Gov. Phil Murphy and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli met today for the first of two gubernatorial debates, each man attempting to portray the other as radically out of step with New Jersey’s voters.
According to Ciattarelli, Murphy wants to make the state the “California of the east,” replete with high taxes, big government, and rampant inequalities. According to Murphy, Ciattarelli might as well be running for governor of Texas with his support for relaxed firearm restrictions, lower Planned Parenthood funding, and ending mask mandates.
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The night’s first major dispute occurred on the issue of Covid safety requirements, a subject on which the two candidates have traded competing policies and broadsides for months.
“I encourage people to get vaccinated,” said Ciattarelli, who has repeatedly lambasted Murphy’s school mask requirements and vaccine mandates. “Do I believe that government has a right to tell people they have to take a medicine? No, I don’t.”
“Saying that it’s your call, and the government can’t mandate the vaccine … is akin to supporting drunk driving,” Murphy responded. “It impacts both the person who’s driving drunk, and all the rest of us. That’s not the way we beat this.”
The two candidates also sparred over abortion, with both agreeing to protect New Jersey women’s access to abortion but firmly disagreeing on how far those protections should go.
“I have never advocated for the repeal or overturn of Roe v. Wade,” Ciattarelli said, establishing a distinction between his own policies and those being pursued in states like Texas, which he called a form of extremism. “I have never not advocated for a woman’s right to choose.”
Ciattarelli did, however, emphasize that he does not support the state-level Reproductive Freedom Act, and wants some funding currently funneled toward Planned Parenthood to go to other health organizations instead.
“As an assemblyman, my opponent consistently voted to defund Planned Parenthood,” Murphy said. “A woman’s right to choose needs to be protected at all costs. Reproductive freedom needs to be protected at all costs. That’s a decision between a woman and her doctor, period.”
Near the middle of the debate, the two candidates found a point of commonality in their belief that undocumented immigrants should have a path to recognition, and more broadly their shared appreciation for the state’s diversity.
But on the subject of policing and safety, inextricable from discussions of race and diversity in the past year, Ciattarelli drew a clear line between his stances and Murphy’s.
“We’re not going to handcuff our cops,” Ciattarelli said of his prospective administration. “We’re not going to disarm our cops. We’re not going to demoralize our cops. This governor has supported an attorney general who has issued directive after directive after directive that has made it harder for our police to do their job.”
Murphy pivoted the conversation on policing to one on guns, which he said presented one of the state’s primary risks to public safety.
“I’m proud of our record to make New Jersey the strongest gun safety state in America,” he said. “But again, I feel sometimes my opponent is running for governor of Texas. He wants concealed carry, he wants more rounds in magazines, he voted against banning 50-caliber weapons, universal background checks.”
“The Second Amendment is the Second Amendment is the Second Amendment. It’s not going anywhere,” Ciattarelli argued later in the debate. “If it was up to Phil Murphy, he would repeal the Second Amendment… [Murphy] constantly demonized law-abiding, legal gun owners.”
Ciattarelli also went on the offense on taxes and spending, saying that small businesses have struggled and the state budget has drastically expanded under Murphy. But Murphy responded with his own attack, blaming the state’s problems on the era when Ciattarelli was in the state legislature.
“Do you know why the budget is up, assemblyman? Because of the mess you left,” Murphy said. “We haven’t had a full pension payment in 25 years. We put $6.9 billion into the pension system on one day. You and Chris Christie underfunded public education by $9.2 billion. Somebody’s got to clean up your mess.”
Yet in something of an acknowledgment of the state’s high taxes, Murphy pledged no new or risen taxes in his second term – despite the many ambitious plans he has in other areas of his agenda.
One assumption before the debate was that as much as Ciattarelli might bring up taxes, Murphy would bring up Donald Trump even more. The former president largely remained on the sidelines during the debate, save for an exchange about Ciattarelli’s attendance at a Stop the Steal rally last November, and for criticism that Trump was not forthcoming with information in the earliest days of Covid.
“Joe Biden is the president, he’s the legitimate president,” Ciattarelli said. “I went to [the rally], I didn’t see people in the kind apparel we find offensive, I didn’t see any of those signs.”
Murphy’s response was simple. “This rises to the level of disqualifying,” he said. “C’mon, man… There’s video – I’ve seen it with my own eyes – of you standing under a Stop the Steal sign right beside you.”
On climate change, Ciattarelli hewed to the center, saying that “climate change is real, human action is accelerating it, and we can do things right here and now to keep people out of harm’s way.”
But while Ciattarelli emphasized protecting the immediate victims of climate change like those harmed by Hurricane Ida, Murphy’s vision was more expansive, encompassing much larger goals of clean energy and green infrastructure.
“My opponent, when he was asked about our climate plan, [said] it’s too much, too soon, too fast,” Murphy said. “We have to go as fast as we can, and we will.”
Asked about marijuana legalization, Ciattarelli found himself somewhat out of step with the state, arguing that the drug should have been decriminalized, not recreationally legalized, contradicting a referendum overwhelmingly passed by the state’s voters last year.
“We could address social justice with the decriminalization of marijuana, not the approval of recreational marijuana,” Ciattarelli said, adding that voters were misled on the intent of the referendum.
The night’s final major battle was on education, and more specifically on racial and LGBT issues being taught in schools – two things that Ciattarelli has expressed hesitancy over in the past.
“There is systemic racism, but I don’t think we should be reaching our children that white people perpetuate systemic racism,” Ciattarelli said. Asked later who is causing systemic racism if not white people, Ciattarelli declined to answer.
“I believe with all my heart, we need to teach kids the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Murphy responded.
Ciattarelli also said younger grades should steer clear of LGBT issues, largely standing by his past remarks against teaching “sodomy” in schools – a word to which Murphy took clear offense.
“The word sodomy is not taught, and you know exactly what that word inflames,” Murphy said. “It’s a complete and utter offense to the LGBTQ+ community… How can you say that you’re open-minded and you celebrate diversity when you use a word that is deliberately dog-whistled to create an us-versus-them environment?”
In his closing statement, Murphy cited the progress the state has made under his administration, referencing one of former President Ronald Reagan’s slogans to do so.
“We have turned the page to a new era, and even in the midst of this overwhelming tragedy of the pandemic, it is sunrise in New Jersey,” he said.
Ciattarelli cast a darker pall over the state, referencing its troubles and asking watchers whether the Murphy administration had worked for them.
“If you don’t mind a governor who says he wants to make New Jersey the California of the East Coast; if you don’t mind a governor who says, if taxes are your issue, we’re probably not your state, vote for Phil Murphy,” Ciattarelli said. “The future of our state is at stake. And so, this election season, on November 2, I ask you to ask yourself: are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Overall, the debate was between two candidates who insisted their policies were well within the mainstream – and in many cases, they were right. Ciattarelli’s pro-choice stances and his acknowledgment of man-made climate change, and Murphy’s support for law enforcement and pledge to not raise taxes, both contradicted the more ideological factions of their own parties.
But if they cast themselves as moderate, they painted one another as unbearably extreme, someone whom the state could not possibly afford to live under for four years.
Could New Jersey bear to become more like California, Ciattarelli asked? Would New Jersey survive under a governor like Texas’, Murphy questioned?
Based on the candidates’ own policies, neither of those futures seems like a realistic possibility. But for the sake of your vote, each is willing to pretend like it is.