Dangerous words for N.J. governor candidates Guadagno, Murphy: Christie, Goldman Sachs


TRENTONChris Christie brought Kim Guadagno fame.

Goldman Sachs brought Phil Murphy fortune. 

But now that Guadagno is the Republican front-runner and Murphy the Democratic favorite in the race to be New Jersey’s next governor, those parts of their resume — once considered assets in a campaign — hang around their necks like scarlet letters. 

When Christie picked Guadagno, then the Monmouth County sheriff, to be New Jersey’s first lieutenant governor in 2009, he put her on the Garden State’s political map, allowing her to cut ribbons and meet with business leaders in every county.

In the best of worlds, that would have put her on a glide path to take over Christie’s office. 

Instead, Christie’s poll numbers are in the toilet, and Guadagno is forced into a tricky predicament as the June 6 primary approaches: distancing herself from a combative governor loathed by most New Jersey voters even as she continues to work for him.

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Murphy, meanwhile, spent 23 years as a top executive for the Wall Street banking firm Goldman Sachs, which helped him become a top national Democratic fundraiser, land government experience as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, and made him rich enough to pump millions into his campaign, scaring off top contenders. 

But Goldman Sachs is in Christie territory when it comes to low popularity ratings.

Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump slammed Hillary Clinton’s connections to the firm in last year’s presidential race. And now, Trump faces fire from Democrats for appointing ex-Goldman execs to posts that they say make a mockery out of his ow to “drain the swamp.”

To top it off, in New Jersey, Goldman has its own special meaning: Jon Corzine, another former exec at the company who spent millions to become governor and ended up losing re-election to Christie. 

“Murphy has to deal with the ghost of Corzine and Guadagno has to deal with the presence of Christie,” said Carl Golden, the former press secretary for former Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman. 

“Someone who had been very successful in the business community investing and creating jobs once would have been seen as a top qualification to be governor, Golden added. “Jon Corzine, whether you think it’s fair or unfair, changed that dynamic because his governorship is looked at as a failed governor.” 

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said it’s “much worse” for Guadagno. 

“Chris Christie is the most unpopular governor in the entire country right now,” Dworkin said. “If he was at 55 percent (approval rating) the way Barack Obama was (when he left office), we’d have a very different kind of race. But because she will be tagged as being a continuation of the unpopular Christie reign, this election is much tougher for her.” 

Guadagno began to inch away from Christie over last year. She publicly criticized him by saying she wouldn’t vote for Trump, a Christie ally. She opposed Christie’s signing of a gas-tax hike. She said she’d reverse Christie’s decision to take New Jersey out of a regional compact to combat air pollution. And she spoke out against his $300 million plan to renovate the Statehouse. 

“In 2009, I agreed to be the lieutenant governor of the state of New Jersey because we were not going to raise taxes on anybody,” she said last week. “We were going to make sure money that was sent to Trenton was spent for the right reasons. We have lost our way.”

In her first television campaign ad, she does not mention that she is lieutenant governor, but she takes credit for helping the state’s unemployment rate drop from 9.8 percent to 4.1 percent over the last seven years.

In the second GOP primary debate Thursday, Guadagno defended this. 

“I’m running for governor; the governor’s not,” she said. “I thought it was important for me to talk about my record.” 

Golden said the Christie connection would likely hurt her more in the general election than during the primary campaign.  

“If Murphy’s the nominee, he’s going to spend next four months running against Chris Christie,” he said. “That’s just the reality she has to deal with.”

For his part, Murphy, who retired from Goldman Sachs in 2006, stresses that he is not trying to hide his past from voters, even if “Goldman” has become a dirty word in politics these days. 

“‘Goldman’ is perceived differently than ‘financial services’ or ‘Wall Street,'” said his campaign manager, Brendan Gill, vice president of the Essex County freeholder board. “Meaning, I think that there’s a little bit of a stigma attached to it.”

Murphy said he does get asked about his resume on the campaign trails. 

“Typically by a mother and typically by a woman of color, ‘Hey, can you explain to me how come my son is doing time for a low-end drug crime and these banks brought our nation to its knees and nobody’s doing time? What’s the good answer to that?'” he said. “That’s the question that comes to me, and my answer is: ‘You know what, there is no good answer.'”

“The scorn is real and it’s deserved,” Murphy added about Wall Street. “I don’t know why it’s uniquely Goldman Sachs. I don’t know why them and not JP Morgan or the next bank you could pick.”

Murphy said his time at Goldman actually embedded a few skills in him that he thinks could help him as governor. 

“I’ve seen models of how jobs are created — good and bad — around the world,” he said. “We need that desperately. I’ve dealt with rating agencies. We need that skill desperately.”

He stresses that his life is a book. 

“I’m almost 60 years old,” Murphy said. “There are a number of chapters, many chapters to my book of life.”

Dworkin said the Goldman tag might not be crippling in the end for Murphy — because of the demographics of New Jersey, a state that Sanders lost to Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“There is a segment of Democratic primary electorate that doesn’t trust Wall Street and isn’t going to trust someone from Goldman Sachs,” Dworkin said. “But I don’t think it’s a majority of the party. We have a lot of people in this state who work on Wall Street or some related financial area.”

NJ Advance Media staff writers Matt Arco and Claude Brodesser-Akner contributed to this report.

Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

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