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Leading GOP Candidates for Governor Come Out Swinging, Pull No Punches

At first of two Republican debates, Guadagno and Ciattarelli stake out their territories, try to flesh out their visions

guadagno and ciattarelli
Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno

The two major Republican candidates for governor didn’t pull punches as they sparred during their first of two debates, disagreeing often and making sure to say they disagree with the unpopular Gov. Chris Christie.

Exchanges between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli from Somerset County were somewhat testy from the beginning of the debate at Stockton University, with Ciattarelli going on the offensive almost immediately. But by the end, the two were lobbing criticisms equally. Guadagno portrayed herself as conciliatory and a moderate, while Ciattarelli was forceful and businesslike.

He criticized her for not tackling school-funding problems and for “pandering of the worst kind” in saying she would never increase taxes, while she said the five-point plan he kept citing would raise taxes by $600 million and he was being disingenuous in trying to distance himself from Christie.

‘Stark differences’

In his opening remarks, Ciattarelli, 55, of Hillsborough, began by linking Guadagno with her running mate from the past two gubernatorial elections and said they had seven years to fix New Jersey’s problems but didn’t. He said there are “stark differences” between the two candidates.

In her closing comments, Guadagno, 57, of Monmouth Beach, agreed that “the differences couldn’t be more clear,” saying she is the only candidate who will not raise taxes and who will make the state affordable again.

Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor and its secretary of state, has been considered the frontrunner, having earned the endorsement of two-thirds of the county Republican parties. She also is leading Ciattarelli, the founder of two medical publishing businesses, now in his sixth year in the lower house, 23-12 in the latest Quinnipiac University poll last week. However, that poll found just over half of registered Republicans still undecided.

Guilt by association?

Ciattarelli had begun jabbing even before last night, in direct mail ads in which he sought to associate her with Christie, stating in one: “After 7+ years of Guadagno & Christie, New Jersey is dangerously off course and headed for economic and fiscal disaster.” Guadagno, on the other hand, has sent out mostly positive mail, talking about herself and her property-tax relief plan.

That’s how she began the night, talking about how unemployment has fallen by more than half during her time in office and how she has created more than 300,000 jobs. She also touted her “circuit breaker” property-tax relief plan, which would cap the school portion of property taxes at 5 percent of household income, as reducing property taxes on the middle class.

Ciattarelli pointed to his own five-point plan as a more realistic way to help taxpayers, saying it includes a school-funding reform plan that would reduce aid to such overfunded districts as Jersey City and channel that money to help districts like Galloway, where Stockton is located and where homeowners pay more in taxes than those living in houses worth twice as much in Jersey City. Guadagno’s proposal can’t possibly help property taxpayers because it ignores school funding, which is the major tax driver, he said.

“Any gubernatorial candidate who speaks about the property-tax crisis without addressing school funding is either oblivious or disingenuous,” said Ciattarelli.

Guadagno said she would address school funding after taking office by getting leaders of both parties together to craft the best compromise proposal. Ciattarelli’s five-point plan, on the other hand, “fails for 600 million different reasons,” she claimed, saying that’s how much it would raise taxes.

To that, Ciattarelli said his plan would not increase taxes on anyone and suggested Guadagno needs to find a CPA — Ciattarelli earned his license but does not practice as an accountant — because she does not understand tax restructuring.

“Her circuit breaker is irresponsible, depending on false savings from state audits,” he said.

A sharp contrast to Christie

Guadagno did not answer all of his attacks, instead coming across as even-tempered and pleasant, providing a sharp contrast to her current boss, who is known for being blustery and confrontational. To several questions, Guadagno said she would work with people collaboratively to solve the state’s problems.

For instance, she said that she would work with unions to implement recommendations from a state commission report last year.

“A good plan should be negotiated, it cannot be dictated to the unions,” Guadagno said.

Ciattarelli, on the other hand, laid out a specific proposal to require public workers with less than 10 years in the pension system and all future workers to be put into different retirement plans and to require retirees with more than $50,000 in income to pay on a slide scale for their retirement health benefits.

“I refuse to go back to the taxpayers and ask for another penny for the pension system,” he said.

There were a number of other issues on which the two disagreed:

  • Guadagno, saying she believes climate change is at least partly man-made, stated New Jersey needs to get back into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, while Ciattarelli said that would be a mistake as long as all states are not required to participate.

  • Ciattarelli said no one wants to see wind turbines off the Jersey Shore, while Guadagno said she supports their construction, as long as a builder could find a way to make them acceptable to tourists.

  • Of the Republican-controlled Congress’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Guadagno said, “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” adding it would lead to 530,000 New Jerseyans losing coverage and devastate New Jersey’s hospitals. Ciattarelli said he is going to “reserve judgement” on the GOP’s efforts until he sees the Senate’s proposal.

There were some things they agreed on, though it may not have been clear.

Neither supported the movement to create sanctuary cities, or perhaps a sanctuary state. Guadagno said she understands that movement, because of the way the new administration in Washington has handled its attempts at cracking down on illegal immigration. Ciattarelli said that “we should all be supporting the president in this age of terrorism” but the nation needs a policy to allow for legal immigration.

The candidates covered a lot of ground during the hour-long debate and shook hands afterward.

Three other Republicans are on the ballot but did not meet the standard — raising at least $430,000 — to qualify to participate in a state-sponsored debate. Steve Rogers, a Nutley commissioner, and Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, an Ocean County landscape business owner and actor, took part in an alternative debate. Hirsh Singh, an engineer from Princeton, did not participate.

The last of the two GOP debates is slated for Thursday night, at NJTV studios in Newark. It will be broadcast on the cable channel and streamed on NJ Spotlight, which is partnering with NJTV to host the debate.

Stay on top of the issues and the candidates with just a click. Visit the NJ Spotlight Primaries 2017 page.

Join with NJ Spotlight and NJTV as we live stream the debate, with commentary from our staff.

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