In a Jan. 24 column about New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and the allegations against her by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Paul Mulshine of the Star-Ledger wrote that Guadagno is not able to handle New Jersey politics because she grew up in Iowa and does not have the street smarts. As a New Jersey native who has extensively covered both New Jersey politics and politics in states around the Midwest, I found the entire premise of Mulshine’s column wrong.
Mulshine is arguing that growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, that Guadagno did not develop “the sharp elbows needed to navigate the waters of Hudson County.” He also said that the lieutenant governor used “the banter of a Jersey native without the street sense that goes with it.” In my experience in covering the Midwest and its politicians this statement is wrong in many ways.
Yes, New Jersey politics has its own banter and attitude that is in many ways exclusive to the Garden State or to larger urban cities. Hudson County politics is the most bare knuckled politics you will find in New Jersey, comparable to only a few places like Chicago and New York. At the same time do not underestimate politicians from the Midwest. They can be just as aggressive and if need be – ruthless – as a Hudson County pol, but they just do it a lot differently.
Buffalo may be New York State’s second largest city but at the end of the day the culture is the Midwest not the Northeast. Residents of the Buffalo area are among the most polite people you’ll ever meet. At the same time, politics in that region of the state is very much a contact sport and among the most contentious in the Empire State.
In 2012, one of the most contentious elections was the battle for control of the Kansas Legislature between moderate and conservative Republicans. The battle got very bitter and involved very much the outmaneuvering of rivals that is seen in any Hudson County race, but it was done a lot differently. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is arguably one of the most polite governors in the country, but make no mistake, when he wanted a conservative GOP Legislature in order to enact his agenda, he was incredibly aggressive in the campaign. At the end of the day, Brownback and the conservatives won and the remaining moderate Republicans have been largely banished to the sidelines in Topeka.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, we have seen situations in recent years of political toughness having to be battled out in very public fashions. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker enacted his new public employees policies, he found himself with unions staging sit-ins in the Capitol and facing a recall. Walker comes across as the stereotypical Midwesterner but again he battled out the unions with the same toughness of a Hudson County pol. In neighboring Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has labeled himself “one tough nerd” and he has engaged in many of the same fights as Chris Christie just without the bombastic approach New Jersey’s chief executive uses.
In Ohio, state Treasurer Josh Mandel looks younger than his 36 years and comes across as fairly mild mannered in appearance. What that does not show is that Mandel, a Marine Corps vet, runs some of the most aggressive campaigns in the country and is not above throwing sharp elbows, including at least in one case when an opposition tracker accused him of shoving during the 2012 U.S. Senate campaign.
Missouri’s Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon stood up to the Tea Party last year in vetoing a bill to nullify federal gun laws in the state and actually was able to have his veto sustained against all odds.
I do wonder if a Jersey pol can handle some of what I’ve seen in the Midwest. In particular when Kansas state Rep. Brandon Whipple was accused by the Tea Party in 2012 of being unqualified because he and his wife didn’t have kids, when Whipple’s own opponent didn’t have children. Whipple battled back publicly, won; now has a son and sits on the state House children and seniors committee.
When looking at any politician’s background it would be best to remember that stereotyping should not occur. Just like New Jerseyeans are all not like Snooki and her friends, the Midwest isn’t one stereotype either.
John R.D. Celock, based in Washington, D.C., is a writer, the author of The Next Generation: Young Elected Officials and their Impact on American Politics, and a media affairs advisor. He is a New Jersey native.