guadagno described her duties: “I fight for every company I know is leaving New Jersey. I am not going to win every fight, but I want to be in every fight. We worked very hard … to create an environment taxwise that makes companies stay here or come here and grow here, whether it is tax cuts themselves or tax credits themselves, which is why I hand out my cell phone number.”
Early in her address to the NJBIA last June, Guadagno mentioned her readiness to give out her cell phone number so that she can be reached and take action to help business leaders or other officials when they need it.
“How many of you have my cell number?” she asked, prompting a number of those in the audience to raise their hands.
That’s also part of what she views as her second most important job in promoting economic development, to make sure that businesses “feel welcome here.”
Christie praised Guadagno’s work last January in response to a reporter’s question, saying, “Lieutenant Governor Guadagno has had a broad portfolio of really important tasks in this administration: in addition to being secretary of state, overseeing the election process, overseeing our funding of the arts. She has also had the entire business portfolio for seven years, running the Business Action Center, helping to establish Choose New Jersey, working with the EDA, and working with businesses across the state to grow jobs and to be a person in charge of regulatory review and paring back of regulations, and that’s been her lane where she’s been working in and her main area of responsibility and she’s been very outspoken about those issues … I have great respect for the lieutenant governor. She has served me and the state extraordinarily well during her time as lieutenant governor.”
Her duties overseeing election filings and operations have brought praise and criticism.
In 2012, when superstorm Sandy ravaged the state a week before the presidential election, Guadagno issued a number of changes to try to make sure as many people as possible could still vote. This meant relocating those polling places that were inaccessible due to flooding or other damages, allowing displaced residents to vote by fax and email or to vote by provisional ballot from anywhere in the state, and extending deadlines for mail-in balloting.
Guadagno recused herself from her election oversight duties to prevent the appearance of any conflict of interest as she runs for governor in a letter dated January 25. That letter was not posted on the Division of Elections’ website until July 7, about a week after the presidential Voter Fraud Commission took the controversial step of asking all states for their voter registration rolls, prompting Democrats to question that timing. They urged her to refuse the request. The division wound up giving the commission only part of what it requested, which is data already publicly available to anyone who would make a request.
Her elections duties put her in the middle of another controversy when in 2011 she kicked Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis off the ballot as he sought to run for a state Senate seat in South Jersey’s 8th District. The district is Republican-controlled and Lewis is a Democrat. When a U.S. appeals court eventually agreed with Guadagno, Lewis withdrew from the race.
Guadagno has weathered several other storms during her State House tenure.
In 2011, she suggested the New Jersey State Council on the Arts may have improperly awarded $300,000 in state funds and criticized the council for poor handling of public art projects. She said she based her criticisms on a report from the state auditor. A state investigation found no wrongdoing, but two officials involved wound up hiring attorneys and complained that their reputations had been damaged.
She was accused of pension fraud in a case dating back to her days as Monmouth sheriff, when her actions allegedly allowed one of her officers to collect both his salary and a pension. In mid-2011, the Police and Firefighters Retirement System board asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the matter. A year later, it reported the case closed without providing details of its findings and the state succeeded in court in stopping the release of a five-page memo outlining those findings.
She was implicated in an incident involving the indictment of Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout in 2010 on charges of official misconduct. The sheriff, another Republican woman, had supported Guadagno’s candidacy for lieutenant governor. The state attorney general dismissed the indictment prepared by Hunterdon assistant prosecutor Bennett Barlyn as deficient. Barlyn later was fired after positing that the case was dropped after Guadagno or a connected GOP donor intervened. New Jersey eventually paid Barlyn a $1.5 million settlement, although the attorney general’s office contended it would have won in court. Documents in the case have not been released, despite an open public-records request by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). McKeon went to court last week to file a lawsuit for the records, including correspondences between Guadagno and Trout.
Despite a Murphy ad suggesting the contrary, Guadagno was never implicated in the Bridgegate scandal, in which Christie aides arranged for the politically motivated closing of entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge to cause traffic jams in Fort Lee. But soon after the U.S. Attorney’s Office began investigating that matter, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer charged that Guadagno and other administration officials had tied the provision of superstorm Sandy relief funding to the city’s approval of a multimillion dollar private development project that had ties to a Christie ally. The U.S. Attorney eventually found no merit to Zimmer’s claim, clearing Guadagno of any wrongdoing.
In the spotlight
But the allegation put Guadagno in the national spotlight on her own for the first time. She stood with several mayors in front of a swarm of reporters and television cameras and “wholeheartedly” denied the allegations.
“Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all the facts are examined. Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false,” Guadagno said, adding that “being a Sandy victim myself makes the mayor’s allegations particularly offensive to me.” Guadagno and her husband own a $2.3 million home along the Shrewsbury River in an area of the Jersey Shore that was particularly hard hit by the 2012 storm. Diaz said she lost a third of her home, while both of her neighbors’ homes were destroyed.
In opening her remarks, Guadagno made it clear she was “not going to take any questions” and she did not.
That has been standard for her tenure as lieutenant governor. The governor’s office releases the daily public schedule for Christie and Guadagno and in all but a handful of cases over the past eight year, Guadagno’s open public appearances would note that she would not take questions from the press.
Former staffers and political observers have said that’s only because Christie kept his second-in-command on a short leash and wanted the spotlight for himself. While she was not warm and fuzzy, Guadagno would have gladly answered press questions at most events but was told not to do so, according to one staffer.
Christie essentially confirmed that during a press conference last July: “For eight years all of you have been complaining that the lieutenant governor didn’t speak out publicly, and that if she had disagreements she didn’t speak out publicly about them. I told you all along that when she — if she — ever became a candidate for governor she would have the opportunity to speak out publicly on the areas where she agreed and the areas where she disagreed … She’s a candidate for governor. She has every right to speak her mind about any issue that she believes is of public interest … She’s the candidate of our party. She has earned the right to speak her mind as the standard bearer of the party.”
As she has campaigned for governor this fall, much of what Guadagno has done, publicly at least, has been scripted and controlled. Many of her campaign events open to the public since September have been addresses or press conferences, where she has answered few if any questions from the public. When she has taken questions from reporters, they have been limited and from reporters chosen by her campaign spokesman.
Guadagno also seemed to limit some of the chances she had to interact with the public or the press.
She arrived late to the Rebovich event, took only two questions after her remarks and left about 25 minutes early. She canceled two editorial board interviews with the Associated Press and then did not respond to requests to reschedule, according to the AP. She also canceled, citing a scheduling conflict, a town-hall style event with students and others at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics that was to be streamed live on Facebook in late September.
“It’s very unusual for a candidate to pass up a free audience like this, a readymade audience when you’re way behind,” said Tom Moran, the Star-Ledger’s editorial page editor when he moderated a similar discussion with Murphy. “One might even call it bizarre.”
When she has been on the campaign trail, Guadagno, who typically wears a shift dress with a jacket and heels, has greeted some in the audience and posed for selfies with supporters before taking the podium. She changes her talks to fit the audience, interspersing throughout her remarks comments that evoke some emotional response from the audience.
At a forum last month sponsored by the New Jersey AARP, she began by holding up her membership card and asking, “Why do they send these to you at age 49?” The crowd laughed and she continued. “I’ve had this for almost 10 years.”
During the BIA address, she talked about her sons, as she often does. Her statement that her oldest son, now 25, was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force drew some applause that grew as she said, “And, yes, you better clap for him.”
The Rider audience laughed when she described herself as “queen of trash” when, as a Monmouth Beach commissioner, one of her responsibilities was oversight of the public works department. And they clapped when she said she “worked very hard” at cutting the unemployment rate in the state by more than half during the past eight years and that “more people are working in the history of this state than ever before.”
And her tale of how an undocumented immigrant in Trenton who was arrested as a “peeping Tom” and then released, only to break into a home two weeks later and rape a 6-year old girl drew audible gasps and sounds of disgust from the partisan crowd in Warren County earlier this week. She then said she needs those Republicans to “come out to the polls and drag those independents with you” to stop Murphy from turning New Jersey into a sanctuary state.
“Are you going to help us?” she asked to cheers. She asked again, this time more loudly, drawing louder cries of “Yes!”
In Christie’s shadow
Still, political observers say her biggest problem remains trying to convince voters that she is not the unpopular Christie.
Judging how Guadagno may have distinguished herself from Christie is hard, given her lack of commenting until late last year, when she felt free enough to criticize his decision to raise the gas tax and earlier this year when she criticized his $300 million State House refurbishing project — she likened it to re-creating “the Palace of Versailles.” Asked at the final debate with Murphy last month for examples of instances in which she disagreed with the governor and influenced his opinion on an issue, she declined to give an answer, saying their discussions should remain confidential.
With Christie traveling out of state nearly half of the first three years of his second term — in the run-up to his presidential campaign, his actual campaign and then his appearances to support Donald Trump’s candidacy — Guadagno was technically in charge. She did sign some bills into law, but does not appear to have taken any actions that would have been contrary to what Christie himself would have done.
Interestingly, last July, with the gubernatorial campaign in full swing and Guadagno more comfortable in criticizing Christie, the governor took action on 67 bills the day before he left for a European vacation, perhaps because he did not want to leave any loose ends on which Guadagno might herself act.
Last November, discussing his relationship with Guadagno on the “Ask the Governor” radio program, Christie said that they have not always agreed.
“Have we argued over seven years? You bet we have,” he said. “Any partnership, which is what our relationship is, a partnership, partners argue with each other. Then there’s either a senior partner or not. I’m the senior partner in the relationship, and so I get to make the decisions.”
Still, Guadagno did not always give up easily, Christie said. “She is an assertive former federal prosecutor and former county sheriff. I did not pick a wallflower.”