New Jersey Copes With Blizzard Without the Governor -- or His Backup

New Jersey residents voted in 2005 to give their state a lieutenant governor after a period when the state had five governors in five years. So even though New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is on vacation in Florida while his state is getting pounded by a blizzard, there should be no executive vacuum in Trenton.

But Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno -- the very person who's supposed to serve as a backup when the governor is out of town, unable to complete his term or is otherwise incapacitated -- is away on vacation, too. That's prompting critics to say the state's top two officials could have planned their vacations better. Certainly, their timing couldn't have been worse.

Guadagno, the first person to hold her office, is -- like Christie -- a former federal prosecutor. She also served as sheriff of Monmouth County. Her responsibilities include the Division of Elections, economic development, arts, tourism and cultural programs. Surely, Guadagno could easily add snow removal to her list of core competencies.

Airports Closed, Casinos Open

"Whether it will hurt him at all obviously remains to be seen, though I doubt it," says Darryl Isherwood, editor of the website PolitickerNJ, which is often critical of Christie. "Some [Democratic] lawmakers, though, have started grumbling this morning that both Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Guadagno are out of the state at the same time. One lawmaker asked why we were paying $140,000 per year for a lieutenant if she was out at the same time as the governor."

New Jersey's response to the snow storm is being coordinated by Acting Governor and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, who has declared a state of emergency. Schools are closed, as are Newark International and Atlantic City International airports.

But Atlantic City's casinos, which have suffered during the past few years due to the recession and the growth of gaming in neighboring Pennsylvania and Delaware, are open for those hardy souls willing to brave the elements. As the Press of Atlantic City noted, ". . .casino representatives reported strong occupancy rates and a festive atmosphere as people were eating, drinking and gambling inside while the snow was piling up outside."

Snow Can Bury Unwitting Politicians

Forget balancing budgets: The real third rail of American politics -- particularly at the local level -- is snow removal. Botching a blizzard response can have serious political consequences because, unlike the budget deficit, winter storms have an immediate impact on people's lives, regardless of their sex, race, creed, economic status or sexual orientation. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels came under fire for not using salt during a December 2008 snowstorm because of environmental concerns. A year later, Nichols was defeated in the primary. Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty also got blasted for the city's inadequate response to back-to-back winter storms earlier this year. Fenty likewise lost his bid for reelection to a primary challenger.

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"Look, it was a massive amount of snow," says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovitch Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "We have never had a lieutenant governor. . . . It helps that this is Christmas week because a lot of people were off anyway. People hold their may mayors to a different level of responsiveness for snow removal than from the governor."

Christie remains fairly popular with New Jersey residents, though his approval ratings slipped under 50% in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. His popularity may help cushion the governor from any criticism he might get for going to Disney World while many New Jersey residents are having trouble keeping the roofs over their heads. Christie also remains a rising star within the Republican Party.

Perhaps, though, this will provide him -- and his absent lieutenant -- with a good lesson in the need for contingency planning.
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