Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli met tonight in Glassboro for the second and final gubernatorial debate, replete with some substantive debate, many dodged questions, and a disruptively raucous audience – in other words, a near-total repeat of the first gubernatorial debate two weeks ago.
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On Covid, Murphy reiterated his support for vaccine and mask mandates, while Ciattarelli said such mandates shouldn’t be in the government’s wheelhouse. On abortion, Murphy called for the state to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act. On policing, Ciattarelli called Murphy “the most anti-police [governor] we’ve ever had.”
The debate, which was sponsored by NJ PBS, Rowan University, and WNYC, was consistent with a gubernatorial campaign that has remained largely static over the last several months. Neither candidate was able to get any true decisive moments in – and a status quo debate can only be good for Murphy, who leads in polls and fundraising.
Like the first debate, tonight began with questions about the pandemic, and Murphy was pressed on the lack of an independent report on nursing and veterans’ home deaths early in the pandemic.
“We will do [an investigation], there’s no question about it,” Murphy said. “The challenge is, we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. It’s better than it was, but it’s not as good as it was on Memorial Day… There will be a full accounting, independent of my office, of this.”
On the issue of taxes, a favorite subject for Ciattarelli, Murphy defended the steps he’s taken thus far, and said that tax increases like the millionaire’s tax have benefited most New Jerseyans.
“Every dime of the millionaire’s tax has gone into the middle class for tax relief,” Murphy said. “Every dime.”
“If he had cut everybody’s property taxes in half, I wouldn’t have run for governor. I would have endorsed him,” Ciattarelli quipped in response.
Soon afterwards, Ciattarelli was asked about his support for former President Donald Trump, whose unpopularity in New Jersey is a weapon Murphy has used repeatedly.
“I think it’s un-American not to root for the president’s success,” Ciattarelli said. “Over the four years, Donald Trump did have some successes at the national and international level, whether it was the economy, border security, hardball with China, moving the embassy of the United States to Jerusalem.”
But he did note that there were some Jersey-specific issues where he and Trump did not see eye-to-eye.
“I disagree with him on where he was wrong on New Jersey,” he said. “We don’t want offshore drilling, we want funding for the Gateway project, and we want our SALT deduction.”
As in previous debates, the issue of abortion spurred significant discussion, with Ciattarelli going farther than he had previously in support for abortion access.
“I do not believe that Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned,” Ciattarelli said. “If it is, we will codify it here in New Jersey. I support a woman’s right to choose.”
Murphy responded with more skepticism that the Supreme Court would be so reasonable, and said that the Reproductive Freedom Act is needed to counter the potential actions of the court.
“I will be very happy if you’re right about Roe v. Wade, but I’m not expecting that, sadly, with this Trump-packed Supreme Court,” he said.
Asked about racial equity – an issue on which both candidates have struggled in recent weeks to communicate their stances – Ciattarelli went on the offense, saying that Murphy’s actions as governor have contributed to inequality in the state today.
“I find some of the words of the governor hollow with regards to [racial inequality],” Ciattarelli said. “He hasn’t given Newark charter schools, he hasn’t given Black-owned firms chances at public contracts, and the only asset-based management firm in the state that’s owned by a Black is suing him for racial discrimination.”
In possibly the night’s testiest exchange, Ciattarelli attacked a theme Murphy has often used – that his administration has had to clean up the messes left by the Trump and Chris Christie administrations.
“You asked for the job,” Ciattarelli said. “You knew what you were getting yourself into. And yet, you know what we hear repeatedly from you? It’s always the previous administration’s fault or Donald Trump’s fault… I promise you this: when I take office in January, I will not blame the Murphy administration for anything. We’ll get the job done.”
Murphy wasn’t given the chance to directly respond during the debate, but at a brief press conference afterwards, he forcefully pushed back on the idea that his administration wasn’t still dealing with the effects of past governors.
“We were digging out of one of the biggest holes of any American state,” Murphy said. “I wanted [the job] because I had confidence we could fix it. And guess what? We’re fixing it.”
In a capstone for the debate’s tendency towards repetition, both candidates delivered closing statements that nearly matched those they gave two weeks ago. Ciattarelli told the viewers to vote Murphy if they liked “having the worst business climate in the nation”; Murphy said that, thanks to him, it’s “sunrise in New Jersey.”
The audience has been building to a fervor all night, interrupting the proceedings several times before finally exploding during Murphy’s closing statement. Murphy’s final pitch was accompanied by a cacophony of alternating boos and cheers; his voice had to rise to a shout to get in his last words while the moderators scolded the audience behind them.
As Ciattarelli put it afterwards: “The whole debate seemed a little bumpy.”