First debate set in governor’s race

Murphy, Ciattarelli look to lure voters in race that’s so far featured mostly attacks
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News; Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
Jack Ciattarelli, Republican Party candidate for governor, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat

The two major party candidates for New Jersey governor are set to meet face-to-face for the first time Tuesday in a televised debate that both hope will help them woo voters.

Gov. Phil Murphy, the Democrat, goes into the evening event with a significant lead of between nine and 14 percentage points over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, according to the most recent Monmouth University Poll. Still, that poll said that half of registered voters had no opinion of Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman. This first debate gives Ciattarelli an opportunity to acquaint voters with who he is and his message.

Political ads bring controversy

The campaigns so far have focused less on issues and more on attacking each other.

Ciattarelli has made the sexual assault allegation by Katie Brennan against a Murphy campaign worker four years ago a centerpiece of three ads that seem designed to get women’s votes. But after the ads were aired, Brennan and the National Organization for Women of New Jersey — which endorsed Murphy — asked the Ciattarelli campaign to take them down.

Ciattarelli has also said that police accountability measures Murphy backed and the law legalizing recreational marijuana are part of an “anti-police agenda” that has led to an increase in crime.

Murphy has a record to run on, and in his first ad, he touted the state’s high-ranking public school system, his program making community college free for low-income students and the expansion of voting rights, among other issues. But his campaign also is running negative ads, painting Ciattarelli as a supporter of former President Donald Trump who spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally. Ciattarelli says he didn’t know that was the purpose of the gathering. Murphy’s campaign also tells potential voters that Ciattarelli will roll back the state’s laws on legal abortion, voting rights and gun safety.

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.

Upcoming debates

The debate is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and will be broadcast live on WABC-TV New York and WPVI-TV Philadelphia.

NJ Spotlight News is co-sponsoring the last debate between the candidates, to be held Oct. 12 at Rowan University in Glassboro. That 8 p.m. prime-time debate will be broadcast live on NJ PBS stations and on the WNYC radio station, as well as livestreamed on, YouTube and the WNYC and Rowan University websites. WNYC, New York Public Radio, The Gothamist and the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship 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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