More Accord Than Debate Among Dems’ Top 4 Gubernatorial Hopefuls

One clear point of disagreement: the pluses and perils of a state-owned bank

Jim Johnson
Phil Murphy, the frontrunner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race according to the latest polls, stuck firmly to an economic message during the contest’s first official debate last night. He also brushed off a series of mild attacks from opponents trying to make up ground in the race’s final weeks.

The former U.S. ambassador to Germany and veteran of Goldman Sachs has stressed from the outset of his campaign a need to repair the state economy after more than seven years under the deeply unpopular Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Last night, Murphy continued that strategy, bringing the discussion back to the economy in responses to several debate questions. He also emphasized his call to create a state-run bank in New Jersey, which has become a centerpiece proposal for his campaign.

“I want to be the governor that grows this economy again (and) makes it fairer again,” Murphy said in his opening statement.

Targeting the public bank

And while none of Murphy’s three Democratic opponents — lawyer Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, and state Assemblyman John Wisniewski — defended Christie’s record or disputed the need to grow the economy, they did take aim at Murphy’s public-bank proposal, making it one of the few areas of disagreement.

Wisniewski — a Sayreville resident best known for leading the legislative investigation into the Bridgegate scandal — took the sharpest aim at Murphy’s bank proposal, saying “if Mr. Murphy wants to create a state bank maybe he should go back to Wall Street.”

Johnson, a Montclair resident who is a newcomer to politics, also criticized the public-bank idea by citing a host of problems the political establishment in New Jersey has been unable to fix. Establishing a state-run bank would put the bank “in the same hands that have been driving the state into a ditch year after year,” Johnson said.

Murphy, 59, has already picked up endorsements from key Democratic county committee leaders across the state, which is an important asset for his campaign that will allow him to be bracketed on the ballot with incumbents and other endorsed candidates in every county. The wealthy Middletown resident is also leading the fund-raising race, prompting another barb from Wisniewski, who suggested the primary should not become an “auction,” with the Democratic nomination awarded to the highest bidder.

Johnson also got into the act again later, questioning the wisdom of those state political “insiders.”

‘The old playbook’

“The old playbook got us the highest property taxes in the nation, the highest rate of foreclosures, it got us Jon Corzine, it got us Chris Christie — it got us Chris Christie again,” Johnson said. “If we don’t stand up, and open up this process to all of us, it will get us Phil Murphy.”

“What we need is real democracy, and real change, and that is the only way we will get a government and a governor for all of us, and not for the insiders,” Johnson went on to say.

But the salvos never grew too testy, and they were largely few and far between during the hourlong debate held at Stockton University in Galloway. The event was part of a doubleheader of debates, with Republicans Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli debating for an hour earlier in the evening.

In fact, most of the time the four Democratic candidates were largely in agreement on the major issues they were asked about, including the need to fully fund the state’s school-aid law, something Christie has failed to do throughout his tenure. They also agreed the state should be honoring its full commitment to the public-employee pension system, another area that has been underfunded by Christie since he took office in early 2010.

Raising revenue

The four Democrats also didn’t shy away from talking about raising more revenue to pay for those priorities, identifying a higher tax on millionaires as a likely place to start. Johnson, 57, said he would also consider increasing the estate tax, which is currently being phased out under a deal Christie struck with Democratic legislative leaders last year.

Lesniak, Murphy, and Wisniewski all said they would also close corporate-tax loopholes. And Lesniak, 71, said he’s the sponsor of legislation that would close a specific corporate-tax loophole that allows international and multistate companies to shift income from New Jersey to offshore accounts or lower-tax states.

“Forty other states have the same legislation,” Lesniak said.

The candidates were also in agreement as the debate shifted away from the economic issues, with all four endorsing a move to legalize marijuana. They also offered firm opposition to allowing oil drilling off the coast of New Jersey, and they emphasized the need to rely more heavily on renewable sources of energy like offshore wind and solar in the push against global climate change.

“My plan is to make New Jersey fossil-fuel free by 2050,” Lesniak said. “That will improve our economy.”

As the debate got deeper into the environmental issues, the four candidates gave even more indications that shifting to a Democratic administration — something that many in Trenton are expecting after voters have soured on Christie — would mark a major policy shift in the State House since the Legislature is also controlled by Democrats. The four candidates indicated support for rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coalition of states targeting carbon-dioxide emissions that Christie pulled New Jersey out of during his first term. They also raised concerns about protecting drinking water in environmentally sensitive regions like the Highlands in north Jersey and the Pinelands in South Jersey, and they took firm positions against new natural-gas pipelines, something that Christie has emphasized during his tenure over the objections of the state’s environmental community.

Wisniewski, 54, also said the state needs to start using its Clean Energy Fund for the intended purpose, countering a series of budget raids that have occurred during Christie’s tenure.

Leading in the polls

Murphy was a clear frontrunner in the most recent polling of the Democratic primary contest, which was released last week by Quinnipiac University. Murphy received 26 percent of the support from the state voters who were surveyed by Quinnipiac, with Johnson, Wisniewski, and Lesniak all grouped together in the single digits within the poll’s 2.8 percent margin of error.

Murphy was also ahead of Guadagno, the GOP frontrunner, in a head-to-head matchup, besting Christie’s sitting lieutenant governor by a 50 percent to 25 percent margin. But the same poll also showed there are still votes out there to collect, with 52 percent of the Democrats who were polled by Quinnipiac saying they were undecided.

Wisniewski made a direct appeal to the voters during his closing statement, saying ultimately the decision will be theirs to make.

“I’m here tonight to ask for your vote,” Wisniewski said. “Some say the things we’re talking about are impossible, but I believe with the right kind of leadership nothing is impossible.”

And Murphy closed the debate by acknowledging there were “some disagreements” between the candidates, but he also said all the candidates could agree on the fact that “we have to get this (election) exactly right.”

“I humbly ask for your support on June 6,” he said. “I will be a governor who has your back.”

The Democratic candidates will have only one more chance to go at it on a debate stage before the ballots are cast next month. The contest’s final official debate, which is being cosponsored by NJ Spotlight and NJTV, will be held tomorrow at NJTV’s studio in Newark.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight