Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee to run for New Jersey governor, is staking her underdog campaign on a big promise: She says she won't run for re-election unless she is able to lower property taxes in her first term.
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Tax bills are an issue the campaign assumes will resonate with voters in the country's most highly taxed state. But it remains to be seen whether Ms. Guadagno's platform can overshadow her association with Gov. Chris Christie, who is unpopular, and propel her to victory over well-funded Democratic nominee Phil Murphy.
"I know people are going to vote their pocketbooks," said Ms. Guadagno, who has been Mr. Christie's lieutenant governor for nearly eight years. "When people get to know me and pay more attention to this election, they are going to see the obvious, and that is that I am not Chris Christie."
Ms. Guadagno has proposed a "circuit breaker" that would limit property-tax increases by capping the school portion of residents' property tax bills at 5% of their household income. The parameters for measuring success in fulfilling the campaign promise aren't clear, with a campaign spokesman saying he believes New Jersey residents would consider "any reduction in property taxes" to be welcome news.
Recent polls put Mr. Christie's approval rating at 15%, and Mr. Murphy tries whenever possible to link Ms. Guadagno to his administration. But Mr. Christie, who was a rising star in the Republican Party before being dragged down by the George Washington Bridge scandal, rarely shared the stage with his lieutenant governor, and it's unclear how strongly voters associate her name with his legacy.
Polls by Monmouth and Quinnipiac universities have found Mr. Murphy with a double-digit lead over Ms. Guadagno among likely voters. Adam Geller, a Republican pollster who worked for Mr. Christie's gubernatorial and Donald Trump's presidential campaigns and who has been hired by Ms. Guadagno, said his poll, with a margin of error of four percentage points, found a narrower, nine-point lead for Mr. Murphy.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, acknowledged that summer polls in New Jersey "really aren't predictive of what's going to happen in the fall" and said the race could tighten ahead of the Nov. 7 election. Still, he added, New Jersey voter dissatisfaction will be difficult for Ms. Guadagno to overcome.
"It's just that the Republican brand is so tarnished right now -- both because of Chris Christie and because of Donald Trump -- that anyone who's running under that label is going to have problems this year," Mr. Murray said.
Ms. Guadagno, 58 years old and born in Waterloo, Iowa, estimates that her father, who sold television ad spots door-to-door, moved the family 20 times across the East Coast and Midwest before she went to college. Her nomadic childhood helped her develop a rich vocabulary -- "There's a difference between the beach and the shore, or a sack and a bag, or pop and soda," she says -- but also gave her confidence and an ability to be flexible.
"You can walk in any room anywhere and figure it out fairly quickly," she said.
After graduating from law school, Ms. Guadagno prosecuted federal organized crime and racketeering cases in Brooklyn and public corruption and other crime in New Jersey. She and her husband, a now-retired family court judge, moved to Monmouth County "to raise our family in one place." She was elected the county's first female sheriff in 2007 and tapped to be Mr. Christie's running mate for his 2009 campaign.
Mr. Christie tasked his top deputy with reducing business regulations and running economic development initiatives. Ms. Guadagno claims credit for lowering the state's unemployment rate to 4.1% from 9.8% in 2010. "But what I found was people still weren't happy," she said. "You can find a job here, probably, but you can't afford to live here once you find the job."
The average residential property-tax bill in New Jersey has increased 32% over the past decade, topping $8,200 in 2016, state records show. Ms. Guadagno estimates her circuit-breaker plan would cost the state $1.5 billion, a hole she plans to fill in the short-term with savings resulting from a wide-ranging audit of state departments and services, and in the long-term by revamping New Jersey's school funding formula. Lowering healthcare costs and capping sick-pay payouts for public employees would also free up funding, she said.
A spokesman for Mr. Murphy called Ms. Guadagno's tax plan "simply not credible."
Marc Pfeiffer, a senior policy fellow at Rutgers University who formerly worked in local government administration, said linking property taxes to income would be fairer than the current system. "The property-tax system never quite anticipated retired people in their 90s owning property on fixed incomes," he said, adding that a circuit-breaker would prevent people from being forced from their homes.
But implementing a circuit-breaker tax system in New Jersey would be extremely difficult from an administrative perspective, he said. Income taxes are tied to social security and federal identification numbers, while property taxes are determined by address; previous efforts to link the two systems haven't worked, he said.
Ms. Guadagno's spokesman said circuit-breaker systems have been successfully implemented in Illinois and Massachusetts. "If it works in other blue states, it can certainly work here," he said.
Ms. Guadagno said she will serve as a check on the Democratic-controlled legislature and warned that handing full control of the Statehouse to Democrats would lead to rising taxes. She said she is confident she can reach compromises with lawmakers and would approach issues differently than Mr. Christie, who has sometimes been accused of bullying opponents.
"You won't see me yelling and screaming," Ms. Guadagno said. A spokesman for Mr. Christie didn't respond to requests for comment.