The first forum of the campaign season featured all six Democrats hopefuls for their party’s gubernatorial nomination: frontrunner Phil Murphy, Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Middlesex County, Sen. Raymond Lesniak of Union County, former federal treasury official Jim Johnson, Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna, and Bill Brennan of Wayne Also in attendance were Republicans Steve Rogers and Hirsh Singh and Green Party nominee Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, who won’t appear on the primary ballot.
Not attending were three Republicans: Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of Somerset County, and Joseph “Rudy” Rullo.
Billed not as a debate, but as a “conversation about social justice,” the candidates sat in chairs for the two-hour event until questioned, then walked around the stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark with a microphone to answer, as in a town hall-style event.
The evening was sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and featured four questions on the issue of social justice.
There were few policy disagreements on social justice issues among the Democrats. But some of the candidates did steer the conversation away from the first question about whether New Jersey should restore the right to vote to convicted felons to attack the frontrunner.
The prevailing complaint had to do with the Democratic party’s closed process of picking primary candidates. Without naming frontrunner Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, they said the 21 party chairs should not have the power to endorse a candidate, which gives him an advantage come the election. Murphy has won the party line in every county and has given nearly $10.5 million to Democrats across the state, including $531,000 to the county party committees, mostly in the past three years, a review of contribution data from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission shows.
“We need to open up the political process,” said Wisniewski. “We can’t have 21 county leaders telling you who your candidate will be in the election. And there is far too much money in the election system and we need to get the money out.”
Johnson also mentioned the complaint he filed with ELEC alleging Murphy violated campaign finance laws by having two political committee, New Start New Jersey and New Way New Jersey, do early campaign work for Murphy before he officially declared his candidacy.
“I filed a request for an investigation because I am concerned about how the money was spent and I am concerned, and we all should be concerned, about where it was going,” Johnson said. “That squeezes us out of this process and all of our voices need to be included … People need to have a free, open, transparent choice, and right now in New Jersey that doesn’t happen.”
For his part, Murphy did not address questions about his endorsements, contributions, or Johnson’s allegation, although he has previously denied it.
As to the question at hand, whether New Jersey should restore the right to vote to convicted felons, three of the Democrats –Wisniewski, Johnson, and Zinna –all said yes, as did Murphy. He added that he would also support other voting reforms, including same day registration.
Ryan Haygood, president of the institute, said the issue of social justice is very important and cited some statistics as proof. He said the poverty rate for black residents in Newark is “an astonishing 33 percent, more than double the national average for all races.” Newark residents hold only 18 percent of all the jobs in the state’s largest city, he continued, adding that while three quarters of Newark residents are people of color, 60 percent of the city’s workers are white. The questions stated some other problems. For instance, black children in New Jersey are 24 times more likely than whites to be put in a juvenile facility, although there is little difference in the kinds of offenses black and white youth commit, making New Jersey’s the third most racially discriminatory juvenile justice system in the nation. And the Newark metropolitan area is ranked as the most racially segregated in the nation, where blacks and Hispanics are less likely than whites to have quality schools, decent housing, good jobs, and public services.
To address these issues, all the Democrats essentially agreed on a livable wage of $15 an hour, equal pay for equal work, affordable housing — perhaps by transforming vacant foreclosed properties into units for the poor — and better educational opportunities through a fully funded system. They also called for getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences, stressing community service as a punishment in lieu of “jail” time, and spending more effort on educating and rehabilitating offenders than on locking them up.
To a question about undocumented immigrants and the current administration’s stepped up efforts to round up and deport those here without the proper approvals, the Democrats all said they would support sanctuary cities and would like to make the entire state a sanctuary.
Each candidate did try to distinguish himself in some way. Among the more colorful or radical instances:
Brennan, who tried to bring charges against Gov. Chris Christie over the Bridgegate lane closing scandal, drew laughs when he said those who should not be given back the right to vote are those convicted of “official misconduct, extortion, bribery, closing bridges” and loud applause when he said that if the Legislature would not agree to restore voting rights for criminals, he would “pardon every single nonviolent criminal and then they’ll vote.”
Lesniak spoke of the importance of education and said teachers should not be forced to teach to bad tests, but should be allowed to teach what they believe students need to learn. “The greatest mistake Gov. Christie has ever done is demonizing the teachers,” he said, to cheers.
“No system has failed more than the criminal justice system in this state,” said Murphy, calling for comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system and getting private companies out of the prison business.
Discussing the immigration question, Wisniewski told the story of ancestor Felix Wisniewski, who he said was undocumented when he came to the United States from Poland a century ago. “If he were to come today, I can guarantee you no one would be looking for him. Because Trump’s immigration policies are aimed at people who do not look like Donald Trump.”
Rogers warned the audience they would be unhappy with his comments about immigration, then proceeded to say, “I will do everything I can to make sure there are no sanctuary cities in New Jersey” and he would withhold federal funds from any sanctuaries if ordered to do so by Trump. He was booed.
Singh heard the ire of the audience when he suggested getting rid of New Jersey’s ban on self-service gas stations, and then added that while he thought everyone should pump their own gas, he doesn’t like doing it, either.
In summing up why voters should choose him, Zinna painted himself as an outsider and took a couple of shots at his opponents, saying, “It is time to put a governor in office who represents the people of the state. I don’t owe any allegiance to any banking company, to any pharmaceuticals company … I did not have to write checks to get anyone to vote for me. If you want a governor whose only allegiance is to the people of this state, vote for me.”
Johnson returned to his earlier jabs at Murphy in his closing remarks. “If you want change, we need to have a real democratic state,” he said. “That means having you voters decide who the governor should be and what your governor looks like … Not just a few. Not just the elites.”
Kaper-Dale said he decided to run four years ago when he saw that the state’s Democratic party elites did not fully support nominee Barbara Buono. He suggested the party had no right, then, to complain about Christie’s win. “They were complicit,” he said of the Democrats. “It’s time for the Democrats and the Republicans to take a back seat … Give the Green Party a chance.”