Seven in 10 New Jersey residents have never heard of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who would be the state’s chief executive if Republican Chris Christie wins a second term and then leaves amid a 2016 presidential bid.
Since taking office alongside Christie in 2010, Guadagno, a former sheriff, has overseen the state’s economic development, appearing at ribbon cuttings, courting businesses and flanking Christie at news briefings. Yet a Monmouth University poll this month showed that most voters didn’t recognize her name.
Guadagno, 54, is the state’s first lieutenant governor, a post created in 2005 to improve the system for replacing a chief executive in midterm. She would take the helm if Christie resigned from a second four-year stint to become president in 2017, and sooner if he chose to quit for a White House run.
“I had no clue about her,” said Maryann Donovan, 74, of Middletown, a registered Republican from Guadagno’s home county who didn’t realize she was on the ballot next month. “I would never not vote for him because of it. But it’s important they really do more to make people aware of her.”
Guadagno was elected with Christie in 2009 -- winning 1.17 million votes -- and follows him on the Nov. 5 Republican ticket. While Milly Silva is the running mate of Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, even fewer voters, one in 10, have an opinion of Silva, an Hispanic leader of a labor union, according to the Oct. 2 Monmouth poll.
Christie, 51, was the first Republican since 1997 elected to the top office in the Democratic-leaning state, and is the only U.S. governor seeking re-election this year. He led Buono, 59 percent to 35 percent, among likely voters in an Oct. 15 poll by Monmouth, a school in West Long Branch.
The governor has ridden high voter-approval numbers since winning praise for his handling of Hurricane Sandy a year ago. More than 50 Democratic elected officials in the state have endorsed him. A landslide win in the Democratic stronghold would show he could capture votes beyond his party as a national candidate. Still, he has been noncommittal about such a run.
“I don’t think anybody in America or in the state of New Jersey expects anybody three years away to tell them what they’re going to do,” Christie said in an Oct. 8 debate with Buono, when asked if he’s running for president. “Life’s too long. I won’t make those decisions until I have to.”
A win next month would give him the governor’s job through January 2018. If elected president in 2016, he would be enter the White House in January 2017. The rigors of a national campaign and federal campaign-finance laws may force him to step down in Trenton even earlier.
Spurred by resignations and scandals that saw 10 people serve as governor or acting governor between 2001 and 2005, New Jersey voters in 2005 approved a constitutional amendment creating the post of lieutenant governor. Previously, when the state’s chief executive left office, the Senate president served as acting governor, followed by a succession line from the Assembly speaker to attorney general.
Under the previous arrangement, the person temporarily at the helm could introduce legislation, shepherd it to passage and sign it into law. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat who was acting chief executive in Christie and Guadagno’s absence as well as under Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, said he initially resisted creating the new post and only voted for it as a way to increase diversity in leadership.
“It’s like the backup quarterback: you have to be good enough for when you get called into the game,” Sweeney said.
When Governor Christine Todd Whitman left office in 2001 to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, then-Senate President Donald DiFrancesco served the final year of her term. When Governor James McGreevey resigned in 2004 amid a sex scandal, then-Senate President Richard Codey took over for 14 months. Codey did the job again when Corzine, Christie’s predecessor, was hospitalized for 18 days after a car crash.
Guadagno, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, is a former federal prosecutor who was the first woman elected Monmouth County sheriff, in 2007. As the state’s initial lieutenant governor, Christie gave her dual roles of economic-development chief and secretary of state. In the latter capacity, she’s New Jersey’s chief election official. She also oversees promotion of a $38 billion tourism industry and administers arts and history programs. She’s paid $141,000 a year.
While Christie has a reputation for being outspoken, his lieutenant rarely talks publicly when the two appear together. Though official visits to businesses cram her schedule, Guadagno doesn’t usually respond to questions from reporters.
During speeches to executives, she has often given out her mobile-phone number as a sign of her accessibility. A reporter’s call to the number drew a response from an aide. The press representatives Guadagno shares with Christie said she wasn’t available for an interview.
In an Oct. 11 debate with Silva at Kean University in Union, the opponents sparred over Christie’s record, including his resistance to a Democratic effort to boost the state minimum wage and his education policies. The debate focused little on the winner’s status as next in line to the top office.
The second-in-command’s status surfaced during an Oct. 15 debate between Christie and Buono. The governor dismissed a suggestion that Guadagno doesn’t maintain a high enough profile to enable her to step into the top job easily, blaming the media for not giving her enough attention.
“The fact is that she’s one of the most available, accessible and publicly successful political figures we’ve had in this state,” he said. “Kim Guadagno has been a leader in making sure the business community does well here and that we create jobs for the people of New Jersey. I’m proud of her.”
Buono faulted Christie for saying in their first debate that he can “walk and chew gum at the same time” and may not need to leave office to conduct a White House run.
“What part of that is running New Jersey: Is it walking or chewing gum?” she said.
Voters have little interest in the undercard, even amid heightened speculation that Christie won’t serve out his full term, said Patrick Murray, the Monmouth poll’s director. Voters haven’t drawn a connection between the current election and the possibility that they may also be selecting a second governor if Christie moves on, Murray said.
“Unless the person is totally unqualified or a drag on the gubernatorial candidate, most voters will just cross that bridge when they get to it,” Murray said.
Steve Nolin, 51, a West Long Branch butcher and self-described Christie backer who has followed Guadagno, said neither lieutenant governor candidate would sway him Nov. 5.
“I’m voting for the person I feel is the best for governor,” Nolin said.
Guadagno deserves credit for stanching the flow of New Jersey companies to neighboring states, after being enticed to relocate, said Michael Egenton, senior vice president for government affairs at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce. The lieutenant governor personally reached out to business leaders as part of that effort, he said.
“It’s not really surprising her name recognition hasn’t extended beyond our members and people who follow” state politics, Egenton said. “But she’s been quite stellar in her role.”
Guadagno hasn’t done enough to become a known figure, said Silva, her challenger.
“She could become the next governor and it’s important people get to know her,” Silva said by telephone. “Certainly with all the speculation as to what Governor Christie’s intentions are for 2016, it’s important to understand what’s going to happen in New Jersey.”
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