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At Debate, Lieutenant Governor Candidates Mostly Stay on Message

A few bobbled questions, a few ineffective jabs add some tension — and laughs — to only public meeting between Dem’s Sheila Oliver and GOP’s Carlos Rendo

sheila oliver
Credit: Amanda Brown
Democrat candidate for Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

At their first and only debate of the election season, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor candidates met face to face last night in an hour-long back-and-forth that stuck largely to the issues laid out by their respective running mates on the campaign trail over the past several months.

Still, it was notable for its several gaffes and awkward exchanges.

carlos rendo
Credit: Amanda Brown
Lt. Gov. Guadagno's choice for running mate, Carlos Rendo

The event, moderated by NJTV and hosted by Montclair University, saw the two candidates vigorously attacking each other as well as their campaign partners repeatedly, sometimes to laughter from the audience. Sheila Oliver, a longtime assemblywoman in Trenton and running mate to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, said this year’s election represents an opportunity for change for voters. Carlos Rendo, mayor of Woodcliff Lake and running mate to Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, contended that it’s time to bring jobs back to the state and lower taxes.

“This election is about choice, change, and repudiation of the Christie administration, an administration in which Lt. Gov. Guadagno was silent on many issues that affected our lives” Oliver said. “Phil Murphy and I … we are the ticket that will allow a seat at the table for every New Jerseyan, no matter where you come from or what you look like.”

It wasn’t as highly publicized or well attended as the top candidates’ own stand-off last week, which featured Murphy and Guadagno ramping up their attacks against each other in their first debate in Newark. But the meeting did offer voters the clearest glimpse of the secondary nominees’ personalities and stances — largely overshadowed by their more high-profile running mates — ahead of November’s hotly anticipated election.

“This election is going to be about the middle class, and we have a clear choice here in New Jersey. Do you want to elect a team that is going to increase your taxes … or do you want to select a team that’s committed to lowering your taxes?” Rendo said.

Big Shoes To Fill

Indeed, next to Murphy and Guadagno’s outsized personas, comparatively little attention has been paid to Oliver and Rendo in the race, despite the similarly important nature of the position they’re both hoping to fill. New Jersey’s lieutenant governor is the second highest-ranked official in the state, akin in many ways to the vice president on the federal level.

Created in 2010 after two consecutive early gubernatorial departures, the position is meant to provide a clear transition of power in the event a sitting or acting governor dies, resigns, or is removed from office. In any of those cases, the lieutenant governor takes over, and they also assume the their responsibilities when the governor is out of state.

For example, Guadagno, who is actually the state’s first lieutenant governor, spent dozens of days as acting governor over the course of her term. Most of those days came in 2015 and 2016, as Gov. Chris Christie frequently left the state to pursue a presidential bid.

Oliver and Rendo, who were recruited by their respective running mates shortly after this year’s primary ostensibly on the merits of their backgrounds, will face the same responsibilities. Born and raised in Newark, Oliver earned a degree at Lincoln University, the nation's first degree-granting historically black university, before joining the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1996. She served until 1999, working also as an assistant administrator in county government. In 2004 she was elected to the Assembly, where she represents the 34th district.

Rendo, meanwhile, is a Cuban immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at age two and became a naturalized citizen in 1984. After serving on the town’s council, he ran and won for mayor of Woodcliff Lake, a small borough of Bergen County, in 2015. He’s a father of three and a partner in the North Bergen law firm of Mulkay and Rendo, where he specializes in immigration issues.

Political calculations

Still, in a statewide contest like the governor’s race, lieutenant governor picks have as much to do with political calculations as they do the nominee’s actual qualifications. Oliver is also the state’s first African-American woman Assembly speaker, having served from 2010 to 2014, and hails from a county with a substantial African-American population. Rendo is the state’s only Latino GOP mayor, and has strong ties to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, the former Republican presidential candidate whose New Jersey leadership team Rendo co-chaired in 2016.

Those connections could become potential advantages in a statewide election that is expected to hinge significantly on turnout, particularly from the minority groups that Rendo and Oliver represent. By tapping a Rubio ally, Guadagno also showed a willingness to distance herself further from Christie, who ran against the Florida senator in the primary and whose approval ratings have plummeted in New Jersey over his last term.

The issues

None of that made it into the debate, of course, which centered mainly on the issues. It began with moderator Michael Aron asking the candidates what cabinet appointment they might want as lieutenant governor, a question Oliver took as an opportunity to strike out at Guadagno.

“I define my difference from Lt. Gov. Guadagno in that I want to represent all interests of New Jersey,” she said, saying the Republican hasn’t done enough to cater to diverse groups as secretary of state.

Rendo then went after Oliver for running for the top office while also serving in the Assembly, accusing her of double-dipping. The charge led to a confusing back-and-forth, since Oliver said she had planned on her re-election before being selected by Murphy’s campaign to run for the post.

Call to resign

Rendo called for her to resign, eliciting chuckles from the audience.

“My question to her would be does she really want to be lieutenant governor if she’s running for Assembly?” he said.

That exchange set the tone for the rest of the debate, which featured both candidates trading barbs on everything from Cuba to legalizing marijuana to property taxes. Another early question focused on a recent ad released by Guadagno’s camp that slams Murphy for his support of New Jersey as a sanctuary state and suggests such a proposal would shield immigrants who are criminals.

Catching flak

Guadagno has taken flak for the insensitivity of that ad in recent days, with some observers accusing her of conflating criminals with regular, hard-working immigrants. Oliver call it a “disgraceful, divisive ad,” but asked in a follow-up question about what it means to be a sanctuary state, the Democrat seemed to get tripped up, saying that her campaign stands for protecting the rights of people brought here by their parents at a young age.

“You’re talking about DACA, or Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals,” Aron said. “That’s kind of a separate issue.”

Oliver then redirected, saying that unlike Guadagno, who she accused of having “deputized her sheriff’s office when she was Monmouth County Sheriff, going into people’s homes in the middle of the night and tearing families apart,” she and Murphy will not do that.

“This is not about immigration, this is about a cold-blooded killer,” Rendo later said.

On most issues, Rendo and Oliver played faithful attack dogs to Guadagno and Murphy, reiterating and defending their stances on the subjects. They both dug in on property taxes, offering assessments of the problem that fell largely along party lines.

The Christie legacy

Oliver, who along with Murphy, has sought to characterize a potential Guadagno administration as an extension of Christie’s own, accused the Republican of having “gutted school funding to districts across the state to the tune of 9 billion dollars,” which forced local municipalities to raises property taxes to compensate. She and Murphy have called for fully funding the state’s current school-aid law.

“I think if you examine the entire record, the costs have gone up,” she said. “Pocketbooks have been hit by this administration.”

Rendo, for his part, said his opponents lack a credible plan to address property taxes, which in New Jersey consistently rank among the highest in the nation. He argued he and Guadagno’s own plan — a “circuit-breaker” program that would devote about $1.5 billion to provide state-funded property tax relief — would save an individual taxpayer $800 a year on average.

“That is what I’m saying, they don’t have a plan. Their plan is this, zero,” he said, holding up a blank piece of paper.

Rendo also said he’d audit state government operations, including the Turnpike Authority, noting that the last time such a move was undertaken — by Republican Gov. Tom Kean, he alleged, in the 80s — New Jersey recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings. Oliver, though, scoffed at the suggestion that they’d find much waste or abuse.

“It sounds sexy, it sounds appealing,” she said.

Guadagno herself led a Red Tape Review Commission over the past few years that studied bureaucracy and conflicting regulations in Trenton, though that effort too had its critics.

Improving the business climate

The two candidates also diverged on what to do to strengthen the state’s business climate, though both cited it as an area ripe for reform. Rendo said he and Guadagno would cut taxes for corporations doing business here, which in turn would increase productivity and jobs. He cited as an example Amazon, the online retail giant that is looking to open a second headquarters on the East Coast.

Christie announced yesterday that the state had selected Newark as the best contender for that bid, citing its proximity to New York and high-speed Internet access. The state will also offer almost $7 billion worth of tax credits to further entice the company.

“Anytime you keep a business in this state, the money is well spent. And that’s what Guadagno has dedicated her life to,” Rendo said.

Oliver said she would have to review the proposal before taking a definite stance on it. Her own strategy to improve the state’s economy would be to close corporate tax loopholes, she said, and criticized Christie for giving away what she called “exorbitant” tax credits to very wealthy businesses.

“All of the assets that we have as a state are very attractive to corporations,” she countered when Rendo argued increasing tax would scare corporations away.

Personal controversies

But the debate also focused on personal controversies both Rendo and Oliver have faced on the campaign. As mayor of Woodcliff Lake, Rendo has been accused of helping to block an Orthodox Jewish organization's attempt build a new worship center in the borough, eliciting charges of antisemitism from the opponents. Rendo in turn has hit Oliver over a trip she and 10 other legislators took last year to Cuba, calling it “unauthorized” and disrespectful to the state’s large Cuban population.

Both candidates defended themselves and attacked the other over the claims, with Rendo maintaining nothing has come of an investigation into his town’s handling of the case and Oliver arguing her trip was undertaken to build relations with the newly opened country. At a press conference following the debate, Rendo was teary-eyed when explaining how emotional a topic Cuba is for him.

Rendo said the country has not made enough progress on human rights issues, and has also not paid for past offenses, including failing to answer calls to extradite convicted New Jersey cop killer Joanne Chesimard.

“I have family over there that are hurting,” he told reporters. “And to have a legislator go over there… is an abomination.”

Other ground covered included the candidate's’ position on plans to renew a 2 percent cap on police and firefighter salary increases that can be awarded by arbitrators who are called in to settle contract impasses. Murphy has failed to definitively say what he would do about the caps, but Rendo last night said they have helped municipalities like his keep their costs down. Oliver said she wants to invest more in higher education in the state, while Rendo said he would not support fully legalizing marijuana, something Murphy and Oliver support.

“My question is, what was Phil Murphy smoking went he thought up that plan?” he asked.

Asked how he thought he did at the post-debate press conference, Redno was upbeat.

“I love this stuff,” he said.

Chase Brush is a freelance writer and editor based in the greater New York area. He is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and Rutgers University alumnus.

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