In calm debate, lieutenant governor candidates bid for attention

Allen, Oliver echoed their running mates in low-key appearance
Credit: (Screengrab from YouTube)
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, left, and Republican Party candidate for lieutenant governor Diane Allen debated at Rider University in Lawrenceville Tuesday night.

The two women seeking to be New Jersey’s lieutenant governor made the policy differences of their tickets clear during a debate Tuesday night that was calm and quiet by comparison with last week’s boisterous gubernatorial debate.

Democrat Sheila Y. Oliver, elected with Gov. Phil Murphy in 2017, spent much of the hourlong debate before a small audience at Rider University in Lawrenceville defending the Murphy administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues. Republican Diane Allen, a former state senator running with Jack Ciattarelli, used much of her time criticizing the Murphy administration’s actions over the last four years.

“New Jersey is broken,” Allen said in her closing statement. “I don’t think that Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver care enough about the people of New Jersey … If you cared about the people of New Jersey, you wouldn’t have put sick COVID patients back into nursing homes and 8,000 people dying. You wouldn’t have shuttered small businesses … You would have gotten unemployment checks out to people in time, wouldn’t have had to wait months, motor vehicles would have been taken care of.”

In her closing, Oliver repeated one of Murphy’s talking points about “moving New Jersey forward” and not going back, presumably to the policies in place when former Republican Gov. Chris Christie was in office.

“In the Murphy-Oliver administration, we can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can focus in on investments in education and health care, and making certain that our small businesses can thrive,” Oliver said. “We are going to move New Jersey forward, include everyone and not perpetuate divisiveness in the state of New Jersey.”

Murphy, Ciattarelli will debate once more

The debate was the only one between the candidates for lieutenant governor. Murphy debated Ciattarelli for the first time last week and the two men are scheduled to meet  a final time before the Nov. 2 election next Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in a debate co-sponsored by NJ Spotlight News at Rowan University in Glassboro.

In New Jersey, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor are elected as a ticket.

The lieutenant governor fills in whenever the governor is out of state or incapacitated and would take over if he were to leave office. The position was created in 2005 when voters approved a change to the state Constitution proposed after a succession of Senate presidents served as acting governor during the prior five years. The first lieutenant governor, Republican Kim Guadagno, was elected in 2009.

Both Allen and Oliver said in response to a question that they think the position is important and one that New Jersey needs. Responding to a recent poll that said few people know who the lieutenant governor candidates are, Oliver said more people need to become “civically engaged,” to which Allen agreed.

What they disagreed on

The women had other points of agreement. But mostly they disagreed on issues ranging from vaccine mandates to gun control. Another topic over which they sparred was the Murphy administration’s record on women.

“Governor Phil Murphy is the only governor, in my experience, that has women at the table making decisions, major decisions, on a daily basis,” said Oliver, who spent 14 years in the Assembly and was the first, and only, African American woman to serve as speaker. “Half of our cabinet is comprised of women, women holding very important and prestigious positions, women who are able to take their departments in a number of different directions. That didn’t exist in other gubernatorial administrations. You had to, like, call daddy to ask.”

But Allen repeated comments Ciattarelli has made in ads and during last week’s debate that Murphy’s 2017 campaign was “toxic,” and that the governor ignored allegations of rape and other problems at the state’s only women’s prison for more than a year.

“If there’s an issue and the woman has a problem, he is nowhere to be found,” Allen said of Murphy.

Allen spent 22 years in the Legislature — all but two of them as a senator — before retiring in 2018. She said Tuesday night that she remains the moderate Republican she has been throughout her career. She easily won her elections despite serving with two Democratic Assembly members in a Burlington County district that leaned blue. Allen, 73, a former journalist, is now president of a media production company and lives in Edgewater Park.

Oliver, who described herself as “socially progressive and fiscally responsible” Tuesday night, also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs. In addition to her 14 years in the Assembly, leaving to become the state’s second lieutenant governor, she is a former school board member and county commissioner and a former college instructor. Oliver, 69, lives in East Orange.

Voting considerations

It’s unclear how much of a difference voters’ views of the lieutenant governor candidates make in deciding whom to back in the election. State law requires the lieutenant governor candidates participate in one debate and the gubernatorial hopefuls in two others when they accept public financing of their campaigns.

The final governor’s debate is planned for Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast live on NJ PBS stations and on WNYC radio, as well as livestreamed on, YouTube and the WNYC and Rowan University websites. In addition to NJ Spotlight News, the sponsors are WNYC, New York Public Radio, The Gothamist and the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission chose the debate sponsors. So far, Murphy has received more than $8.8 million while Ciattarelli has gotten nearly $6.3 million in public dollars toward their general election campaigns.

Only candidates that qualify for and receive public financing are required to participate in the debates. There are three other gubernatorial tickets on this year’s ballot: Madelyn Hoffman for governor with Heather Warburton for the Green Party, Gregg Mele with Eveline Brownstein for the Libertarian Party and Joanne Kuniansky with Vivian Sahner for the Socialist Workers Party.

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