Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli found almost no common ground Tuesday night as they argued during their first gubernatorial debate over virtually every issue, including COVID-19, police reform and taxes.

Ciattarelli was highly critical of Murphy’s COVID-19 response and attacked him several times on taxes,  repeating more than once the governor’s statement of two years ago, “If taxes are your issue then we are probably not your state.” Murphy hammered Ciattarelli’s positions on gun control, abortion and other social issues, saying he would move the state backward if elected.

Held at NJPAC in Newark, this was the first debate for the two major party candidates for governor and was one of two required by state law for candidates who take public financing. Their final debate is scheduled for Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. at Rowan University and is by co-sponsored by NJ Spotlight News.

Ciattarelli was hoping to gain name recognition and win over some voters, given the most recent Monmouth University Poll said half of registered voters had no opinion of the former state assemblyman. That same poll, released last week, had Murphy with a lead of between 9 and 14 percentage points over Ciattarelli.

Not surprisingly, the two sparred over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Going toe to toe on COVID-19

Ciattarelli said New Jersey nursing home residents died because Murphy told these facilities that they had to take COVID-19 patients. Murphy defended his record, saying the long-term-care facilities were given “crystal clear” rules requiring the separation of coronavirus patients by floor, wing or building and by staff to prevent the viral spread.

“Early on, we had no playbook,” Murphy said. “Remember, these folks live in these places … so they were obviously always going to go back, but we were very, very clear, explicitly clear: If you go back, you’ve got to be separated.”

Asked about his recent statement that COVID-19 does not pose a problem for children, Ciattarelli said he probably could have stated it better, but added, “Children in general are not as susceptible to serious illness and death as adults.” Ciattarelli further said he does not believe government has the right to “tell people they have to take medicine” or force anyone to wear a mask.

‘Nonsense that gets people killed’

“Saying it’s your call and government can’t mandate vaccines or masks is akin to supporting drunk driving,” Murphy countered. He added that now that we know vaccines and masks can prevent serious illness and death, Ciattarelli’s position of “my body, my freedom, that’s nonsense that gets people killed.”

Several times Murphy tried to tie Ciattarelli to Donald Trump, who lost New Jersey by 16 points last year. Murphy called Ciattarelli’s appearance at a “Stop the Steal” rally earlier this year “disqualifying” and said he didn’t believe Ciattarelli’s assertion that he didn’t know the purpose of the rally in Bedminster before he went there.

Tax, tax, tax …

Ciattarelli, meanwhile, said Murphy “raised every tax we have” and indicated the governor is out of touch with residents around the state who do not see themselves as better off than they were four years ago. Murphy countered that he has lowered taxes on the middle class, as well as lowering the cost of health insurance, community college and child care and has not raised New Jersey Transit fares. Both men pledged not to increase any taxes if elected.

Murphy repeatedly stated that Ciattarelli voted against state funding for Planned Parenthood, which Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman, said was because he wants the money spread among a number of organizations, including those that don’t “advocate for abortion.”

Murphy also criticized Ciattarelli’s stance on gun control, including his legislative votes against a 10-round magazine limit. Also challenged by Murphy was Ciattarelli’s call to allow concealed-carry licenses for certain dangerous professions, including real estate agents. Ciattarelli said that many women working as real estate agents are at risk when they are alone during open houses.

The candidates also sparred over the police reforms the Murphy administration put in place, with Ciattarelli saying the governor doesn’t “have the back” of the police and Murphy saying they walked a fine line to improve social justice and touting two endorsements from police unions.

‘Get the hell off the beach’ again

Ciattarelli criticized Murphy for declaring a state of emergency late as the remants of Hurricane Ida approached. Paraphrasing former Gov. Chris Christie’s comment as Superstorm Sandy approached the state in 2012, Ciattarelli  said, “If ever we needed a ‘Get the hell off the beach moment,’ this was it.” Murphy defended his actions, saying his administration met about the storm, discussed it and used social media to warn people about it throughout the day.

Nearing the end of his first term in office, roughly half of which has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s response to it, the 64-year-old Murphy is trying to become the first Democrat in more than four decades to win a second term in the governor’s office. A former Goldman Sachs executive who lives with his wife and four children in Middletown, Murphy is a progressive who is asking for a second term to continue to expand on the policies he has put in place, including greater protections and resources for immigrants, improved public transportation and 100% clean-energy use by 2050.

Ciattarelli, 59, is a former three-term state assemblyman who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2017, rather than seeking reelection to the Legislature. A certified public accountant who lives with his wife and four children in Hillsborough, he talks of having started two businesses, but he is no longer involved with either. While Ciattarelli has been painted as a moderate, he does support some more conservative positions, including a voter ID law and some loosening of the state’s gun laws. He also has pledged to cut individual, property and corporate taxes.

The Oct. 12 NJ Spotlight News prime-time debate, being held on Rowan’s campus in Glassboro, will be broadcast live on NJ PBS stations and on WNYC radio, as well as live-streamed on njspotlightnews.com, YouTube and the WNYC and Rowan University websites. WNYC, New York Public Radio, The Gothamist and the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship in Glassboro are co-sponsors.

A debate of the lieutenant governor candidates, Democrat Sheila Oliver, the current lieutenant governor and commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, and former Republican state Sen. Diane Allen, is scheduled for Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at Rider University.

These three debates are required by state law because the candidates are accepting public financing of their campaigns. The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission chose the debate sponsors. So far, Murphy has received almost $8.2 million and Ciattarelli $5.5 million in public dollars toward their general election campaigns.

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