By John Burton
KEANSBURG – Could Monmouth County shape up to be the epicenter for the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial race? It could, given this week’s announcement by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Monmouth Beach resident, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for governor.
Guadagno, who is the state’s first lieutenant governor, on Tuesday became the latest candidate to announce her intention to run for the top seat in Trenton. She becomes the second candidate from the county to throw a hat in the ring, with Middletown’s Philip D. Murphy announcing last year his intention to secure the Democratic nomination for the governor’s race.
While traditionally very Republican for its county officials and legislative members “it’s no longer a foregone conclusion,” that Monmouth will be a red county, observed Ben Dworkin, director of the Robovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, speaking from his office at Rider University later on Tuesday.
With the surprise victory of two Democrats for the 11th Assembly seats in 2015, ousting two long-serving Republicans, “the point is Monmouth County is becoming a more competitive area,” he said.
“With Kim Guadagno a product of Monmouth County running for governor,” Dworkin observed, “it’s (the county) going to be an even bigger player on the statewide stage.”
Guadagno kicked off her run on Tuesday at La Playa Mexican restaurant on Keansburg’s Beachway, where she sought to set the tone of her campaign and establish her narrative for voters.
“We can do better,” became Guadagno’s frequently voiced refrain as she spoke to the restaurant crammed with the media, politicos and well-wishers, many from around Monmouth County and from around the state.
“We all have the same excitement and enthusiasm for her,” said Shaun Golden, Monmouth County’s Republican Committee chairman and the county’s sheriff – a job Guadagno held until being picked by then-candidate Chris Christie to join him on the GOP ticket in 2009.
Golden told of Guadagno’s unprecedented accessibility as a statewide official – not for just other officials but for anyone, he said. “From Bergen (County) all the way to Cape May,” he said, she’s reached out to help all around the state.
“You pay for my cellphone,” she said. “You should have access to my cellphone.”
La Playa’s owner, Leo Cervantes, who also owns Chilangos restaurant in Highlands, was there to offer his views on the lieutenant governor’s personal touch in helping him. Cervantes told of what Super Storm Sandy did to his Highlands restaurant, severely damaging the location from flood waters. Cervantes, who came to America from his native Mexico at 19-years-old, feared the storm had destroyed his chance at the American Dream. Cervantes said Guadagno got him assistance to go through the reams of paperwork and red tape to secure a loan through the state Economic Development Authority and was available when Cervantes ran into bureaucratic roadblocks. “If it wasn’t for a person like Kim Guadagno,” Cervantes told the crowd, “I wouldn’t be here today telling you my story.”
Guadagno, 57, has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Monmouth County Sheriff and started her political career as a member of the Monmouth Beach Board of Commissioners, the municipality’s governing body.
She has lived in New Jersey since 1991, when she married Michael Guadagno, a judge for the state Superior Court’s Appellate Division. Growing up, she said it was at times economically tough for her family, displaying her blue-collar bona fides for the crowd. She told of her mother cutting up the credit cards when her father was laid off from his job, sending a message, she said, that translated to good advice for Trenton legislators – the importance of living within your means. “We all had to pull together,” she said. “We have to do that with government.”
She maintained things have improved over the last nearly eight years during her tenure but there is much work to be done. She specifically pointed to job growth, home foreclosure rate – the highest in the nation – and, on a bright note, the increasing number for new businesses.
She said “I was never really in the old boys’ club,” and had been told “I wasn’t Republican enough,” but overcame skepticism to be what she described as a helping hand for many throughout the state.
“For me my job of lieutenant governor was personal,” she said, of assisting state residents and businesses facing challenges, whether from a troubled economy or from natural disasters.
She said she’s traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the state, “without the benefit of a helicopter.” That comment was a clear jab at her boss, Gov. Chris Christie, who was criticized for using the state helicopter for personal business.
Guadagno also said given the state of finances in Trenton, “We simply can’t afford to make our statehouse the new Palace of Versailles,” another shot at Christie over his announced plans to renovate the facility at a proposed cost of $300 million.
As an aside, Guadagno said that was the comment that would get reported in the media.
Guadagno did not mention Christie by name during the event. But more recently she has come out, uncharacteristically, publicly opposing Christie on a number of topics, including the recent gas tax increase; last November’s ballot question to allow two casinos outside of Atlantic City; Christie’s attempt to be allowed to write his memoir and financially benefit from it; and Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president.
For his part, Christie had scheduled his own public events on Tuesday that directly conflicted with Guadagno’s, with some in the media speculating it was an intentional slight against the lieutenant governor.
Guadagno said her comments aren’t a new Guadagno. “For those who think I’ve been silent for seven years,” she responded, “you haven’t been listening.”
She maintained she’s been doing her job, “without the media, without the cameras” present much of the time.
“I think she’s talking about the areas where she does disagree,” Dworkin said, suspecting distancing herself from Christie may be a necessary strategy given the governor’s current 18 percent approval rating – which, Dworkin noted, translates into four out of five voters not approving of his job.
This is a way she’s hoping to show voters who she is; and that is still a big job, given polling shows roughly 70 percent of state voters “have no idea of who she is,” Dworkin pointed out.
“People are going to want to know what she’s been doing for the last seven years,” he said.
“I suspect we’ll see more of that” message in the coming months, Dworkin said.
Guadagno joins state Assemblyman Jack Ciattrelli from Somerset County, Joseph Rudy Rullo, an Ocean County businessman and sometime actor, and Steve Rogers, a Nutley commissioner, who have declared their candidacies for the June 6 primary. Actor and comedian Joe Piscopo is said to be eyeing a possible run for the GOP nomination – no joking.
On the Democratic side, the leading names are, along with businessman Murphy, state Senator Raymond Lesniak, who represents District 20 in Union County; state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, representing the 19th District in Middlesex County; and a list of long shot prospective candidates.
This story originally ran in the Jan. 19-26, 2017 edition of The Two River Times.
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