Pointed questions for the candidates. A boisterous crowd that caused multiple disruptions. Clear differences on some of New Jersey’s most important policy issues.
All were hallmarks of Tuesday night’s second and final gubernatorial debate between incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
Held at Rowan University in South Jersey and co-sponsored by NJ PBS, the debate came as many New Jersey voters are just starting to pay attention to this year’s gubernatorial contest, but also as many residents have already begun early voting by mail-in ballot.
Here are some of the key moments and takeaways from the nearly hourlong debate.
Forward or backward: Clear contrasts between the two candidates were on full display during the debate, including their approaches to the coronavirus pandemic and their views on taxes and spending. From the very beginning, Murphy tried to portray Ciattarelli’s stances, such as calls to cut billions from the state budget and overhaul the K-12 school-funding formula, as hearkening back to the two-term tenure of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who left office deeply unpopular.
“Forward versus backward, we’ll leave it at that,” Murphy said as he and Ciattarelli debated whether changing the current school-funding formula — something Christie once proposed — would be good or bad for New Jersey’s minority communities.
But Ciattarelli also didn’t shy away from embracing some of Christie’s record, including on budget cutting. And Murphy’s frequent Christie comparisons may have backfired to a degree since moderators pressed the incumbent to explain the continuance of several of his predecessor’s practices that he once criticized. They included the reliance on one-time sources of revenue, or “one-shots,” to balance the state’s annual budget and the repeated raiding of New Jersey Transit’s capital resources to help paper over operating deficits.
Appeal to the suburbs: Behind in the polls, but gaining ground, Ciattarelli seemed intent on getting the attention of New Jersey’s suburban voters, including by repeating his call for changing the school-funding practices, which can directly impact local property-tax bills.
Ciattarelli also attempted on numerous occasions to tap into suburban frustration with court-mandated affordable-housing quotas. One of those attempts came in response to a question about the partisan balance of New Jersey’s Supreme Court, which has issued so-called Mount Laurel rulings that have directly influenced state housing policy.
“I am looking for people that bring balance to the court, but I am also looking for people who acknowledge there are flaws in the Mount Laurel housing decisions. Although I support affordable housing … the way we do it is just nuts,” Ciattarelli said.
Ciattarelli returned to the affordable housing issue during a discussion about development policy in flood-prone areas of the state where major damage to homes and commercial businesses has been caused by recent severe storms fueled by global climate change. That drew a quick response from Murphy, who said the impact of climate change is “a much broader reality” that needs to be dealt with in New Jersey.
The pocketbook issues: Despite some recent improvement, New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high amid the ongoing pandemic. Not surprisingly, the economy was another topic on which Ciattarelli tried to score points against Murphy, much in the way Murphy criticized Christie four years ago for overseeing New Jersey’s very slow economic recovery from the Great Recession.
On the defensive, Murphy pointed back to the impact of the health crisis, saying “it’s hard to ignore that public health is the reason why we’re still at a somewhat elevated (unemployment) level.”
Ciattarelli also pressed Murphy on taxes and spending, noting the state’s annual budget has increased by more than 30% since Murphy took office in early 2018. Murphy countered by saying the big increase in spending is covering bills left unpaid during Christie’s tenure, when Ciattarelli served in the Legislature. It also gave Murphy an opening to promote a new parental income-tax rebate that is being funded by the state’s recently enacted millionaires tax.
“We’re paying our bills, and by the way, every dime of the millionaires tax has gone into the middle class for tax relief — every dime,” Murphy said.
Abortion: Despite being legal for almost a half-century, abortion continues to be a contentious issue, even in a reliably Democratic state like New Jersey. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent upholding of a Texas law that essentially bans abortion in that state after six weeks of pregnancy has also upped the stakes.
In New Jersey, legislation seeking to codify what is already permitted in the state, as well as make it easier and less expensive for women seeking abortions, has languished in the majority-Democrat Legislature despite Murphy’s outspoken support. But he suggested during the debate that the abortion bill would be “the No. 1 agenda item” for the lame-duck legislative session that comes after this year’s election.
For his part, Ciattarelli — who earlier in the debate called for leaving issues related to COVID-19 vaccines and masking requirements up to individuals — criticized the abortion bill for allowing New Jersey to remain one of seven states, plus the District of Columbia, that does not place any time restrictions on how far along in her pregnancy a woman and her doctor can determine when an abortion is appropriate.
Notably, at the same time, Ciattarelli said he agrees with codifying the right to abortion in New Jersey if the U.S. Supreme Court upsets years of precedent at the federal level and overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Crowd noise: The rowdy crowd made frequent outbursts and interruptions that appeared to distract both candidates throughout Tuesday night’s debate. The behavior also made it hard at times for some viewers tuning in from home – some of whom may still be undecided voters — to hear some of the very points the candidates were trying to make from the debate stage.