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Assemblyman Ciattarelli Declares for Governor, Claims State Is ‘On the Brink’

GOP candidate sees state ‘drowning in debt,’ puts school-funding reform and property-tax relief high on his list

Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli launches campaign for GOP nomination for governor.

New Jersey’s 2017 race to succeed Gov. Chris Christie finally has its second official contender — and this time, it’s a Republican.

With a promise to take the state in an “entirely new direction,” Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) formally announced a campaign for the GOP nomination for governor on Tuesday in Manville. He said the state is “on the brink,” facing a floundering economy and numerous budget crises, and unveiled a policy platform focused on issues like school-funding reform and property-tax relief that he said would create a “tide that lifts all boats.”

“The challenge is, we’ve been heading in the wrong direction for decades. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations and state Legislatures, we’ve reached the tipping point,” Ciattarelli said. “We are last in economic growth, drowning in debt, unable to fund core priorities like infrastructure and pensions, crippled by rising property taxes, and paralyzed by an unfair school funding formula that cheats children, taxpayers, and school employees. Instead of real solutions, we’re stuck with commissions and task forces that talk about problems instead of solving them, and special interests that spend tens of millions each election to preserve the failed status quo.”

The decision makes the former Somerset County freeholder and medical publishing executive the first Republican and the second candidate of either party to dive headlong into a race that’s still, at this point, over a year away. Democrats already have a moneyed candidate in former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, who launched his campaign earlier this summer and last week secured a surprise endorsement from Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. More are expected to enter in the coming weeks, including state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Essex) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex).

Potential Republican candidates, on the other hand, have been a bit more careful about publicizing their plans. Several GOP leaders have been touted as possible successors to Christie, including Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Morris), but few have taken concrete steps toward a run thus far. Bramnick stoked rumors of an impending bid in 2014 when he hosted a well-attended GOP event in Atlantic City, but has since offered little indication that he’s still interested.

An exception is Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, whose recently founded nonprofit Building A Better New Jersey Together claims as its executive director former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien and is thought by observers to serve as a precursory campaign platform.

But Ciattarelli’s launch today also raises questions about the GOP’s viability in the oncoming election, since 2017’s political environment is expected to be uniquely challenging for the party. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have held the governor’s office for more than two consecutive terms since 1970, and the state just spent nearly seven years under Christie, once a rising star in the GOP both here and nationally but whose reputation has not fared well in recent months. Approval ratings for the embattled governor sit at an all-time low, a decline that has been fueled by his alleged involvement in the ongoing scandal surrounding the closing of commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge three years ago but also arguably by his national ambitions, which saw him sacrificing time at home to launch a failed presidential bid and campaign with the GOP’s current controversial nominee, Donald Trump.

Additionally, any candidate — Democrat or Republican — will face a steep funding battle against Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive whose personal wealth and Wall Street ties have already helped him put together a war chest of almost $10 million. While Republican candidates have always had a tough time performing statewide in New Jersey, which with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans tends to lean toward the former, all of the aforementioned factors will be working against them next year, said Bridget Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University.

“I think it's an admirable effort but given the the demographics of the state, the enormous influence for the Democratic party machine, Chris Christie's legacy, and that the likely Democratic nominee Phil Murphy will be a self-funded candidate who will not have to adhere to state gubernatorial funding limits — it really puts any non-self-funding Republican candidate at a distinct disadvantage,” she said.

Still, Ciattarelli said yesterday that none of that will deter him in his bid for the nomination — and he may, in fact, be better positioned than most to carry the party’s flag in a post-Christie era. Ciattarelli, who’s served as Assistant Republican Whip in the state’s lower house since 2014, has been one of the more vocal critics in his caucus of the governor’s leadership over the past few years, voting once with Democrats to override Christie’s veto of a controversial gun safety bill last year. He made headlines later for publicly slamming the two-term Republican over his endorsement of Trump, saying Christie should “really give consideration for what’s in the best interests of New Jersey and step down” if it meant the endorsement would interfere with the governor’s work at home.

Ahead of the event yesterday, Ciattarelli told NJ Spotlight that he doesn’t “buy into the conventional wisdom that it's impossible for a Republican to succeed Christie. People want solutions. And they yearn for leadership. I'm confident I can provide both.”

Choosing as his location for the announcement Manville Public High School in Somerset County — which he called one of “most resilient communities” in New Jersey but “also one of the most disadvantaged when it comes to state school funding” — Ciattarelli reiterated much of that sentiment yesterday, arguing the state needs “leadership” and a bipartisan plan that “acknowledges our fiscal realities, while setting the stage for long-term growth.” He took aim at an issue leaders in both parties have moved to champion in recent weeks: the state’s school funding formula, which he called “terribly flawed” and “blatantly unfair.”

As part of his five-point plan, the Republican said communities should not be allowed to abate school-property taxes on new development, but should offer state-funded pre-K should to 4 year olds, with co-pay options for families with means.

A former CPA from Raritan Township, where he served on the town’s council before being elected to the assembly in 2011, Ciattarelli, 54, represents the 16th legislative district.

“When an $800,000 home in Jersey City pays less in property taxes than a $300,000 home in Manville … When three new schools are opening in Jersey City, paid for not by Jersey City, but 100 percent by the state … When people living in million-dollar townhomes in Hoboken can send their children to free pre-K, paid for not by Hoboken, but 100 percent by the state,” he said. “We need to reform state school funding. We need to make it fair, we need to make it right, we need to make underfunded districts whole and we need to do it now.”

While he said the school funding issue must be fixed before lawmakers can address other crises, such as a broken pension and benefit system, he also proposed overhauling property taxes across the state, first by abolishing the estate and transfer-inheritance tax but also by restructuring marginal tax rates on taxable income over $750,000 and $1,000,000. His plan further recommends closing the “combined reporting” loophole on corporate income, followed by a 10-year phase-out (10 percent per year) of the corporate business tax.

“Make no mistake — when we talk about there being a property-tax crisis in New Jersey, we need to start being honest,” he said. “Nobody likes paying property taxes, but the fact is there is no crisis in communities whose school district is overfunded. There is no property-tax crisis in Jersey City or Hoboken. There is a property-tax crisis in Manville and the vast majority of other towns throughout New Jersey.”

Ciattarelli criticized a lack of communication between the front office and the legislature, which he said he’d rectify by holding regular meetings with leaders in both houses, as well as congressmen and senators. His campaign is intended to “challenge conventional wisdom” and “take New Jersey and every one of its citizens — all of us — in a new direction,” he said.

Still, there’s no denying that the political conditions in New Jersey make 2017’s gubernatorial election an uphill battle, according to Harrison.

“I don't want to say it's impossible to win this thing, but for a Republican to win this thing he's going to have to look like Phil Murphy,” she said.

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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