By Brenda Flanagan
One more political contender publicly entered the gubernatorial ring Tuesday. But, after seven years as Chris Christie’s shadow boxer, Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno didn’t exactly come out punching. She never mentioned Christie. Her Republican primary opponent, however, immediately took a shot.
“Quite frankly, she has stood by silently and blindly obedient to a governor who I don’t think has led New Jersey in the right direction. I think we need a whole new direction,” said Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.
Ciattarelli this week challenged Guadagno to a series of 21 debates — one in each New Jersey county. The Somerville businessman has cut back his campaign schedule this month while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer, but the underdog is spoiling for a match.
What did Ciattarelli think of her roll-out?
“To be honest, a little disappointed. But maybe that’s because I’m about specifics. I think people deserve specifics. I think people have had it with platitudes and generalities,” he said.
Ciattarelli’s name recognition’s just 18 percent in the latest FDU poll — compared to front-runner Guadagno’s more robust 40 percent. Yet, even after her campaign launch, she continued to bob and weave and ducked reporters’ questions.
“I think when that happens, there’s concern about maybe not being ready for prime time, yet. I don’t think she has a lot of experience dealing with the press and that’s the concern the campaign had,” said Bill Pascrell III, lobbyist for the Princeton Public Affairs Group.
“At this point she really doesn’t have anything to lose. If you’re Kim Guadagno, at this point what you really want is for this to be a very quiet race, with very little media coverage, where you can just sneak right in without having a really competitive primary. So it makes sense that she wouldn’t want to talk to anybody, because at this point she doesn’t have to,” said Dan Cassino, political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Guadagno’s campaign spokesman says she will engage.
“The lieutenant governor is adamant about answering the tough questions and sharing her vision about the future of New Jersey,” said Ricky Diaz. “So she intends to have debates, she intends to talk about and roll-out policy initiatives in the coming weeks and months and she doesn’t take anything for granted and as she said in her kick-off, she is going to earn every endorsement.”
Over in the Democrats’ ring, front-runner Phil Murphy picked up an endorsement this week from Steve Sweeney — a possible primary foe, now in his corner along with all the county Democratic chairs. Nevertheless, the former Goldman Sachs executive took a roundhouse swing at challenger John Wisniewski — demanding the assemblyman reveal profits from private business connections made through his public office.
“We’re simply saying he needs to be honest with the people of New Jersey about where he made his money. We know that he’s made $3.5 million from taxpayers. We want to know how much more he’s been paid trying to represent private interests before those very taxpayers,” said Derek Roseman, communications director for the Murphy campaign.
“This is a desperate attempt by the Murphy campaign to distract the real facts of the campaign. Look, the Murphy campaign spent over $10 million trying to buy the nomination. That’s clearly not working and so now they want to engage in this distraction,” Wisniewski said.
A glance at public name recognition sheds some light. Wisniewski polls at 31 percent — just eight points behind Murphy. And the political climate could favor Wisniewski’s Bernie Sanders type of populist campaign, some analysts say.
“He’s mindful of what happened last year in the presidential race. He’s not going to take anything for granted and I think he understands that John Wisniewski’s had a 20-year career in the Legislature, he’s a smart guy. But Phil Murphy thinks he’s got something else to offer and he’s not going to take this campaign for granted,” Pascrell said.
“Punching down and trying to put Wisniewski down is actually probably a bad strategy for Phil Murphy. Simply because the more Phil Murphy talks about Wisniewski, the more Wisniewski’s name is going to come up. And if you want to keep his name recognition down, you just don’t want his name in the press at all,” Cassino said.
While the candidates in these primary races will bring different campaign fight styles to the contest, they all realize that in New Jersey’s off-off-year gubernatorial election, the turnout will be very, very low and every vote will count.