Newly minted as the leader of the state Republican Party, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in an abrupt move scrapped her choice for party chairman, Doug Steinhardt, shortly before he was due to be installed on Tuesday.
Guadagno, the Republican nominee for governor, replaced Steinhardt at the last minute with Michael Lavery, the nephew of one of the state’s most influential GOP power brokers, Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore.
Lavery was elected Tuesday evening to take over for Sam Raia — who has led the Republican State Committee under Gov. Chris Christie’s auspices since 2011 — at an event in the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township.
It was an early about-face for the new leader of the state GOP, and Guadagno seemed to be knocked off kilter by questions from reporters at an event later in the evening held by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
As the party’s nominee for governor, one of Guadagno’s prerogatives is to pick a new state GOP chairman. In the right hands, the position provides a powerful platform in terms of fundraising, messaging and organizational resources, and the gubernatorial nominee usually picks a stalwart supporter.
Guadagno had announced Steinhardt, the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party and a partner at the law firm Florio Perrucci Steinhardt and Fader, as her pick on Friday. But on Tuesday, Christie announced he was nominating Trudy Steinhardt, his wife, to the state Parole Board. And Guadagno said she didn’t like “the optics.”
In a back-and-forth with reporters, Guadagno said she got to know Lavery while she was vetting Doug Steinhardt for the chairmanship. So why didn’t she find out about Trudy Steinhardt’s impending nomination during that vetting process, Guadagno was asked.
“Because I didn’t know that Trudy Steinhardt was going to be — I didn’t know she was — well, I didn’t recall. Because I get hundreds of these questionnaires every day that I walk down the hallway to the governor. I don’t recall when she did that, I think it was like six or eight months ago, so I had no recollection of it, and I was surprised about the [nomination] drop.”
Guadagno did not detail exactly what the “optics” problem would be, telling one journalist to “figure it out.”
“Look, I love Doug Steinhardt. I think he would make a great chairman of the Republican Party, which is why we announced it last Friday,” she said, adding later: “I think the timing was bad. I didn’t want to deal with the issue, period. I didn’t want to deal with any issue whatsoever.”
In the same way Christie nominated Trudy Steinhardt to the parole board on Tuesday, he had previously nominated Lavery to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, where he is currently chairman.
“Doug had to choose: ‘Do I get my dream job or does my wife get her dream job?’” Guadagno said. “Having been in that position as a woman who works, you know, he made the right choice.”
She added that subbing in Lavery “absolutely” had been her call, that Lavery had been in line to become Steinhardt’s legal counsel at the state GOP before the swap, and that the two Warren County Republicans were good friends.
Lavery is a former Hackettstown mayor from the law firm Lavery, Selvaggi, Abromitis and Cohen. ”He believes in the same things I believe in, which is smaller government, smarter government, building the party from the bottom up and not the top down,” Guadagno said.
He is the nephew of Gilmore, the powerful Ocean County GOP chairman and key Guadagno backer who is under federal investigation on tax issues. Several Republicans described Lavery as little-known and theorized that Guadagno picked him as a gesture to Gilmore, who brings his own optics issues to the party.
Steinhardt in a statement said he decided to withdraw from consideration after Christie announced his wife’s nomination Tuesday. “I’ve known Michael for many years and I am confident he is the right choice to lead the Republican State Committee and its candidates to victory,” he said.
Whoever the chairman is, the job promises to be a fairly daunting one in the next few years. Not only is Guadagno considered the underdog in the governor’s race against the Democratic nominee, Phil Murphy, she has publicly stated that her party has no shot at winning control of the Legislature.
Christie has been criticized for a failure at party-building during his tenure and for depleting its coffers with expensive out-of-state travels and Bridgegate-related legal expenses. (It took a fundraiser with President Trump to get the party back in the black last year.)