From Prosecutor to Lieutenant Governor: The Rise of Kimberly Guadagno in New Jersey Politics

From Prosecutor to Lieutenant Governor: The Rise of Kimberly Guadagno in New Jersey Politics

In the midst of the whirlwind that was the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, Kimberly Guadagno received a life-altering phone call from none other than former Governor Chris Christie. She could not believe her ears. Had Christie accidentally called the wrong person?

“I was sitting on my back porch in Monmouth County and the phone rang from Chris Christie,” Guadagno said. “He asked me to be the next Lieutenant Governor. And I was like, where did this phone call come from? That’s how naive I was. But I ended up saying yes.”

Guadagno never expected to reach the second highest elected office in New Jersey. Having served as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and the District of New Jersey, Guadagno started her career outside of the political arena. Instead, she helped prosecute several high profile cases.

“I was a lawyer for 25 years before I decided to run for office,” Guadagno said.

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In her brief stint as Deputy Director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, Guadagno oversaw the prosecution of financial fraud David L. Smith, creator of the “Melissa” computer worm, which disabled NATO’s technological capabilities. During the prosecution of Smith, Guadagno met key government officials, such as then New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero.

“I also got to do a CNN live feed with [then] Governor Christie Todd Whitman. If you’re 30 years old and doing something like that, it’s a pretty wild ride,” Guadagno said.

Then, in the early 2000s, Guadagno took time away from her career to focus on raising her newly adopted son. She stayed home for about eight years, taking notice of local and state politics that affected her family.

“I got more involved in politics because the local school district turned around the bus route [for my children],” she said. “I realized I was a litigator, and I realized I could do some research and I could figure out why they turned it around, and I could make them turn it back around.”

Her foray into local politics eventually led her to become the first female Sheriff of Monmouth County, a role she embraced with pride and care.

“[Serving as Sheriff] was fun and challenging and made me realize for the first time ever that I was a woman. [People] looked at me and said, ‘you can’t do this job because you’re not a man.’”

Guadagno played a very active role as sheriff, partaking in extensive daily efforts to keep her county safe and secure. She managed a $60 million budget and oversaw hundreds of employees, most of whom were male. As Sheriff, Guadagno helped dismantle harmful stereotypes about gender and the role of women in society.

“Nobody in their right mind ever says that a blond haired blue eyed, white female will be Sheriff… It was fun debunking that myth,” Guadagno said. “And also, quite frankly, my kids were young and thought it was really cool that their mom carried a gun and drove a car with lights and sirens.”

But it was then gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie’s selection of Guadagno for his second-in-command that truly thrust her into statewide politics and the national spotlight. After all, the Lieutenant Governor position had only come into existence four years earlier through a voter referendum that took place in 2005.

Because Guadagno was to serve as New Jersey’s first ever Lieutenant Governor, she and her staff had many questions about what the new position would exactly entail.

“How did you set [this new position] up?… What was your title?… Where did you park your car? Did you have a security detail? Who was your staff? All of those questions were unanswered,” Guadagno said. “Once you get [a new] position, you realize that you have an obligation, bigger than yourself, and you get pretty serious about it.”

While adjusting to the new role, Guadagno also had to figure out the most effective way to work with Governor Christie. Recognizing that voters had primarily gone to the ballot box to vote for Christie, Guadagno came to quickly learn about the political positions of Christie and the role of his voice in the administration.

“If I had a disagreement with the governor, that was behind closed doors. And he made the call. That’s the way the system was set up,” Guadagno said. “We traveled a lot together. We thought it was important to make sure people understood that it was a relationship. We ran on the same ticket; we worked for the same goals. He made the decisions because he was the governor and there’s only one.”

As part of her duties as Lieutenant Governor, Guadagno spent a significant amount of time away from home. When Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey and roughly one-third of her house was destroyed, she was unable to see the damage to her home first-hand. Instead, Guadagno was in Trenton, working to address the statewide effects of the hurricane.

“I always tell people I was married for 33 years, but you have to exclude those eight years I spent in Trenton because I was never home,” Guadagno said.

Nonetheless, Guadagno was ready to deal with crises around the clock.

“I remember the first time I was making a speech, and a state trooper slipped me a note and said you have an emergency phone call. You need to leave now…. And so I wrapped up the speech in 30 seconds and left.”

After serving two consecutive terms and a total of eight years as Lieutenant Governor, Guadagno announced that she would be running to be Governor of New Jersey in the 2017 election. She won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but ultimately lost in the general election to current Governor Phil Murphy.

However, Guadagno has continued to remain dedicated to serving her community and the state of New Jersey at large. Guadagno sits on the boards of multiple nonprofit organizations and still practices law. As the Executive Director of the Mercy Center, a non-profit organization that seeks to aid victims of poverty in the Asbury Park area, Guadagno helps provide services to tens of thousands of people in need each year.

“I now get to make phone calls and ask people for money for a great cause,” Guadagno said. “Whether it’s to put food on people’s table, help people get through the immigration process, or help underserved girls in the greater Asbury Park area get a quality education.”

As Executive Director, Guadagno has helped the organization greatly further its impact.

“We went from serving 1,500 people to 95,000 people last year. We have wraparound services to make sure that those in need live full happy lives, consistent with finding a job and making sure their kids get the help they need.”

Today, Guadagno wishes she had devoted more of her time while in elected office toward helping those in need.

“And I keep saying, if I knew then what I know now, I would have fixed a lot of this. Because the red tape that these people have to go through just to put food on their table… they’re not looking for a handout, they just can’t make ends meet,” she said.

These realizations have caused Guadagno to change some of her political views. She no longer necessarily associates herself with the Republican Party, instead preferring to label herself as an independent. Still, Guadagno is proud of all she has seen and done throughout her career.

“I’ve had a lot of really cool, lucky, satisfying experiences,” she said. “You don’t judge how important your life is by the title of the position that you’re in; you judge it by what obstacles you’ve had to overcome to get there. Well, the people I see every day have huge obstacles. And just getting up every morning and asking for help is an obstacle for them that I can’t even begin to appreciate.”

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