The  sharp contrasts between New Jersey’s two leading gubernatorial candidates on top concerns like taxes, school funding and COVID-19 came into clear view Tuesday night during the contest’s second and final debate.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term incumbent Democrat, has led the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic since the first cases appeared in New Jersey early last year, upsetting the state economy and leading to the deaths of thousands of residents.

But Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican and former state lawmaker, has frequently portrayed Murphy’s handling of the health crisis, which has included masking and vaccination requirements, as heavy-handed and too restrictive.

Ciattarelli said that although he himself has been vaccinated, he believes the role of governor should be about “providing all of the information that people need to make an informed decision” for themselves.

“The choice is theirs,” Ciattarelli said during the debate, which was held at Rowan University and co-sponsored by NJ Spotlight News.

“I think when times are as challenging as these — I’ve never said the pandemic is easy, it’s not — I think the best way to get as much cooperation as you possibly can is to find policy that works for a majority of people,” Ciattarelli said.

Murphy defends approach to pandemic

Murphy strongly defended his administration’s approach to the health crisis and portrayed Ciattarelli’s comments as out of step with mainstream New Jersey and better fit for a state like “Texas or Florida.”

“The tragedy today is there is a playbook. We know vaccines work. We know masking works,” Murphy said. “For folks to ignore that (and) disregard that playbook is putting lives needlessly at risk.”

As the discussion moved on to state spending and the economy, Ciattarelli remained assertive, faulting Murphy for growing the size of New Jersey’s annual budget by more than 30%.

“I will tell you that I believe state government is bloated, inefficient and corrupted by certain special interests,” Ciattarelli said.

Credit: (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, Pool)
Oct. 12, 2021: Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli speaks during gubernatorial debate with incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, at Rowan University.

When pressed for more specifics, however, Ciattarelli stopped short of identifying any programs that he believed could be cut but promised that would be a priority of discussions with lawmakers if he is elected.

“I will sit down on day one with the Legislature, and we’ll have that conversation,” Ciattarelli said.

For his part, Murphy defended his handling of the budget, saying increased spending was needed to reverse years of underfunding of the state’s obligation to the public-worker pension system and chronic underfunding of the K-12 school-aid law. Murphy also promoted a new parental income-tax rebate funded in the state’s most recent, election-year budget.

“Why is the budget up? Think about it (as) if you were a family and you weren’t paying your mortgage or your rent,” Murphy said.

“We’re paying our bills,” he added.

And on the bigger picture for New Jersey beyond those specific issues, and others in the hour-long debate Tuesday, the two candidates also had widely differing views.

Ciattarelli said in his closing statement that New Jersey “is broken.”

Ciattarelli: NJ ‘needs to be fixed’

“You know it, and I know it. It needs to be fixed, and that’s what my candidacy is all about,” he said.

Murphy painted a far different picture, saying it’s “sunrise in New Jersey” as the state recovers from the pandemic.

“We’ve done a lot. We’ve come a long way, but our work is not done. We have to keep moving forward,” Murphy said.

Tuesday’s debate came with just three weeks left in the campaign, and as many people across New Jersey have just begun to pay attention to the gubernatorial contest. But time is also of the essence for the candidates since many residents have already begun early voting by mail-in ballot.

Credit: (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, Pool)
Oct. 12, 2021: Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during gubernatorial debate with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli at Rowan University.

The last two independent polls of the race showed Murphy with a lead of between nine and 14 points. But as pollsters often warn, polls are not election forecasts and serve instead as measurements of voter sentiment at the time.

In addition to contending with a pandemic, New Jersey has also been hammered by a series of intense storms with flooding that damaged homes and businesses throughout the state.

Murphy and Ciattarelli were both asked about how the state should be adjusting policies in the face of the increasing frequency of heavy storms that have been fueled by global climate change.

Teasing out the differences

Murphy discussed his administration’s clean-energy master plan, which relies on nuclear production and offshore wind generation, calling the latter “a big game-changer” for South Jersey. But he stopped short of providing a price tag for implementing the plan when pressed by a moderator for more details.

“It’s to be determined in terms of how it gets paid (for), but it won’t be on the back of the ratepayer, that’s the important thing,” Murphy said.

Ciattarelli, who has faulted Murphy’s clean-energy plan, accused the governor of shirking the responsibility to put forward “a comprehensive analysis.”

The candidates also offered differing stances on issues related to education, including school funding. Ciattarelli called for revisions to the state’s current school-aid law, suggesting they could result in lower property-tax bills in some communities that have lost funding in recent years.

Without offering many specifics, Ciattarelli called for a “flatter, more equitable distribution of state aid to schools.”

But Murphy countered that changing the current school-aid formula could result in the loss of funding for students in New Jersey’s “Black and brown communities.”

“This is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ move,” Murphy said. “There’s enormous progress being made in Black and brown communities where there’s a lot of money being put to work.”

Communities and police

And when questioned about a need for New Jersey communities to have civilian review boards equipped with subpoena power to serve as watchdogs over local police departments, Ciattarelli said that is something he opposes.

“I’m very, very fearful of a number of programs that are being talked about by the governor and other Democrats around the state,” Ciattarelli said.

Murphy said he only favors the organizing of civilian review boards with subpoena power in some cases.

“I don’t think there’s ‘one size fits all,’” Murphy said. “I think it works in certain places and it doesn’t necessarily work in all places.”

The 64-year-old Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who lives with his wife and four children in Middletown, is trying to become the first Democrat in more than four decades to win a second term in the governor’s office.

Ciattarelli, 59, a certified public accountant who lives with his wife and four children in Hillsborough, is a former three-term state assemblyman who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2017, rather than seeking reelection to the Legislature.

Along with NJ Spotlight News, Tuesday’s debate was co-sponsored by New York Public Radio’s WNYC, Gothamist and the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

Only candidates who 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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