The lieutenant in Christie's shadow
She stepped from the black Suburban, that omnipresent yet elusive shadow of Gov. Christie, and gave the lone reporter waiting for her a kiss on the cheek.
Turns out Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno shows up on time for public appearances, unlike her boss. Already I had learned something.
I had come to a special-education school in Willingboro to find out more about New Jersey's first lieutenant governor - and Christie's running mate on the Nov. 5 ballot. For four years Guadagno has stood on an X marked with tape just behind the most famous governor in America - a petite, blond, silent fixture in the background of almost every Christie news conference.
During serious moments, her brow furrows. During Christie quips, she allows a tiny, amused smile. But beyond that . . . ? She gets minimal media coverage, due in part to an overburdened press corps but also, possibly, by design. A poll this month shows that two-thirds of New Jerseyans don't know enough about her to even have an opinion.
To paraphrase one longtime Trenton Republican, after all these years behind Christie, she's become a famous potted plant.
So, L.G., what's that like? And is that a fair characterization?
Because it matters who Guadagno is, beyond these basics: Iowa-born, mother of three, former federal prosecutor, onetime Monmouth County sheriff. Christie appears to be on his way to a landslide victory for reelection over Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono. At that point, he is slated to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association, likely requiring travel to 36 states for fund-raisers.
Whenever he leaves the state, by law, Guadagno is in charge.
Then, by 2015, Christie may run for president. He could resign right then and there; a federal rule prevents banks from donating to campaigns of sitting governors. Even if he doesn't quit, he'll be running for president. That's a 20-hour-a-day job; someone else will have to argue with Democratic legislators on his behalf.
And then, let's say he wins the White House. Becomes President Christie. Come 2016, before New Jersey has another statewide election, you'll be saying "Gov. Guadagno."
Yet Guadagno has never been the subject of a serious news profile (despite attempts by my colleagues). Last Tuesday, I asked a Christie campaign spokesman for an interview. When I saw her Wednesday, I asked her; she referred me back to the campaign. When I finally heard back Friday afternoon, I was offered time to speak with her between Republican events on Saturday (too late for this publication, although I hope to reschedule).
Guadagno isn't hidden away; she's actually had more publicly scheduled events in September than Christie has. I caught up with her Wednesday at Garfield Park Academy in Willingboro, which was listed on her schedule as "open" (meaning I was allowed to come) but with no "availability" (meaning I couldn't ask questions, even though I sneaked a couple in). There's the rub: Guadagno is in public, but she hasn't had a news conference since Memorial Day. A spokesman says that if reporters show up, though, she'll talk.
Then reporters should show up. As I watched her with special-needs students, and later with disabled adults at a day program in Cherry Hill, I found her competent, curious, and quick on her feet. At Garfield Park, she asked a student to read a rap he had just typed onto a computer. "No one can stop my willpower or strength," he began. Guadagno leaned over his shoulders, amazed.
Her ease with kids reminded me of her boss - as did her smack-talk.
"You work harder than that reporter," Guadagno told a woman who works part time, while gesturing to me.
The lieutenant governor job is new, created by voters in 2005. So Christie has had the opportunity to define Guadagno's life, giving her a significant portfolio overseeing economic development and job creation. This has made her a liaison to - and cheerleader for - the business community.
In other words, she attends lots of functions. Groundbreakings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies must haunt her dreams. I've looked at her daily schedule and said: Yeah, $141,000 is a sweet paycheck, but another Chamber of Commerce luncheon? Really?
There are also tours of businesses, farms, and schools - and lots of speeches, where she's known to give out her cell number.
In the scheme of the well-oiled Christie political machine, her job is crucial. Christie can send his No. 2 to the vast number of places he's invited to, giving him someone on the ground to shake hands, communicate the administration's message, and get feedback on policies. That frees up Christie to do more high-profile events like town-hall meetings, media appearances, and political trips out of state.
"I'm fulfilling the role the governor asked me to fill," she told me.
On Wednesday, Guadagno left the Jersey Shore, where she lives in the Sandy-ravaged town of Monmouth Beach, at 6:30 a.m. She wasn't due home until well after an evening fund-raiser for her reelection.
Guadagno is running against Milly Silva, Buono's running mate. Interestingly, thanks to an additional appointment making her secretary of state, Guadagno is in charge of elections - a peculiarity not lost on Democrats.
It'd be great to ask Guadagno about this. It'd be great to ask her what it was like to be in the state police operations center with Christie when Sandy was going down. It'd be great to find out her position on gay marriage. It'd be great to get her side of the story on a pension scandal investigation out of Monmouth County that she's at the center of, according to several reports by NewJerseyWatchdog.org.
I get the sense that there's a whole lot of Guadagno ready to come out.
At Garfield Park, a secretary indicated some of her work at the school went unnoticed.
"I understand that completely," Guadagno said. "And it doesn't surprise me at all."