Ready for the Fireworks? Will Tonight’s Debate Be as Heated as the Run-Up?

Misrepresentations, distortions, and accusations of ‘outright lying’ have already been leveled by one side or the other — and that’s not the half of it

Republican candidate for governor, Kim Guadagno
With less than a month before Election Day, the two major party candidates for New Jersey governor face off tonight for their first of two required debates. And the campaign rhetoric is heating up.

The debate, held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, will be aired live at 7 p.m. and will be livestreamed on NJ Spotlight, along with commentary. It will also appear on WABC-TV’s New York and Philadelphia affiliates. NJ Spotlight is a co-sponsor.

Misrepresentation and Distortion?

In the run-up to this first debate, the candidates have been travelling the state to push their messages as they jockey for the right to replace Gov. Chris Christie. And in a number of cases have been misrepresenting, if not outright distorting, the statements of their opponents. Tonight will be the first time the candidates get to react directly to each other, although both have been appearing at a number of forums, including the New Jersey AARP Summit on Building Communities for All Ages last Friday and the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations 2017 Gubernatorial Candidates Forum on Sunday.

On Monday, Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, who has a 14-point lead in the latest poll, was in Trenton touting his endorsement by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

At roughly the same time, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee, held a press event with four GOP legislators during which she stepped up her attacks on Murphy and, at the very least, distorted his positions relative to transportation and immigration issues.

The stated purpose of the press conference at the Bridgewater municipal building was “Murphy’s Toll & Fee Increases.” Guadagno’s campaign bases its assertion on a statement by a Murphy campaign spokesman in reaction to a Fund for New Jersey report on transportation challenges.

Among many recommendations, the report specifically suggests that the state determine its transportation goals and how much money is needed to achieve those goals and where to get that money. The report does not recommend how to find money for transportation projects, but presents some possible sources, among them increasing motor vehicle fees, putting tolls on interstates, and privatizing existing toll roads. The Murphy campaign statement regarding the report read, “We greatly welcome these insights to help chart a future course that creates and supports countless jobs, spurs long-term economic growth, provides much-needed relief for commuters, and gives our economy the transportation infrastructure it needs.”

Standing their ground

Pressed by reporters who said the statement did not overtly endorse tolling roads and increasing motor vehicle fees and that the Murphy campaign and the candidate himself said he has neither proposed nor endorsed these, Guadagno and the Republican lawmakers with her stood their ground.

“Right now on the record what we have is a quote from his campaign that he greatly welcomes toll roads,” Guadagno said. “It’s OK for his campaign to talk about raising tolls and for him to say, ‘oops, I didn’t mean it’ … That’s why we have debates.”

‘Outright lying’

Murphy spokesman Derek Roseman responded by essentially calling Guadagno a liar: “It is under Chris Christie’s and Kim Guadagno’s watch that highway tolls increased by half, commuter fares are up by 37 percent, and bridge and tunnel tolls have nearly doubled. The facts are clear — commuters paid more and got worse service. Phil Murphy has been crystal clear that the middle class has shouldered enough and that he will not ask them to pay more or put them at risk by privatizing agencies. After spending eight years standing by Chris Christie’s side while they made New Jersey worse for people across the state, Kim Guadagno is now just outright lying to them.”

That response itself was a bit misleading, as the 2012 NJ Turnpike and Parkway toll increases was actually approved four years earlier when Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, was in office. It also slightly overstates the NJ Transit increase, which systemwide was just under 34 percent, which the Murphy campaign said it would look into.

In response to another reporter’s question, Guadagno made another assertion about a Murphy statement — this one about immigration — that does not ring true.

Citing an instance last month in which an undocumented immigrant was charged with the rape of a six-year old girl, Guadagno said, “My opponent said that when it comes to protecting violent illegal aliens, he has their back.” She then cited a question Murphy answered last month during a town hall at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics that was streamed live on Facebook. The question was Murphy’s feeling about current state policy to notify immigration authorities when an undocumented person is accused of a felony or drunk driving. The backdrop of the question was the shooting in Newark in 2008 of four college students — three died — by an undocumented man while on bail.

“The answer, not my words, not a cut and paste job, the answer was simply, ‘I’d have his back,’” Guadagno said.

But that was a something of cut and paste job, as Murphy’s answer was far more nuanced.

A cut and paste job

What Murphy actually said in response to the question asked was, “I want to be honest to everyone. When I have the answer, I will give it. This is the first time I’ve ever been asked it.” He went on to say that he thinks “the field has been so tilted against the dreamers, against immigrants, my bias is going to be having their back.” He went on to say that there will always be someone committing a crime, cited the specific shootings as “heinous,” and added, “We have to be careful not to extrapolate from that and then throw a similar blanket on an entire group of folks.”

In finishing up, he admitted he had not answered the question and said, “I’m not sure what the right point of notification is.”

As part of her remarks, Guadagno also made reference to the “$75 billion of additional spending” that she often says Murphy has planned and even had a chart showing how that figure compares with the current $35 billion state budget.

$75B in promises?

“He made promises to just about everyone; they total $75 billion,” she said. “That’s why we have public debates. Tomorrow night we will have an opportunity to find out whether he was telling the truth during the primary or telling the truth now.”

The primary driver of that figure is Guadagno’s contention that Murphy has promised to enact a single-payer health insurance system in New Jersey. But that is, again, that is an overstatement on her part.

Murphy has been consistent about this. What he actually said in July in answering a question about single-payer healthcare following a campaign event, according to a video posted on her campaign Facebook page, was, “It has to be on the list. I’d rather see that done at the federal government level.” He went on to say that he’s unsure what the cost would be in New Jersey, but that in California it would cost $400 billion over 10 years. He finished by saying, “It has to be on the table. I’d like to see Medicare for all at the federal level — that to me would be my preferred ideal solution. If we’re not going to get that, I’d rather defend the Affordable Care Act and improve it.”

Tonight’s debate may see these issues discussed, as well as others.

There are five other candidates running for governor. None of them are taking part in the debate because only candidates who have raised the $430,000 needed to qualify for matching state funds can participate.