In the first joint appearance of the major candidates for New Jersey governor after the primary, their personas could not have been more different: Republican Kim Guadagno as a personable, proud mother with a folksy manner, and Democrat Phil Murphy as a serious, no-nonsense man with a plan.
“Phil Murphy and I have some things in common. We both come from Monmouth County. Both of our eighth-grade sons went to the same school. Tammy Murphy was my son’s class mom,” Guadagno said early in her remarks Tuesday night before about 150 members of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, pausing and then resuming her speech with an exaggerated, “Awkward!” to some laughs.
Murphy started with, and stayed with, issues: “Right now our economy is not working ... The facts are clear. We’ve been downgraded 11 straight times by rating agencies. The last year on record for household income in America was an all-time increase; New Jersey finished 50 out of 50. We lead the nation in foreclosed homes. We have been rated by any objective standard the weakest pension system in the country. I don’t say that to get people depressed but I want to make sure we all accept what the facts are.”
In the end, the joking Guadagno seemed to win the evening over the policy wonk, but then these were her people: primarily members of the NJBIA’s Employer Legislative Committees, gathered at the Hamilton Manor for the gubernatorial reception held every four years shortly after the primary to kick off the general election season.
For seven-and-a-half years, Guadagno has served the dual roles of lieutenant governor and secretary of state, with the latter making her a business liaison and advocate. She began her remarks by asking the group who among them had her cell phone number — probably two-thirds raised their hands. Murphy, on the other hand, talked of his support for stronger environmental regulations and raising the minimum wage to $15, both issues that usually fare poorly with a business audience.
Guadagno smiled and shook hands and posed for pictures and got a standing ovation at the end of her address. The lingering feeling of love was something she needed on Wednesday as Quinnipiac University released its latest poll that found her trailing Murphy by 29 points: she had support from 26 percent of those surveyed, compared with 55 percent for the former ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive. The only demographic backing Guadagno over Murphy was Republican; she loses to him among the college-educated, both men — though barely — and women, all age groups, those with and without college degrees and both whites and non-whites.
More than a quarter of those polled in the six days following last Tuesday’s primary had an unfavorable view of her, likely due at least in part to her running mate, Gov. Chris Christie, who scored an astoundingly low 15 percent approval rating among New Jerseyans.
“Hobbled by eight years in a little noticed job and her ties to a remarkably unpopular governor, Lt. Gov. Guadagno is little-known and little-liked,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. “Half the state doesn’t know enough about her to judge her as a candidate. The last New Jersey governor from Goldman Sachs, Jon Corzine, failed to win a second term, but only one-third of voters hold Murphy’s Wall Street career against him. Guadagno’s experience as lieutenant governor seems to be hurting her more.”
So the significant amount of time Guadagno spent Tuesday night explaining who she is, talking about her children, telling jokes and saying things that would “get me in trouble” was probably time well-spent.
“Phil Murphy is pretty much running no differently than he has been for the last two years,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “As an alternative, Guadagno has decided to take a more populist track, as a counterpoint to Murphy, in the vein of Donald Trump’s success. It’s very hard for her to run on her record as lieutenant governor. That would guarantee her no more than 15 percent of the vote.”
So Guadagno made sure to stress Tuesday night, as she has, that “I am running on my values, my record, my principles, which could be a little different from the things you heard over the last couple of years.”
Saying she thought most people don’t know who she is, Guadagno talked about herself. She talked of family, of growing up one of five children and moving often due to her father’s job in sales, and of her three sons. When she noted her eldest son had just completed an Air Force training course and a few people applauded, she encouraged the audience “yes, you’d better clap for him.” And she spoke of her professional life: of holding elected office in Monmouth County, of working as a lawyer and in law enforcement, and of her duties in state government.
“I am not going to ask you guys to vote for me in November because of my policies,” she said. “I think you all know what I stand for. I’m a Republican. Smaller government is smarter government. But you need to know who you voting for… I want you to know what’s in my heart so you know who you’re voting for.”
Guadagno went on to talk about bringing businesses to the state or spurring them to expand, about the 103,000 small businesses that filed papers to open in the state last year and of the drop in the unemployment rate to 4.1 percent that has led to a historic high in the number of people employed.
“Who knew?” she asked. “You didn’t.” She seemed to be going on to say that neither did the “tens of thousands of people” she has met traveling the state over the past eight years but got sidetracked in saying she has met so many people “because you know I take the car; I don’t take the helicopter,” a reference to Christie’s frequent helicopter usage, which drew some laughs. “See, why do I say stuff like that? It’s only going to get me in trouble.”
She didn’t address her signature issue: Her plan to lower property taxes and her pledge that if she does not lower taxes she will not run for re-election. Guadagno did allude to her solution though, saying, “New Jersey is no longer affordable and I know we can fix it. We have to.”
And she didn’t ignore Murphy altogether, levelling a charge that Murphy’s full platform would cost $50 billion — he later denied that, calling it “alt math.” She listed all of his promises that she said will lead to that high cost and ended by criticizing his pledge to raise the minimum wage, saying it will lead to stores closing.
“We will stop the progress you have made if we don’t stop Phil Murphy,” said Guadagno, who received a standing ovation following her remarks.
Murphy, meanwhile, only mentioned in passing some of the sound bites for which he has become best known. For instance, it was only in comparing New Jersey to Massachusetts that he noted he grew up in that New England state “with a father who didn’t get out of high school and a mother who did, working poor, middle class on a good day.”
Instead he criticized the Christie administration for its policies that have hurt the state, saying that if New Jersey had improved like other states post-recession, we would have had between $20 billion and $50 billion in additional economic activity, which would have translated into between $2 billion and $3 billion in additional revenue for state government.
“We didn’t just lose our competitive edge,” he said. “Worse, we just let it slip away.”
Murphy briefly outlined his major proposals to both improve the economy — by emphasizing jobs in innovative fields and investing in the state’s colleges and universities — and revamping infrastructure and transportation.
“If we don’t get the economy right, we don’t get New Jersey right,” he said. “My goal is positioning New Jersey for long-term and sustainable success ... I don’t just want to grow the pie. I want to make sure everyone gets a piece of that pie.”
He went on to mention those proposals, including stronger environmental protections, which businesses tend not to like, although he also pledged to streamline the permitting process and to make it cheaper to do business in the state. He said it’s important to support clean energy and policies that minimize the state’s production of greenhouse gases because “the environment and economic forces are intertwined here probably more than anywhere else in the nation.”
Murphy also said he is unconcerned about any opposition the business audience might have to a higher minimum wage, which he said he would increase gradually to $15 an hour.
“I don’t know that it sells or it doesn’t, but I’m not going to say things that I don’t believe in. Alternatively, I’m not going to say things in one room that I’m not willing to say in another and I believe in all my heart that ($15 is) the right place to be,” he told reporters after the event. “Getting there in a sensible way over a period of years is the right thing to do.
Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, said Murphy was right to be honest about his entire platform with business leaders.
“These business folks are trying to figure out what levers need to be pushed to make the New Jersey economy better,” he said. “This is an audience where policy wonk might play.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Guadagno is smart to spend time introducing herself to audiences.
“Despite being the lieutenant governor for seven-and-a-half years, many people don’t know her,” he said. “She has spent a great deal of time in the shadow of this dominant governor. That’s a substantial challenge she has to overcome.”