In more ways than one, New Jersey’s political future will run through Iowa.
If Gov. Chris Christie (R) leaves New Jersey to try his luck in presidential politics, he will likely be replaced in the governor’s mansion by an heir with Iowa roots.
Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor, would be the one to take Christie’s place if the governor resigns to make his widely rumored run for president in 2016. She also serves as acting governor whenever Christie travels out of state. Despite that, Guadagno has remained a relative unknown. Her rivals say New Jersey residents should be worried she doesn’t have what it takes to fill Christie’s shoes.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found 72 percent of New Jersey voters don’t know enough about Guadagno to say whether or not she’d make a good replacement for Christie. Several local reporters have described Guadagno as somewhat elusive and even political insiders who talked with TPM about her were hard pressed to describe her positions.
Republican state Sen. Diane Allen was at a loss when TPM asked her how a Guadagno administration might look.
“I think that’s hard to say,” said Allen. “I have not specifically asked her that question … how she’d be different from Christie.”
Guadagno’s path to becoming New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor criss-crossed the country. She was born Kimberly McFadden in Iowa. Her father was a television executive and his work required him to move frequently. Because of this, Guadagno has said she lived in 25 different locales, including Iowa, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and New York, before she went off to college.
However, in another indication of just how little is known about Christie’s right-hand woman even some of Guadagno’s Republican colleagues were apparently unaware of her out-of-state roots. Assemblyman Michael Carroll, a Republican who represents parts of Morris County, said he did not realize Guadagno was born in the Midwest.
“I really — I didn’t know that,” he said. “The last time we had a governor who was from outside of Jersey was Jon Corzine, and it ended badly.”
Allen said she was “vaguely” aware Guadagno was born elsewhere: “But I couldn’t even tell you where it was.”
It’s not just her biography that’s a mystery to many, even in the Garden State’s GOP. Carroll and another prominent Jersey Republican used the exact same phrase when asked if there were any differences between Guadagno and Christie: “Her platform is his platform.”
Carroll described Guadagno’s job as staying “out of the press” and keeping in lockstep with Christie.
“Her platform is his platform and if she has an independent one, she’s not doing the job,” Carroll said, adding that if she ever runs for governor on her own “that’s the time for an (individual) platform to come into play.”
Bill Layton, a lobbyist and chairman of the Burlington County Republican Committee said Guadagno branding herself as an extension of Christie would make her “the best chance Republicans have to retain the seat.”
“I think her platform is his platform and will continue to be. … His successes, and his ability to govern and turn the state around, I would think that’s identical to what she would be hoping to accomplish as governor,” explained Layton. “I think she’ll have to carve out a little bit of a niche on her own a little bit, to say, ‘Here’s some other stuff that I would like to do also.’ But I think if you can run on Governor Christie’s record and share the same success that he had, I mean no Republican in the state would be foolish enough not to accept that platform.”
Carroll praised Guadagno’s ability to stay firmly behind Christie.
“She has been the absolutely perfect vice president, you know, the person who is always behind the scenes is calmly competently doing what she is supposed to do,” he said.
Layton echoed the notion that Guadagno’s current role is mainly to be Christie’s sidekick.
“Kim has been just a wonderful advocate for the governor and has been a phenomenal you know Robin to Batman,” said Layton.
Guadagno’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
While her allies praised her as an effective counterpart for Christie, rivals have questioned whether Guadagno would be able to stand on her own. Democratic strategist Adam Silverstein told TPM he thinks voters in New Jersey should be worried about the possibility of Guadagno taking over.
“I think voters in the state should be concerned with the fact that, with all of the possibilities surrounding an early Christie exit, the fact that she would be leading the state and how little is known about her and her overall lack of experience,” Silverstein explained.
Silverstein compared Guadagno to former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. He said he was surprised her resume had not been more of an issue in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election.
“I’d compare the experience that Kim Guadagno has to the experience that Sarah Palin had when she was selected to be John McCain’s running mate, which ultimately turned out to be a detriment to the McCain campaign because people feared a potential Palin presidency,” said Silverstein. “It’s certainly something people should be paying attention to because I don’t know that the people voting for Chris Christie would cast a ballot for Kim Guadagno.”
However, Garden State voters seem poised to ignore the concerns when they head to the polls on Tuesday. The Quinnipiac poll released this week showed Christie cruising to a victory over his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, 64 to 31 percent. That’s a more than two-to-one margin, which the pollsters noted “has been basically unchanged throughout the campaign.”
After her nomadic childhood, Guadagno settled for a brief period in Pennsylvania. She was living with her family in Ambler, Pa. when it came time to choose a college, and she began attending nearby Ursinus College while commuting from home. After two years, Guadagno moved onto campus.
“I threatened my parents with an acceptance to a college in New York City if I was not allowed to move to the dorm. I moved to the dorm in my junior year,” Guadagno said in a commencement speech she delivered at Ursinus in 2011.
In that same speech, Guadagno described an early instance of political activism.
“During my senior year, we painted a sign and hung it outside the second floor of Todd Hall to protest the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had taken 44 Americans hostage,” she said. “The sign was handpainted on a bed sheet in the basement of Todd and it said — we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more.”
Along with protesting the ayatollah, Guadagno was involved in student government and the Young Republicans Club.
Following her graduation with a political science degree, Guadagno went to law school at American University. After becoming a lawyer, she made good on her threat to move to New York City, where she become an associate at a law firm before going on to work in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Department of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn. According to a 2009 NJ.com profile of Guadagno, it was while working in Brooklyn, she has said, that she acquired her “distinctive New York accent,” which allows her to sound at home on the Jersey political scene.
Both Carroll and Layton rejected the notion Guadagno’s outsider roots could be a liability with voters in New Jersey.
“Well, you know, youse can get an accent whenever you want,” Carroll quipped. “I didn’t know she was from the Midwest. … I don’t think anybody’s going to accuse her of being anything other than a Jersey girl.”
Layton argued Guadagno has several characteristics that are typical of New Jerseyans that would help her appeal to the state’s voters.
“You certainly by meeting her wouldn’t know that she is not Jersey unless you made it a point to research her upbringing,” said Layton. “She’s so New Jersey in so many ways. … She’s a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person and I think the voters have really taken a liking to the governor for being like that.”
While working in Brooklyn, Guadagno also met the man who would become her husband, Michael Guadagno, who was then the deputy chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Department. Michael, who is 12 years older than his wife, is now a judge in the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s State Superior Court. The Guadagnos were married in 1991 and went on to have three boys together.
Her legal career brought Guadagno to New Jersey where she and her husband both worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark. The couple bought a home in Monmouth Beach, a small, seaside town on the Jersey Shore.
After working on multiple high-profile corruption cases in Newark, in 1998, Guadagno moved on to the state capital, Trenton, where she worked in the state attorney general’s office. Three years later, Guadagno and her husband had their third child and she decided to begin working from home and focus on her family.
“My plan was always to be a prosecutor. In 2001 when my third son came to us … I took out the eraser,” Guadagno said in her 2011 commencement speech. “At age 41, I erased the plan and wrote another — a stay at home mom, with three boys with a little teaching at night.”
Becoming a stay-at-home mother led Guadagno to get involved in local politics. According to a 2009 profile of Guadagno in the Ursinus College Magazine, she ran for and won a position on the Monmouth Beach Borough Commission in 2005 because she was “concerned over the sizes of houses that were being built in her community.” Two years later, Guadagno planned to run for a seat in the state Assembly, however she said the local Republican Party asked her to run for sheriff of Monmouth County instead.
Guadagno won that race and was sworn in as the county’s first female sheriff in January 2008. As sheriff, Guadagno managed an office with an operating budget of about $60 million and made fighting crimes committed by immigrants who were in the country illegally one of her top priorities.
“Any illegal immigrants who break our laws will be immediately transferred to federal custody and deported when appropriate,” she told the local News Transcript newspaper at the time.
Her time as Monmouth sheriff did not last long. In the Ursinus College Magazine profile, Guadagno said Christie reached out to her in July 2009 and asked her to complete his ticket as lieutenant governor, an office that was created through a 2005 referendum. Guadagno said she received the call from Christie while she was at a Dunkin’ Donuts near her home getting coffee.
“Chris asked me if I would like to be the first lieutenant governor of the state, assuming he is elected,” Guadagno said. “I drove home to my husband and said ‘Good news, bad news. Good news, here is your coffee. Bad news is, I am leaving for the next 105 days, and maybe the next four years.’ He said that’s fine, just don’t bring me coffee anymore.”
Sen. Allen told TPM Christie chose between herself and Guadagno.
“They did a great job of pulling a lot of info on all of us. I mean they had six notebooks on each of us. Ultimately, it came down to Kim and me, and he chose Kim,” said Allen. “I think he made a great choice.”
As lieutenant governor, Allen said Christie tasked Guadagno with “the job of cutting red tape and trying to make us more business friendly,” Allen praised Guadagno’s performance in this area describing her as a hands-on politician who “gives out her cell phone number.”
“I know for a fact that when businesses call her, she takes their call. She answers her own cell phone and somebody will ask for something and she’ll get it done for them,” Allen said. “She’ll cut through red tape in days that would normally have taken weeks, or months, or even years. So, she is one of those people who gets things done and i think that’s spectacular.”
Allen also dismissed the idea Guadagno won’t be ready to step in if Christie makes an early exit.
“She’s somebody that, I think, could easily lead the state,” said Allen. “Whenever the governor’s out of town, she’s the governor. She’s not the acting governor, she’s the governor and she’s done a fine job. So, I don’t think we should have any concern.”