First State-Sponsored Debate Fails to Sizzle, Setting Up Thursday Showdown

May 10, 2017 | Elections, Politics
Stockton University hosted the first state-sponsored Democratic and Republican primary debates.

By David Cruz

If you were looking for theater on the Stockton campus yesterday, you were going to have to find it outside of the Campus Center Theater, where candidates who didn’t qualify for the main event held their own street corner debate. Inside, the qualifying candidates — two Republicans and four Democrats — entered the first Election Law Enforcement Commission debates, needing to answer questions not necessarily posed by the evening’s moderator. Like, can Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli be tough without looking like a bully?

“It’s obvious the lieutenant governor doesn’t understand what a tax restructuring is. She does not understand my five-point plan. I can help recommend a good CPA to explain it to her,” snapped Ciattarelli.

And how many ways can Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno say she’s not Gov. Chris Christie’s yes-woman?

“Most people understand when a lieutenant has an objection about what’s going on in the state of New Jersey all they have to do is walk down the hall and complain about it,” she countered. “I have done that on more than one occasion and the governor makes the call. That’s our constitution. I’ve never seen Jack Ciattarelli in Chris Christie’s office. I’ve never seen him raise a complaint to the governor of the state of New Jersey directly.”

Ciattarelli replied that no Republican in the state has been more critical of the governor than he. “That was long before I ever declared for governor and I never had to say that I had to walk down the hall and ask for permission before I could disagree with the governor, as you have said.”

The Democrats’ campaigns — four of them — also had lingering questions. Like can presumed front-runner Phil Murphy take a punch?

“If Mr. Murphy wants to create a state bank, maybe he should go back to Wall Street,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, referring to Murphy’s state bank proposal.

“The folks who are against the public bank are the folks running against me, and the bankers,” Murphy replied. “And the person’s who for it is Bernie Sanders. That gives me great comfort.”

Can the genial Jim Johnson come out swinging?

“In the age of Donald Trump, there are just some times when we’re just going to have to fight,” said Johnson. “And there are some issues that we’re just going to have to take a hard line on.”

Can the loquacious Ray Lesniak articulate a rationale worthy of his accomplishments?

“My passion comes from my humble beginnings,” he told the audience. “My dad had to quit school after the eighth grade to work to support his family who emigrated to the U.S. from Poland. As a senator, I expanded drug courts to deal with the opioid crisis, ended mass incarceration in New Jersey, fought for marriage equality, won a landmark women’s right to choose case and won an international human rights award.”

And how long would it take for Wisniewski to say, “As chair of the Transportation Committee I stood up to Chris Christie when his team closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge when few others were willing to stand up to him.”

The Democrats were the main event in Stockton, if audience size is any indication. But it was the Republican combatants, just two of them, who had the most chance to challenge one another.

“I was expecting a little more command of the issues, especially with regard to school funding and pensions. She, in my opinion, still not has won command of those issues,” charged Ciattarelli. “It says something, and it’s not good.”

Guadagno smiled at the suggestion that she didn’t know enough about government to be qualified to run for governor. “Well, I’ve been doing it for eight years and if I’m to believe everybody’s numbers, I’ve been governor for more than 500 days,” she said. “I don’t know how an assemblyman who served six years in the Assembly can say I’m not qualified to be the governor. I’ve been the governor longer than Jack has and I certainly know the problems that we face in New Jersey.”

A contest where nobody lays a solid blow on the presumed front-runner has to be considered a victory for that presumed front-runner. And while voters are just now tuning into this contest, for these candidates, it’s already getting late, which makes tomorrow’s televised debate even more critical.