The drumbeats about a potential Chris Christie run for president are driving speculation that the governor’s second term will be a short one. But they are also tapping out a message about the woman sitting in a corner office in the State House, just down the hall from Christie: She’s up next.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who has been working in Christie’s shadow for the last four years—often seen but not heard at the governor’s news conferences—is next in line to lead New Jersey should Christie decide to leave Trenton early to pursue his national ambitions.
The state’s first-ever lieutenant governor, Guadagno, 54, has operated outside the glare of publicity attending her boss, with her schedule and assignments directed by the governor’s office. An unknown entity to most—independent public opinion polls have found most voters know nothing about her—Guadagno is a polished politician who can be quick with a joke and is comfortable on a stage, her public persona developed through years as a federal and state prosecutor and a county sheriff.
As he starts his second term, Christie can be expected to pile up the frequent-flyer miles as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association, fanning speculation that he will launch a campaign for president in 2015.
With every absence from the state, Christie signs a letter leaving Guadagno in charge. It’s happened countless times. (The governor’s office didn’t provide an exact number despite several requests.) When Christie is absent, usually no one notices—except in December 2010, when a severe winter storm moved into New Jersey and both Christie and Guadagno were out of town on family vacations, he in Disney World and she on a long-planned cruise in Mexico. On that occasion, the president of the state Senate became the acting governor, as was the routine before the office of lieutenant governor was created by constitutional amendment in 2006.
After decades of debate, it took early resignations by two governors for the Legislature to agree to ask voters to amend the state constitution to change the line of succession. Republican Christine Todd Whitman left in 2001 with a year to go on her second term as governor to become the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Democrat James McGreevey resigned amid scandal in 2004 with 15 months to go on his first term.
Under the new rules, the lieutenant governor becomes the acting governor when needed and appears on a statewide ballot with the governor, although there is no separate vote for the position. The candidates for lieutenant governor are handpicked by the gubernatorial nominees.
But the Legislature assigned no specific responsibilities to the new position, notes Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Breathe, because that’s all the office requires,” he says.
Or, as Guadagno says in a bit of self-effacing humor, “What does the lieutenant governor do? Whatever the governor tells her to do.”
Christie has given Guadagno a full plate: She is a member of the governor’s cabinet, serving as secretary of state, a constitutional office with primary responsibility over the division of elections, travel and tourism, state cultural institutions and the arts. She is also the governor’s point person on economic and business development, her most notable public platform. She oversees the New Jersey Partnership for Action as the administration’s chief ambassador to the state’s business community, attending dozens of chambers of commerce breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Always neatly tailored in matching or coordinated jackets and skirts or pants, her calling card is to hand out a cell phone number that rings to personal voice mail.
“I called her after a chamber of commerce breakfast,” recalls Joe Coyle, 44, who owns the Raritan Bakery in Edison and was upset about a road project in a neighboring town that he claimed was hurting businesses. “She called back at 7 o’clock the next morning. I was flabbergasted.” The problem was fixed by the end of the day, he says . “She had jumped on it.”
On the other hand, Guadagno has kept the media at arm’s length. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the public-policy news website NJ Spotlight reported last fall about Guadagno’s lack of availability to reporters. The lieutenant governor denied a request for an in-depth interview for this story, although New Jersey Monthly did gain a brief interview after a chamber of commerce luncheon and received written responses to questions submitted through the secretary of state’s press office.
Those around the lieutenant governor are also tight-lipped. A half-dozen current and former administration officials who work with or worked with Guadagno either declined to discuss her tenure in Trenton or did not return phone calls. One high-ranking official who has worked on business development issues with Guadagno said, “I like my job.” It wasn’t any fear of repercussion from Christie for speaking out of turn, the official claimed, explaining, “The administration wants a unified message.” Still, there was no comment for this article from the governor’s office about his relationship with Guadagno, and Guadagno declined comment on the topic, too. “Details on our relationship are between the governor and me,” she says.
Guadagno had some strong allies and the right résumé when Christie was considering a running mate in 2009. That also was the case in 2007, when she emerged from Monmouth Beach—one of Monmouth County’s smallest and most affluent Shore towns—to gain the Republican Party’s backing to run for county sheriff.
After two years on the nonpartisan Monmouth Beach commission and more than a decade as an appointee on the borough’s planning board, Guadagno planned to seek an Assembly nomination. But when the incumbent sheriff announced he would not seek reelection, things changed.
“In this game, timing is everything,” says state Senator Joseph Kyrillos, a Republican from Middletown and one of Guadagno’s biggest supporters.
Guadagno’s emergence can be traced to her appearance before a GOP organization screening committee. “Not many of us knew of her or knew her well,” recalls state Senator Jennifer Beck of Red Bank. “But the force of her presentation and her charisma changed the room. She was so extraordinary in her presence, her oral skills, her ability to deliver a message. She was by far the best candidate.”
After she was elected, Guadagno brought a new profile to the sheriff’s office, according to Red Bank Mayor Pasquale “Pat” Menna, a Democrat. “Probably because of her personality, she was able to connect with people outside the law enforcement and legal communities,’’ he says.
When Christie came calling, he liked matching up his background as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey with Guadagno’s even longer career as a prosecutor. But he also wanted to be sure there would be no clash of personalities. His thinking on the topic was revealed in an interview with Dan Balz of the Washington Post for Balz’s book Collision 2012, a history of the last presidential campaign. Christie told Balz, “I just think that my personality is kind of big, and I don’t think that you necessarily always want to pick big personalities for vice president. That can be problematic in the execution of the job if you win.”
Guadagno does not have Christie’s outsize personality; few people do. But she was known as an aggressive prosecutor. “Jurors don’t expect prosecutors to be warm and fuzzy,” says a criminal defense attorney who tries cases in the federal courthouse. “From the perspective of a defense attorney, she was very tough. You can be adversaries without being adversarial.” Guadagno was adversarial, the lawyer adds.
Guadagno successfully prosecuted former Essex County Executive Thomas D’Alessio on extortion, fraud and money laundering charges. She also handled a case that prompted a federal district court judge to demand that the U.S. attorney’s office apologize for improperly releasing grand jury information.
Guadagno’s courtroom skills were readily apparent in her debate this fall against Milly Silva, who was Democrat Barbara Buono’s running mate in the gubernatorial election. Guadagno spoke without notes, argued without hesitation on behalf of her client—Chris Christie—and repelled attacks against Christie’s record by slamming her opponent. At times she was as impatient and dismissive as Christie is known to be, declaring at one point, “I put more trust in the people of New Jersey than I would in the 120 people sitting [in the Legislature] in Trenton. I’ve gotten a lot of time to get to know them.”
In explaining that comment to New Jersey Monthly, Guadagno added, “Some legislators stay too long in their positions and lose focus on what’s important. I think that the focus should always be on the people of New Jersey. That’s why I give out my cell phone number. The people who call me are a constant reminder that our job is to serve them, not ourselves.”
Guadagno is the mother of three boys, ages 20, 18 and 13. Her husband is Superior Court judge Michael Guadagno, who sits in the appellate division. They met when both worked for the U.S. Justice Department in Brooklyn. After marrying in 1991, they moved to New Jersey; Judge Guadagno grew up in Monmouth County, where his family owned a building materials business. They both went to work for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark, where she prosecuted public corruption cases and he was chief of the frauds division and later a senior litigation counsel. In 1998, she was appointed deputy director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice by then Attorney General Peter Veniero . She left the state office in 2001 and worked as a part-time professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, teaching first-year legal writing. (Her husband was appointed to the bench in 2005.)
Guadagno’s older brother, Martin McFadden, a telecommunications business-development manager who lives in Virginia, says his sister’s career track has never surprised him. “Kim has always been a high achiever and excelled at everything she did,” he says.
Kimberly McFadden was born in Waterloo, Iowa, but her family moved before she was a toddler. She grew up with three brothers and a sister. It was a nomadic childhood. Their father was a television broadcast executive who worked at stations throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast. Kim attended Ursinus College, a small liberal arts college about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, graduating in 1980. She received her law degree from American University Law School in Washington, D.C., in 1983, clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in New York and worked in a private law firm before joining the justice department in 1988.
Much of her time in Trenton has been under the radar. “When you are in an arena with Chris Christie, everybody pales in comparison,” says Michael Murphy, a founding partner of Impact NJ, a lobbying and consulting firm.
But there was one notable flap involving the New Jersey Council of the Arts that lingered for more than a year. Confronting the council, Guadagno demanded council members retake ethics courses and fire the executive director (because she couldn’t on her own). She charged mismanagement by the arts council in the handling of contracts—contracts that were overseen by officials within Guadagno’s state department.
The charges left members of the arts council shell-shocked.
“It was not a pleasant time,” recalls Sharon Burton Turner, who was chairwoman of the arts council during the incident . Similarly, Steve Runk, the executive director who eventually resigned, says, “I’m not sure we all know exactly what happened. It was an ugly time, and I want to put it behind me.”
Guadagno has also been dogged by charges raised three years ago by the investigative news website New Jersey Watchdog.org concerning an appointee Guadagno brought back to the sheriff’s office after his retirement who continued to receive his pension in addition to his salary—the practice known as double-dipping. Reporter Mark Lagerkvist has suits pending against the state seeking material connected with the appropriateness of that appointment. Guadagno says her appointee was well qualified, and the appointment had been approved by pension officials and the county board of freeholders.
Guadagno does not engage in speculation about Christie’s future—or her own. Christie has been steadfastly ambiguous about his plans, but most New Jersey voters expect him to run for president. A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll conducted in early December found nearly seven out of 10 New Jerseyans believe Christie is already planning his run for president, and they don’t seem to care whether or not he resigns to run.
Christie doesn’t have to quit Trenton to be a candidate and could govern from afar, Blackberry in hand. In any event, Guadagno is in place to step in for him in the State House.
“She understands how thick the ice is underneath, because she’s looked first,” says Al Koeppe, a former president of PSE&G who works with Guadagno as the chairman of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
And even if Christie serves out his second term in Trenton, he is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term. Asked about 2017, Koeppe says of Guadagno, “She’s the horse to bet on.”
Adds Senator Beck, “I think she is an obvious contender for that seat if she wants to do it.”
David Wald is a former Star-Ledger political reporter and columnist.