Guadagno, Buono and Zimmer and the Contortions of Gender Politics in New Jersey


It didn’t have to be this way.

In a more equal world, a world with a reduced male animal influence, Dawn Zimmer and Kim Guadagno might have forged a bipartisan sisterhood and arm in arm scaled the ramparts of New Jersey politics. Instead, the first woman mayor of Hoboken leaves behind a trail of her lower primate cage male colleagues in the Democratic establishment muttering “crazy,” while Guadagno now faces the prospect of fighting Governor Chris Christie and her own Republican Party long before she ever gets in range of Democrat Phil Murphy.

Say it.

It’s a bad state for women in politics.

It’s a state dominated by men in both parties who crowd into backrooms and bars and try to recreate the feelings of a Goodfellas cast reunion, complete with Paul Sorvino and Ray Liotta lookalikes and some kid named Spider writhing on the floor and all the Jimmy Cagney references you could ever choke down in a single sitting. Politics either subs for family life in the case of single practitioners, or provides a way for married men to escape the dread of their own domesticity and recast their relationships with women and other males in Martin Scorsese-like terms. It’s so entrenched, so cancerous in its ability to break down artificial walls of delineation, one pities those stubborn rank and file people who insist on remaining angrily in their respective corners out of duty to party, as if the designations Democrat and Republican mean anything anymore in this state other than different ways to describe misogyny.

Democrats ran over Barabra Buono when she ran for governor in 2013 sooner than challenge tough guy Christie. Now, in a dreadful reenactment of the dynamics of that 2013 fiasco, Guadagno can’t make a move without Christie or one of his lieutenants bemoaning her efforts. “Guadagno” kind of rhymes with “Buono,” NJTV correspondent David Cruz said on Reporters Roundtable last week, stating what everyone else was thinking as he referred to the job Dems did on their last nominee and candidly reflecting on Guadagno’s current plight.

“Amateur hour,” Bill Palatucci told Politico’s Matt Friedman after punching up the reporter on the phone, according to Friedman’s colleague Ryan Hutchins, badmouthing the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s ham-handed attempts to install a new Republican State Party chair.

Christie has an out, of course. He can say that Guadagno disrespected him by publicly decrying the gas tax and the statehouse renovation. But of course the ill-will between Christie and his second in command goes back before that, and one can hear Guadagno making the case for how Christie big-footed her at key public events where she might have improved her public speaking skills and gained more traction for this general election contest. Christie barely put her on the ticket again when he ran for reelection, letting her dangle publicly before he affirmed her re-upping with no pomp and less circumstance.

She’s not a team player, Christie’s allies groan, neglecting to acknowledge that Christie, of course, for all his political instincts, deft finessing of the media, and voracious ambition, could never be extolled for his team playing skills.

Just as Guadagno had her alleged infamous run-in with Zimmer, Buono and Guadagno scrapped once in semi-gladiatorial fashion, back in 2009 or 2010 when the senator from Middlesex evacuated the LG’s Red Tape Review Board chaired by Christie’s LG, trying to use Guadagno as a preliminary bout for her agonizing and ultimately fruitless effort against Guadagno’s boss.

But eight years in bubble wrap during the Christie regime have hardly prepared Guadagno for a statewide contest. At last week’s New Jersey Business and Industry Association event, the media mostly laughed at all the times the LG didn’t exhort the crowd to laugh at what she described as jokes, then failed to engage in the mindless towel snapping political banter prized by Christie and awkwardly attempted by Guadagno in a gaggle following her speech.

The mood appalled.

The press had absorbed those vats of prodigious steaming negative vibes shoveled their way by Christie World in multiple profanity riddled phone conversations and WTF text messages ping ponged into their laps during off business hours, and now gave off a zombie-like glow in Guadagno’s presence, as if the encounter should bear the atmosphere of near-absolute contempt that was the party’s collective response to the Republican candidate for governor. Those myriad GOP others could smile at the wine and cheese functions in servile affirmation of the upbeat energy Guadagno and her retinue forged for the nominee as she moved through a room. But the press would not pretend. The press would not placate, or suffer in silence the pontifications of a ruined empire. If Christie himself couldn’t manage a kind word for the effort, and Guadagno appeared equally flummoxed over her attachment to Christie, the press would not indulge such contradictions without a heavy dose of sheer cynicism. The press, in its welled up sense of fatigue with Murphy v. Guadagno 2017, would merely transmit, like 20 winged Hermes on a lily pad, the mood of those glutted NJGOP gods who frowned utterly on Guadagno.

Sources tried to go micro on the situation. Pro-Guadagno people simply dismiss the negativity as a function of Christie’s well-documented compulsion. It’s not deep. It’s not a well of feeling. “This was a guy who served one term as a Morris County freeholder for a reason,” a source told InsiderNJ. This was not rampant misogyny. This was just Christie being Christie. It was the completely consistent longtime behavior who ultimately doesn’t get along with too many people. Pro-Christie people, meanwhile, say this is not about buried anti-feminine feelings. It’s merely the frank expression of disgust over a bad candidate – male or female – for public office. Christie and his ilk speak on the record, while others tell Guadagno to her face that the campaign  is great, then make that private fitful phone call denouncing Guadagno as the worst statewide candidate since Buono.

Others try to philosophize about the divergences of men and women in public life.

“Women actually care about issues and men, of course, don’t,” one source, a woman, told InsiderNJ. “Women care about policy and men care about power, so when women don’t act in a self-interested way to brazenly and drunkenly acquire power, men say they’re politically stupid. Nurturing, caring women see the power game as little more than the stupidity of men. It’s a pretty hopeless situation.”

The terms are broad, the generalizations unfortunate.

But there’s a good story here, and good stories are few in this game.

In one regard, and barring any late revelations that a political opponent backed a dump truck of dirt up to her reelection designs, Zimmer after eight years in office as the leader of Hoboken goes out on her own terms and as a consistently public-service-minded mayor. It’s a significant story of accomplishment by a woman in politics in a state where men routinely subjugate other men, and prioritize the feeling of carrying away from every human encounter the buoyancy of knowing they have left another man feeling smaller. She can summon heart and a sense of accomplishment at having run her own campaigns and solidified an un-transferable base of people who believe in her, roughly 50% of Hoboken, the Vietnam War of politics, even as her critics insist that her husband brain-powered her every move. A Jersey anomaly, her evident lack of thirst for a lifetime of bunching together the portents of local power and nesting on them in city hall means she can punch out and avoid the folds of Jabba-like fatness and complacency that almost inevitably attend lifers in politics. She rides out as the fit, bike-loving outdoors-person she rode in as,  leaving a trail of guys on barstools in cobwebs telling stories about that nutty woman.

Ironically, in 2014 she leveled her lone shocking, incendiary and most memorable charge at – of all people, another woman – Guadagno, when she told Steve Kornacki amid the seismic statewide seizures of Bridgegate that the LG held Hurricane Sandy funds over her head by making the case for Christie-connected developer pals. In a brief statement to reporters with no questions, no follow-up or analysis opportunity, Guadagno denied it at the time, of course, but Zimmer’s most aggressive deniers predictably consisted of Democrats – perhaps already irritated by the departure of their favorite punching bag Buono – as they behind the scenes moaned anew about the mayor’s craziness. Guadagno channeled that same incredulity at the time, but now must walk the same Nicholas Pileggi-scripted plank Buono walked, amid the same hail of jeers, suppressed giggles and sandbox-persistent maleness.

Dedicated beach bum Millicent Van Cleef writes about New Jersey politics.





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