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Kim Guadagno: The Unknown Lieutenant Governor

“We do believe that the wealthiest in New Jersey should pay their fair share,” Silva said.

She also backed the campaign -- to be put to voters as a constitutional amendment on the November 5 ballot -- for the minimum wage to be raised to $8.25 an hour from the current $7.25, a measure supported by 65 percent of registered voters in a recent Monmouth University poll.

But Buono and Silva’s support for such popular causes isn’t likely to help their chances much because their campaign is underfunded, argued Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Buono doesn't have the resources she should to get her message out,” Dworkin said, shortly before the latest Monmouth poll, published October 15, showing Christie leading by 24 percentage points, up from 19 points in early October.

Born in the Bronx, NY, to a single mother from Puerto Rico, Silva highlights a career advocating for the poor. For the last decade, she has been an executive at local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union where she said she has helped negotiate some 200 employment contracts for healthcare workers, worth a total of around $1 billion.

“I want to make sure that the people who are struggling the most are getting a hand up,” she said in the interview.

She dismissed speculation that she was brought in to the Buono campaign in a last-ditch effort to build support from the party base -- particularly among Latinos, union members, and women – at a time when even some Democratic officials have said they will vote for Christie.

“Those charges are preposterous,” she said. “Barbara Buono wants to do something about the horrible unemployment rate. Her asking me to run was because she understood that I also understand that struggle. I am proud to be a Latina and a labor leader and a woman but I am prepared to represent all of the people of New Jersey.”

Silva, 42, lives in Montclair with her husband, John, and their children ages four, eight, and 10. She is a Columbia University graduate who was the first in her family to earn a college degree after receiving loans, grants, and, in earlier years, a middle-school scholarship.

The scholarship offered her an opportunity that was not available to other children in her neighborhood, and inspired her later work for economic equality, she said.

She conceded that she and Buono agree with Christie that the state should give tax incentives to attract job-creating business to New Jersey, but argued that tax breaks alone are not enough to drive down unemployment.

“We do not believe that it’s a one-trick pony that should be used to make sure we have a strong New Jersey economy,” she said. “That has been Chris Christie’s strategy and we have seen the consequences.”

Saying she is qualified to become governor if required to, Silva called herself a “fair and tough” negotiator who seeks to ensure both that workers get “a fair shake” and that the businesses that employ them remain competitive. “I know what it means to partner,” she said.

On Sandy recovery, Silva attacked Christie for spending $2 million of federal money on the “Stronger than the Storm” ad campaign.

In the debate, Guadagno conceded that the state still has “a ways to go” before all victims are back in their homes, but argued that all roads, schools and water-treatment plants that were closed by the storm have been reopened.

She defended the administration’s record on Sandy recovery but again deflected the credit to Christie himself.

“There was no playbook for Sandy,” Guadagno said. “The governor wrote that playbook. There’s no time for talk, we need to act, and that’s what this governor is doing.”

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