With the spotlight trained firmly on Phil Murphy, former executive of Goldman Sachs and former ambassador to Germany, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno as they jockey to succeed outgoing Gov. Chris Christie, it may look like voters have only the choice between Republican and Democrat in this year’s high-profile gubernatorial race.
But running in the shadow of Murphy and Guadagno are five other gubernatorial candidates, each of whom is hoping to persuade ballot-goers with their own particular brand of policy and politics come November 7.
Under the Green Party banner is Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, a pastor at the Reformed Church in Highland Park who wants to institute single-payer healthcare in New Jersey. The Libertarian Party has a champion in Peter Rohrman, a former marine whose platform includes calls to loosen gun laws and legalize marijuana. Matthew Riccardi, also a former marine, was nominated by the Constitution Party to bring fiscal and political reform to the state. Former Long Hill mayor Gina Genovese is running as an independent, with municipal consolidation her central campaign issue.
The fifth candidate, Edison resident Vincent Ross, is running under the We The People Party, though he could not be reached for this story.
And while those brands do differ widely from one campaign to another, this year’s independent candidates are united, in a way, in one common mission: to offer voters an alternative to what they each characterize as the disastrous leadership of either major party.
“I think New Jersey needs a sabbath from the two-party rule,” Kaper-Dale said. “Rather than a winner-takes-all sort of game of party politics, folks would be forced to deal with somebody who is not beholden to anybody, except to the people.”
Of course, in a state where machine politics is king, the chances of an outside candidate gaining any real traction in a statewide race — let alone winning a seat in the front office — are slim. Establishment backing means Murphy and Guadagno have near-insurmountable advantages over any competition, coming in the form of everything from personal fundraising to special-interest spending.
Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who clinched his party’s nomination after garnering the highest votes but also the most support from county chairs in the June primary, has raised $4,987,233 toward the general election thus far, while Guadagno has amassed $1,355,511. Those totals include the latest round in public-fund disbursements, with Murphy nabbing $519,238 and Guadagno $120,189.
The third-party candidates, in contrast, have little to no financial resources. Out of the five, only two — Kaper-Dale, who’s spent almost $50,000, and Genovese, who’s spent a little over $12,000 — have reported any fundraising activity to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission during the general. They haven’t received any help from the state, either, since candidates must clear a minimum threshold of $430,000 to qualify for its matching funds program.
Eight years ago, Chris Daggett ran on a third-party platform, got up to 20 percent in the polls, and was endorsed by a number of organizations, including the Star-Ledger. He even raised enough money to get public financing. However, without the backing of a political machine, and enough money to fight back against a last-minute media attack by Chris Christie, Daggett ended with about 6 percent of the vote.
That’s the problem, according to the challengers, all of whom cited long-standing frustrations with the state’s two-party system as reason for getting involved in this year’s election.
Wrong tools for the job?
“For me, this is all about politics. One hand washes the other, you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours, that kind of thing,” Riccardi said of Democrats and Republicans in New Jersey. “And they just don’t have the policies to fix the problem.”
Riccardi, a married father of three from Union City, said he decided to seek the Constitution Party’s nomination after realizing neither Guadagno nor Murphy “represented the average person.” A former Goldman Sachs executive, Murphy didn’t grow up in New Jersey, he noted, while Guadagno has spent the past eight years serving Christie, whose approval rating has plummeted to a dismal 15 percent.
Riccardi said his mission is to bring “liberty, integrity, and prosperity” back to the state, which he said Democrats and Republicans have failed to do. To that end, he said he will sign legislation if elected that will legally bind him to the promises he’s laid out in a six-point contract shown on his campaign website, among which are vows to veto any bills or programs that increase the state budget or debt and to instruct his attorney general to shut down the website backpage.com if it does not comply with NJ regulations to stop sex-
“The whole platform is people over politics,” Riccardi said. “We want to restore trust and accountability in government, but also want everyone to be able to enjoy the liberty that they deserve and the opportunity that should be afforded them by their constitution.”
No real choice?
Joining Riccardi as a third-party candidate whose political leanings are more on the conservative side is Rohrman, a single father of two who works as operations director for an Internet service provider. Having run for Bergen County Freeholder in 2015 and 2016, the 47-year-old said he was encouraged by his fellow party members to mount a gubernatorial bid during their open convention earlier this year. He agreed, believing that voters deserve “a real choice” in this election.
Rohrman expressed a similar sentiment as Riccardi’s, saying the two-party process has produced candidates that “no one really likes.” He pointed to recent polls that would seem to bear out that reading, including one that found Murphy and Guadagno almost equally unknown by about four in 10 voters. Of those that knew of them, a slightly larger proportion had a favorable view of Murphy than Guadagno, at 23 percent versus 17 percent.
On the more progressive end of the spectrum are Kaper-Dale and Genovese, but they too criticized mainstream political groups, targeting Democrats specifically. The founder of Courage to Connect NJ, a nonprofit that has worked to promote the sharing of municipal services across the state, Genovese said she’s noticed a lack of conviction on the part of officials to address serious problems, and this year decided to do something about it.
“I feel that it has to be an independent candidate,” Genovese, who is also the only openly gay candidate in the race, said. “It can’t be either party because of the hidden agendas and the machines behind the candidates. So becoming an independent governor allows you to be independent of the party bosses and special interests.”
Out of touch?
Kaper-Dale, who hasn’t run for office before but has earned a name for himself for his activism on immigrant and refugee rights, said his own disappointment with the party began in 2010, when Democratic leaders seemed to shun then-nominee Barbara Buono and instead cozy up with Christie, ultimately allowing the Republican to cruise to reelection by a wide margin. Then came this year’s primary, which he said “displayed a tremendous level of New Jersey Democrats being out of touch with the national conversation.”
“In a year of Bernie Sanders, to have not just someone who does speeches at Goldman Sachs, but to have somebody who become nearly a billionaire because of Goldman Sachs, to be the anointed one, that just seemed really bad,”said Kaper-Dale, who supported the Vermont senator in his failed presidential bid, said.
He also went further, thrashing Christie and other lawmakers for just last month passing legislation that would allow the state to stop paying to send out candidate statements to voters before the election, a move supporters argued would save taxpayers some $600,000. Kaper-Dale, though, likened it to “changing the rules in the 7th inning of a baseball game, where instead of it being three strikes and you’re out, now it’s two strikes and you’re out.”
“Even though Monday night George Norcross can throw a fundraiser where they make $2,500 per plate, and have that money go into a super PAC supporting Murphy, ELEC says it’s OK, you can get all this matching money because you’re playing by the rules,” he said. “But you’re really not, or if you are, the rules are so foul. Maybe they’re legal but they’re just filthy.”
At the same time, the candidates aren’t without their own plans for addressing those issues they said Republicans and Democrats have neglected to fix. From a $103 billion debt load to sky-high property taxes, the state’s economic troubles are a top concern.
Rohrman and Riccardi have both called for vastly cutting down various state and local taxes, an approach they argue would help attract businesses and retain residents. Riccardi said he would eliminate the state’s corporate tax, currently at 9 percent, and substitute it with a gross-profit fee, which he hopes will increase revenues and deter companies from avoiding their fiscal responsibility through tax loopholes.
He cited as an example the online retail giant Amazon and its plan to build a second headquarters in North America. Lawmakers — including Christie, who penned a letter urging Guadagno and Murphy to specify their commitment to the proposal — have made the case over the past few weeks for why the company should locate that headquarters in New Jersey, including the offer of tax incentives worth $5 billion to the company.
Riccardi said a revamped corporate tax would help entice such businesses in the future.
“That is a solution to paying our debt, that is a solution to increasing wage competition, and bring opportunity into urban communities where they are hurting the most, where you have the most impoverished people,” he said.
Cutting a host of taxes
Rohrman, for his part, said he would incentivize companies like Amazon by doing away with a whole host of taxes, including the state sales tax, gas tax, and property taxes, which in New Jersey consistently rank among the highest in the nation. Guadagno, who has characterized herself as libertarian-leaning in the past, has promised to reduce property taxes by up to $3,000 per household, mainly by capping the portion of those taxes that go to schools at five percent of household income — though Rohrman called that plan “socialistic.”
His larger tax plan, a fairly radical concept that he’s dubbed “fiscal democracy,” calls for implementing a 10 percent flat income tax that residents could put toward whatever social programs they want, whether it’s their local school district or the state’s public-worker pensions and benefits fund.
“The most powerful aspect of government is monopoly of force. The second-most powerful aspect is appropriation,” Rohrman said, referring to lawmakers’ ability to set aside money for specific purposes. “If you strip appropriation from state, county, and municipal legislators and put it into the hands of the people, they’ll have really nothing to complain about.”
Genovese has also cited property taxes as one of her main focuses, though her strategy to address them is a bit more specific. The former tennis player has championed municipal consolidation through Courage to Connect NJ, arguing that getting towns to share services — such as police forces, fire departments, and schools, all of which are paid for primarily through property taxes — would drastically reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Critics point out that New Jersey’s large number of municipalities — 565 in total, many of which have fewer than 10,00 residents — is one of the main reasons why property taxes remain so high. But sadly, according to Genovese, lawmakers have shown little willingness to pursue a solution, even when presented with success stories.
She claims that when Princeton township and Princeton borough merged in 2013, it saved taxpayers millions of dollars, noting that others have since combined school districts. She also lauded New York lawmakers, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, for encouraging the idea in their state through a $20 million municipal consolidation and efficiency competition this year.
“We pay 10 percent of what the entire country pays in property taxes. And if people in this state, any elected official, doesn’t feel like this is an important issue, or that they’re willing to put some capital on the line to start addressing this issue, then something is seriously wrong with politics in New Jersey,” Genovese said.
‘An apartheid system’
Kaper-Dale also called the state’s large number of school districts problematic, both economically and socially. While other states have recognized the duplicity and combined school districts, the number in New Jersey has drastically increased over the last 20 years, to the point where the education landscape now resembles “an apartheid system, where we’ve got little islands of whiteness and blackness and never the two shall meet.”
“It’s more like Plessy vs Ferguson than Brown vs Board of Ed,” Kaper-Dale said, suggesting that the state could save hundreds of millions of dollars by consolidating districts. “To be honest, we should be getting sued for the type of racial inequity that exists in our public school system.”
To address the state’s larger fiscal troubles, Kaper Dale has proposed creating a single-payer “Medicare For All” system, which he said would have a ripple effect on other areas of the economy, from its pension-and-benefit liabilities to the cost of higher education. Property taxes would be affected too, he said, since towns currently devote a sizeable portion of their budgets to healthcare costs.
He added that single-payer healthcare would also help attract businesses like Amazon to the state, since they won’t need to worry about providing employees with healthcare.
“I find it so short-sighted on the part of someone like Phil Murphy to say $80 billion a year, that’s double the budget of the state, we can’t do that,” Kaper-Dale said, referring to the frontrunner’s stance on the issue. “Well, we’re already paying that money, and we’re paying it in all sorts of weird ways. So actually we can pay it, because we do pay it, and we can do it smarter and actually see a windfall for the state of New Jersey.”
Kaper-Dale does support Murphy on one issue: the creation of a public bank. Both have called for a state-run bank to keep revenues invested in New Jersey’s own economy, though Kaper-Dale cautioned it would have to serve residents here, not those on Wall Street.
“Right now, you invest a dollar in New Jersey, and a hedge fund turns it into 10 dollars loaned out to build pipelines across the Middle East and to dig mines in the Philippines in Honduras and do environmental destruction to the globe,” he said. “I’d rather see that money go into a bank in New Jersey that becomes 10 dollars to fund mass-transit projects and the foreclosure crisis and help folks get low-interest loan for their education.”
On social issues, both Genovese and Kaper-Dale follow Murphy in endorsing similar progressive causes, such as an increase in the minimum wage and a higher tax rate for the state’s wealthiest earners. Kaper-Dale said he is guided by the underlying motto of putting the “last, first,” a philosophy he picked up in his 15 years with the church, serving society’s underprivileged.
“I don’t feel like anybody takes the concerns of the last as a first priority,” he said. “And I don’t think that asking the last first is only important for the last — I think any excellent society can be measured by how it treats those who have been left out. And so if New Jersey is to be excellent, it needs to take seriously those who have been last.”
Riccardi, meanwhile, hopes to curb drug and sex trafficking in the state by funneling more funding toward nonprofit groups working on the ground in those areas. Rohrman would legalize marijuana entirely and work to loosen what he called the state’s too-restrictive gun laws.
As for the possibility of victory on election day, Riccardi said he is undeterred.
“The deficit you’re at when it comes to not having a major party endorsement is huge,” he said. “But as a marine, I attack the hill, I’m not afraid. And I’m not afraid of what may come if I don’t win, but you’ve got to be in the race to win it.”