This article was originally published in the June 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
The election season officially starts on Tuesday, June 6, with the gubernatorial primaries.
The lucky winners will then spend the next several months vying to follow one of the least popular governors in New Jersey history and inherit a state besieged with problems ranging from an underfunded pension system, high property taxes, a record number of credit downgrades, transportation infrastructure problems, and a boarded-up statehouse.
With the taxpayers feeling betrayed by the current governor and hoping for some leadership, it helps to find out why this year’s contenders want the job of governor, aren’t going to use it as stepping stone, have the experience to do the job, and can be trusted.
Here is a brief overview of the most prominent candidates.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R)
Leading the Republican pack is incumbent Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, the 58-year-old former federal prosecutor, past Monmouth County sheriff, and wife of a retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge.
“I’m running for governor because I think I can do better,” the Iowa-born mother of three sons said on NJTV’s State of Affairs. “I think we need lower taxes. We need to make New Jersey affordable again. And we need to fight for the middle class.” Unlike her boss, who ran for president while in office, Guadagno says she is only interested in serving as governor.
Guadagno (pronounced gwah-DAHN-yoh) has been part of Christie’s administration from the start and has been serving as secretary of state, the office that oversees economic vitality, cultural and historical programs, and civic engagement responsibilities. She has spent most of her tenure representing the state at business-related events and interactions.
NJ Advance Media reports Guadagno was given “free rein over regulation slashing, overseeing both the New Jersey Partnership for Action, which oversees economic development strategy, and the Red Tape Review Commission, a bipartisan group aimed at reducing regulatory burdens on business.” She opposes a minimum wage increase and mandatory sick pay.
In an attempt to distance herself from the administration that she has been part of for the past seven years, Guadagno (who is pro-choice and did not support Donald Trump) has stepped out on her own and offered some solutions to the state’s problems regarding property taxes and replacing an appointed attorney general with an elected one.
The results? Conservative Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine equated her tax plan to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” and Republican former governor Tom Kean reacted to the attorney general idea with, “We should not have people in law enforcement raising money to run for office. When that happens, justice is not served.”
Like Christie, Guadagno uses a tough-on-crime persona yet has been involved in several questionable situations — with two ending in the attorney general’s office. The first was a pension fraud case connected to her tenure as a Monmouth County sheriff.
The other is the Christie administration’s quashing of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office’s investigation into improprieties in the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office run by Christie and (former sheriff) Guadagno supporter Deborah Trout.
And Guadagno was also the individual named by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer as the state messenger who told “her that the city’s Hurricane Sandy relief was contingent on Zimmer making sure zoning laws were changed to allow the Rockefeller Group, a real estate developer with ties to now-convicted Port Authority chairman David Samson, to develop a project in Hoboken,” notes NJ Advance Media. A U.S. attorney closed the case after 16 months, unable to prove Zimmer’s assertion.
As for what Guadagno will do for Trenton and New Jersey cities in general, her website notes, “Growing our economy also includes revitalizing our urban areas to attract jobs and a young, educated workforce, investing in new technologies and start ups, and expanding our state’s manufacturing base.” www.kimfornj.com.
Jack Ciattarelli (R)
Another Republican hopeful is Jack Ciattarelli (pronounced “Chit-a-relli”). A 55-year-old resident of Somerset County and former county freeholder, he is a certified public accountant, former owner of a medical publishing company, and has been a member of the State Assembly since 2011.
“I am running for governor because we need to take our state in a new direction. One that will, once again, revitalize New Jersey and make it a great place to live, work, and retire,” he says on his website.
Newspaper reports show that Ciattarelli had planned to serve only three terms in the Assembly, or six years, similar to the self-imposed limits he set as a freeholder. But last year he says he realized he hadn’t achieved what he had set to do, including reform property taxes, school funding, the tax code, and public worker benefits, and decided to run for governor — the only place to make “seismic change.” So it seems he will not run for another office while serving as governor.
Ciattarelli received a business degree from Seton Hall and worked first as a CPA before working in sales and marketing for medical publications. He eventually started two publishing companies, the most recent being Galen Publishing, which contributed to his household income of about $1.25 million in 2016, according to Advance Media. He is married and has four children.
About his abilities, the Star-Ledger notes, “Ciattarelli, more than any candidate in either party, understands that the first job of the next governor is to wrestle down the fiscal crisis. Without that first step, New Jersey can’t improve its business climate, lighten the burden of property taxes, or pursue progressive goals like expanding access to college, or treatment for drug addicts. Ciattarelli embraces the most sensible answers from the right and left. He proposes meaty spending cuts, paired with tax increases aimed at the richest among us, sparing the middle-class.”
While the Star-Ledger cited Ciattarelli for publicly criticizing and breaking with Governor Christie on issues (as well as Donald Trump) and supporting the core idea of the bipartisan commission on pension and health benefits, the paper added Ciattarelli “does suffer from some traditional Republican tics that are unwise, and perhaps fatal. He would phase out the corporate business tax with no viable means to make up for the revenue loss, the kind of error that has put us in this hole. He would not rejoin the regional pact on climate change, or take steps to develop New Jersey’s remarkable potential for offshore wind power. He is pro-choice but says he supported Christie’s senseless and damaging cuts to Planned Parenthood. And he opposed sensible gun control measures in the Legislature, like limiting the size of ammunition clips.”
A quick search for glaring problems brought only one to the surface and mentioned fraud. The headline on a Monmouth County news blog said, “Petition Fraud Could Derail Ciattarelli’s Gubernatorial Campaign” and dealt with claim that more than 700 of the 1,674 signatures the assemblyman submitted for placement on the primary ballot were not from qualified registered voters. The claim came from the campaign for Kim Guadagno.
As for urban areas, Ciattarelli said during a NJ Spotlight conference, “We’ve ignored our cities. The amount we’ve spent on corporate retention and recruitment is staggering. There is a much better way to deploy that money.” He then suggested cities make it easier for developers by working with county planners to create pre-approved development zone and sue eminent domain to take control of blighted areas. www.jack4gov.com.
Also running: One new state Republican face is Steven Rogers, 64, a Nutley commissioner, retired U.S. Naval Intelligence officer, Fox News commentator, and an adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. www.facebook.com/RogersNJGovernor2017.
Phil Murphy (D)
‘This is a state in crisis,” says Democratic frontrunner Phil Murphy, 59, about his decision to run for governor. “It needs someone with not abstract but real experience, having grown up on the edges of the middle class, and a leader who has the right skills and temperament and background.”
Murphy says he began thinking of running in 2013 after he finished a four-year stint as United States Ambassador to Germany and he and his wife returned to their Monmouth County home to experience the after effects of the great recession.
A New Republic article sums up the Massachusetts-born Murphy: “He’s a millionaire politician who worked at Goldman Sachs for 23 years, rising to become a senior director of the firm. He’s compared unfavorably to his party’s last governor, another former Goldman executive whose one term was widely considered a failure. He’s poured at least $10 million of his own money into his gubernatorial campaign. In what the New York Times called ‘checkbook politics,’ he’s contributed more than $1 million to local Democratic candidates and organizations, paying off in endorsements from all 21 county party committees. And he’s very much a member of the Democratic establishment: He’s a former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama. It almost goes without saying that he also has the backing of the state’s two Democratic senators.”
Missing from that overview is Murphy’s involvement with theater at Harvard (where he studied business), his move to New Jersey during his Goldman Sachs years, his 23-year marriage, his four children, and his ownership stake in the professional women’s soccer team Sky Blue FC, which plays in Piscataway.
He has never held a political office. He chaired a task force in 2005 to address the already mounting New Jersey pension crisis. According to various articles, his recommendations included raising the retirement age and basing pensions on a longer salary window. His idea of selling off public assets — and leasing the NJ Turnpike to a private company — was embraced by Governor Corzine but rejected by the legislature. Fixing the pension system is one of Murphy’s main objectives as governor.
The publication the Nation sums up Murphy’s approach with, “Murphy isn’t running as a centrist corporate Democrat, but rather as a progressive champion making a strong appeal to labor. Despite his more than two decades on Wall Street, he is quick to acknowledge that the financial sector is under regulated.”
He supports a $15 per hour minimum wage, a progressive tax system, stronger environmental protection, “more effective gun control,” and a state bank, calling it “a people’s bank” to “make student loans at reasonable rates, small-scale infrastructure loans working with community banks, and small-business loans.” The Asbury Park Press headline, “Murphy Pitches State Bank to skeptical Crowd: Bankers,” seems to sum up the response.
Murphy seems to be generally clean of scandal -— or a master of hiding it. As Advance Media reports, Murphy’s tenure as an ambassador wasn’t always smooth, and confidential cables leaked by Wikileaks included “one in which Murphy said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘insecure’ in dealing with America and one in which staff were harsh on the country’s foreign minister.”
Nevertheless, Murphy’s biggest problem is guilt by association. As NJ Spotlight puts it, “The memory of Corzine showering millions of dollars on county parties in 2005 to chase potential competitors out of the race remains reasonably fresh. It surfaced yet again with the revelation that Murphy channeled his inner Corzine by contributing $1.15 million to local and state party organizations while loaning $10 million of his own funds to his campaign.”
As for Trenton and other New Jersey cities, Murphy has talked about urban renewal as part of his overall plan. As an Observer reporter noted in August, 2016, Murphy “said that the real reason businesses are fleeing New Jersey is the lack of cities that take advantage of things like proximity to New York and Philadelphia, lack of urban centers and transportation holes that leave much of the state disconnected. According to Murphy, if such issues are addressed in the state through investments to areas like Trenton, Newark, and Camden, businesses will flock to NJ despite lack of tax exemptions.” www.murphy4nj.com.
John Wisniewski (D)
Also on the Democrat ballot is John Wisniewski (pronounced Wiz-nev-ski). “After 21 years in the Legislature trying to make changes incrementally from a seat in the Assembly, the only way this is going to change is if I put my name out there for governor and have the opportunity to make these changes myself,’” he told Advance Media in May.
An attorney and former state Democratic Party Chair, Wisniewski, 54, has become more prominent during the Christie administration. As Advance Media reports, “The Middlesex County Democrat led the legislative investigation into the infamous lane closings at the George Washington Bridge that engulfed Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Then, Wisniewski broke with the state’s Democratic leaders to chair Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in New Jersey instead of backing party favorite Hillary Clinton.”
He grew up in Sayreville and put himself through Rutgers University, receiving degrees in English and economics. He graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 1987 and entered politics in 1991.
A married father of three adult daughters, the pro-choice Wisniewski supports a single-payer and universal healthcare plan, tuition-free public colleges, Black Lives Matter issues, LGBT rights, and sees clean energy as a way to fuel the economy and protect the environment.
Legal baggage for Wisniewski includes a pay-to-play violation when his company, Wisniewski & Associates, donated $1,000 to the Monmouth County Democratic Organization in October, 2014, while serving as special counsel for litigation, labor relations, redevelopment, and general legal matters in Keyport, a town in Monmouth County. And a 2012 Star-Leger review said Wisniewski had ties to several high-spending Political Action Committees (PACs)— groups that “have collected millions of dollars from engineering firms, insurance brokers, and other contractors and then made sizable donations to elected officials who award the contracts.”
Wisniewski’s impact on Trenton would be through his plan to create a Statewide Community Land Trust — designed to make affordable housing a reality for working class New Jerseyans. According to his website, the program “modeled after successful programs in Vermont, Boston, and Atlanta . . . would lower the cost of buying a home to this simple premise — the state owns the land, the homeowner owns the home.” He also supports fully funding a School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), a national model designed to end years of inequities and disputes about funding education. www.wiz2017.com.
Also running: Another veteran political leader running on the Democratic ticket is Senator Ray Lesniak, 71, of Union County. He’s known as the second-longest-serving lawmaker in Trenton (40 years) and has ushered through landmark legislation, such as banning the death penalty. He’s also been a major Democratic fundraiser. As Advance Media notes, his law firm has also profited from state contracts.
Lesniak says he decided to run for governor after watching state Democrats join with Gov. Christie to do “things I objected to and couldn’t stop” and says, “The state is headed in the wrong direction.” He supports animal protection, affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse recovery programs, job creation, education opportunity, and marriage equality. www.ray4gov.com.
The fresh Democratic candidate with rising poll numbers is Jim Johnson, 55. He is a Montclair-based former federal prosecutor and Clinton-era U.S. Treasury undersecretary who supports property tax credit programs and foreclosure reform, municipal consolidation, and tax-law changes to help municipalities. www.jimjohnson4governor.com.