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Long Valley Voting Block on the Debate: Unimpressed and Unconvinced

The first gubernatorial debate left Long Valley voters with more questions than answers, and wishing for more specifics

long valley
(First row, from left:) Barbara Penella, Carol Groebels, Greg Forsbrey (second row:) Thomas Lotito, George Collins, Heather Santos, Laura Knipmeyer

In the fourth installment of this ongoing Voting Block series, we join our Long Valley voters as they watch — and comment on — the first gubernatorial debate, and we listen in on their discussions once the candidates were done. They were, in a word, underwhelmed. Voting Block is a collaboration of news organizations throughout the state and will continue to deliver insights and inside looks through the upcoming gubernatorial election. Follow this link to read the first and second, and third articles in this series.

News reporters and political campaigns put great emphasis on debates as ways for candidates to get out their messages and influence voters. To real voters, at least the members of the Long Valley Voting Block, not so much.

The eight voters from the Morris County hamlet who gathered Tuesday night to watch the first of two New Jersey gubernatorial campaign debates were largely unimpressed with what they heard. They said the hour-long contest between Democratic nominee Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno did not change their minds about who they are supporting.

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The Republicans are still backing Guadagno and the Democrats remain behind Murphy. The lone independent still has not made up her mind.

Was that a waffle?

It wasn’t for lack of trying, however. They watched mostly in silence, with a few making occasional comments for or against one or the other candidate. Tom Lotito, an arch conservative, said that when the debate started, he initially liked Murphy, but when the candidate ducked the question about his views on the 2 percent cap on police and fire salaries struck through binding arbitration, he lost Lotito.

“He almost changed my mind at the beginning,” Lotito said of Murphy. “I thought, ‘This is a nice guy.’ But when he didn’t answer that question, he lost me.”

The group agreed that neither candidate had a slam dunk and that both stumbled at different times. They also did not partake in — and complained about — the shots the candidates had taken at one another: Guadagno equating Murphy’s former position as a Goldman Sachs executive with the unpopular one-term Gov. Jon Corzine and Murphy pairing Guadagno with the even more unpopular Gov. Chris Christie, with whom she has served for “2,821 days,” as Murphy put it.

Heather Santos
Credit: Tom Franklin
Heather Santos

“I wish they had spent a little less time saying, ‘Chris Christie, property taxes, and Goldman-Sachs,’” said Democrat Heather Santos. “They wasted a good 20 percent of the time on that.” “It was a waste of our time,” said Democrat George Collins. “The format of the debate fed into that.”

The answers they didn’t give

Often, the answers the candidates gave to questions, or didn’t give, did not satisfy the group.

“I thought Phil had a tougher time getting his points across than I thought he would,” said George Collins, a Democrat.

“I think they both had rehearsed lines,” Lotito said.

“For me, there are a lot of distortions,” said Gregg Forsbrey, a GOP Washington Township committeeman.

And there were issues the group wanted to hear more about.

Laura Knipmeyer
Credit: Tom Franklin
Laura Knipmeyer

“I was surprised someone put transportation on the table,” said Laura Knipmeyer, the independent in the group. “The way it was brought up as an economic issue, I really hope they will bring that up in the next debate. Somebody needs to talk about that.”

Lotito said he wants to hear “how are they going to reduce property taxes?” Yes, they had heard the candidates — and Guadagno in particular — bring up property taxes, but the group agreed that neither had really explained their plans to cut taxes.

“They spent a lot of air time during the debate covering that issue, but with no real answers,” Knipmeyer said.

Campaign finance questions

She also wanted to hear their views on campaign finance reform, particularly after Murphy spent some $27 million — more than three-quarters of that his own money — to win the five-way primary.

“I’m shocked that so far I have not heard Kim call Murphy on the carpet for all the money he spent in the primary,” Knipmeyer said, adding she would have expected Guadagno to call for campaign finance reform.

Likewise, this group that is unanimous in its feelings that public school taxes are too high because New Jersey has too many districts was not satisfied with the answers to a question about school consolidation and regionalization.

“No, they never really addressed that,” said Heather Santos, a Democrat.

Hard to follow

At times, the candidates lost at least some of the Long Valley voters by not explaining an issue. For instance, at least a couple of the members said they did not follow Guadagno’s criticism of Murphy for not agreeing to continue the arbitration cap because she didn’t explain what the cap is and how it has worked.

“I didn’t know anything about that issue,” said Carol Groebels, the Washington Township Democratic Committee chair.

“It would have helped if she had explained it,” agreed Santos.

Some of the questions drew the group into further discussion on the issues, with some, gun control, for instance, very heated and polarizing and others, such as campaign finance reform and what to do about marijuana, more unifying. “The gun issue is very important to me,” said Forsbrey. If Murphy wins and enacts a number of stricter gun-control laws, he said, “I will have to move a lot of property out of state overnight because I will become a criminal.”

Groebels asked why he needs a semi-automatic weapon and Forsbrey said it is his right.

“Sensible gun legislation is absolutely reasonable,” Santos said. On marijuana, Groebels agreed with Guadagno that she would like to see the drug decriminalized, and Forsbrey said local police are consistently arresting young people for possession of small amounts of the substance, which is having a negative effect on their lives.

And on campaign finance, Republican Barbara Penella agreed with Knipmeyer’s concern over money playing too much of a role in politics.

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” she said. “The money it takes to try to do that, forget it, because they have you whipped no matter what.”

The independent angle

The group was divided as to whether independent candidates — there are five on this year’s gubernatorial ballot — should be included in the debates. Current law requires that a candidate raise at least $430,000 to qualify.

“They don’t have any traction with the public,” said Lotito.

“Maybe if they were included in the debates, they would,” Santos countered.

In the end, though, the seven partisans said nothing they heard during the hour-long debate had changed their minds about supporting their parties’ standard bearer. “I don’t think just one debate” will change a person’s mind, Penella said. “You need more information.”

Knipmeyer, meanwhile, said she still has not made up her mind.

“I’m disgusted,” she said of the lack of any discussion of campaign finance reform. She is part of a national movement to amend the federal Constitution in response to the 2010 Citizens United ruling to specify that money is not speech and corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights. “I’m going to send them both the pledge for the constitutional amendment … Everywhere it’s become a campaign issue, it’s become a differentiator.”

And others were interested, too.

“Let us know what they say,” said Lotito.

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