Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Oliver and former State Sen. Diane Allen met at Rider University tonight for the campaign season’s only official lieutenant gubernatorial debate, one week after their running mates did the same in Newark.
The debate, which was moderated by the New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein, was markedly less contentious, and for the most part more policy-focused, than last week’s gubernatorial debate. The two women at its center, Oliver and Allen, have both been in state politics for more than two decades – well longer than either Gov. Phil Murphy or former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.
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Appropriately enough, the night began with an explanation of what the lieutenant governor’s office does. The position was created in 2010 after several governors in a row had left office early, creating a void of leadership at the top of the state. Lieutenant governors are expected to assume the role of governor should the governor leave office for any reason, and are also required to head a department or agency in the governor’s administration.
Oliver, who heads the Department of Community Affairs, is the second person to have ever occupied the lieutenant governor’s office; she succeeded former Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno, who served for two terms under former Gov. Chris Christie.
The first disagreement of the debate between Oliver and Allen occurred on the issue of Covid vaccine mandates, with both candidates echoing the policies promulgated by the tops of their respective tickets.
“I do think our children should be taking vaccines, but I want to say something about it,” Allen said. “It [shouldn’t be] a mandate where you must do it this way. Always, a parent needs to talk with the doctors, and to make sure it’s right.”
“We have a public health system because we have to make certain that everyone’s health is protected,” Oliver responded. “Yes, we do need to require vaccination… Vaccination is something that protects not just the individual that receives it, but the public and the community at large.”
Allen also hit the Murphy administration repeatedly for what she characterized as poor planning in the early days of the pandemic, saying that the state should have been better prepared to operate the state’s schools and other services remotely.
“In other states, children were able to go to school every single day, no one got sick, there were no problems, and their education was at a much higher level than in New Jersey],” Allen said. “I worry about our children.”
But Oliver argued that shutting schools was necessary to stop the spread of Covid among students and faculty, and that the Murphy administration had worked admirably to make remote learning as accessible and educational as possible, even to students with no WiFi or computer at home.
“Phil Murphy and I, and our administration, closed that digital divide,” she said. “Every student in New Jersey was provided with access to a tablet or a laptop. That closed that down.”
On the hot-button issues of guns and abortion, Allen and Oliver disagreed firmly, though Allen was in both cases more moderate in her stances than most national Republicans tend to be.
Oliver insisted that the legislature should, and will, pass the Reproductive Freedom Act, a bill currently stalled in the legislature that would codify abortion access in the state.
“There is no turning back as it relates to Roe v. Wade,” she said.
Allen countered that while efforts to curtail abortion around the country are unwise, the Reproductive Freedom Act is not appropriate, either.
“We don’t want the Texas law [banning abortions after six weeks], that’s for sure,” Allen insisted. “But this law in New Jersey, were it to pass, would mean that … you could have an abortion in the seventh, the eighth, or the ninth month, right up to the day a child is born. I don’t think that’s New Jersey.”
“I suppose white privilege is the fact that, for many people who are white, we are able to accomplish things and do things thinking that we’re doing it on our own, when in fact perhaps we’re doing it because we’re being given a little leeway because of our color,” Allen explained. “Most of us are probably not aware of that as it happens.”
Oliver seemed to largely agree with Allen’s definition, adding that privilege can manifest itself in the form of generational wealth, which many white New Jerseyans have – and which most New Jerseyans of color do not.
With much of the country’s political focus being directed at congressional negotiations in Washington, and not at New Jersey’s upcoming elections, Allen and Oliver were also asked their thoughts on President Joe Biden, who won New Jersey easily in the 2020 presidential election.
“I’m very proud of Joe Biden,” Oliver said. “I am proud that he does not get embroiled in the partisanship – he started off his tenure wanting to work in a bipartisan fashion.”
Allen disagreed, saying Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and other issues has convinced her that she cast her vote correctly in November.
“I’ll tell you, I didn’t vote for Joe Biden because I didn’t think he was up for the job, and I think he’s shown that in many ways,” Allen said.
Near the end of the debate, Allen was asked about her history as a moderate Republican in the legislature, and whether she thinks she’s shifted right since becoming the nominee for lieutenant governor – something which Democrats and some journalists have noted she’s done.
“I’m still that person who voted for gay marriage, long before President Obama even backed it,” Allen said. “I would say that socially moderate is probably exactly where I am, but … I am fiscally conservative. I still am that as well.”
Oliver, meanwhile, defined herself as fiscally responsible and socially progressive, arguing that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive of one another.
“I do believe you can be socially progressive and fiscally responsible,” she said. “Instead of bearing labels, whether we’re conservative or to the left or to the right, if we do what is necessary for people, that’s being progressive in this country. And we can be fiscally conservative at the same time.”
In her closing statement, Allen hit on similar themes as Ciattarelli did last week, saying that New Jersey has suffered under Murphy’s high-tax, low competency governorship.
“New Jersey is broken,” she said. “And I don’t think Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver care enough about the people of New Jersey… Jack Ciattarelli and I will take back New Jersey for all of us, with your support.”
Oliver’s closing statement instead argued that the state has made strides under the first four years of the Murphy-Oliver administration, and it can’t afford to slide back under Ciattarelli and Allen.
“This election is about moving New Jersey forward, and not going backwards regressively,” Oliver said. “We are going to move New Jersey forward, include everyone, and not perpetuate divisiveness in the state of New Jersey.”