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Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Ciattarelli becomes first Republican to criticize Murphy handling of COVID-19 crisis

GOP gubernatorial candidate attacks Murphy over bioethics panel

By Nikita Biryukov, March 27 2020 6:31 pm

The lone announced candidate for the 2021 Republican gubernatorial nomination today became the first politician from either side of the aisle to openly attack Gov. Phil Murphy for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli slammed Murphy over his plan to convene a bioethics panel ahead of an expected shortage in the state’s supply of ventilators and other critical care equipment needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The Murphy administration now saying it will convene a panel to discuss the bio-ethical considerations of there not being enough ventilators to care for the critically ill is flat out unacceptable,” Ciattarelli said in a minute-long Twitter video. “We’re here to save lives, not tell people who dies and who lives. We’re better than that, and let’s stop trying to justify medical rationing in the name of transparency.”

That could be a risky for Ciattarelli, who declared his candidacy for governor in January.

Americans tend to rally around their leaders in the face of disaster. President George W. Bush saw his approval ratings sore after 9/11, and the former Gov. Chris Christie got a similar boost in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

It’s not yet clear exactly how the pandemic has affected Murphy politically, but early indications are that it’s been a political boon to the country’s governors, even if it comes with a price.

“It’s a tough attack. It is a very tough attack, and to be honest, I don’t know that there is a lot of appetite on either side for tough attacks right now,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “I think if you want to send a message that we need to be working together, then let’s work together. Let’s not attack each other.”

A Monmouth University Poll released earlier this week found 72% of voters gave the governors of the four states hit the hardest by the deadly virus – New Jersey, New York, California and Washington — good marks for their handling of the crisis.

Judy Persichilli, the state Commissioner of Health, announced the state was convening a bioethics panel to judge how the New Jersey hospitals would handle demand for ventilators needed to care for critically-ill COVID-19 patients exceeded supply.

Health officials estimate the state needs about additional 2,000 critical care beds and roughly 2,300 more ventilators to face the crisis, though they’ve asked the federal government to provide aid on both fronts.

The panel won’t hold its first meeting until Monday, and officials don’t expect shortages to become a problem until mid-April.

Persichilli on Thursday told the New Jersey Globe the state would use single ventilators for multiple patients concurrently, as other states have done, if the situation demanded it.

Even taking that aside, it’s not clear whether Ciattarelli’s attack will do much, if anything, to move the needle.

“Every day, he goes out and sinks a two-foot putt. It’s really easy. You go out. From a seated position, you say, ‘here’s all the shit that happened,’ which is handed to him by somebody, and he repeats the things that every sane person knows that they should or shouldn’t be doing. Rinse and repeat,” said a Democratic operative outside of the governor’s circle. “My point is Murphy, for at least a time period, is going to be Teflon. You’re not scoring points off that.”

The operative said that, while the attack was likely a misstep for a typically “smart, shrewd guy” like Ciattarelli, it likely wouldn’t cause any blowback for the candidate, given the election is still more than a year away.

Still, not everyone thought Ciattarelli was putting his foot in his mouth.

“Think it’s a smart move on Jack to bring awareness. Leaders are supposed to instill confidence and exhibit calmness in times of crisis, not induce panic of impending doom,” a Republican operative said. “The last thing we need is New Jerseyans believing they, or their loved one’s fate is going to be in the hands of what amounts to a death panel.”

Ciattarelli’s attack echoes ones launched by congressional Republicans in 2009.

That year, Republicans claimed falsely — Politifact named the attack its lie of the year — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would institute “death panels” that would determine who would receive care under the law.

The attack could win Ciattarelli, a former Somerset County legislator making his second bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, points with the same constituencies that bought into the death panel attacks, Rasmussen said.

On the flip side, it could also draw the ire of voters who do not want to see the pandemic turned into a political football.

“What he said, to me, is like anathema to everything that’s going on in the environment right now … You can point to this as one of the politicizing missteps that was bound to happen in this crisis at some point. I never thought it would be him,” the Democratic operative said.

While some Republican lawmakers in the state have raised issue with some measures of Murphy’s COVID-19 response — State Sen. Michael Testa, Jr. (R-Vineland) and others have called on the governor to reopen gun stores, which state officials ordered closed along with other non-essential businesses last week — most prominent GOP legislators have steered well clear of the fray.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, one of a handful of high-ranking Republicans said to be mulling a bid against Murphy, declined to comment on Ciattarelli’s attack, saying he had no time for politics amid the crisis.

“Whatever Jack Ciattarelli is doing right now, it’s not my radar,” he said. “Here’s my position: This is a serious crisis. My job is to work with the governor and try to provide relief and help for people, and that’s 100% effort at this point.”

Bramnick, typically one of Murphy’s chief detractors in the Republican party, has urged bipartisanship in recent days.

The governor frequently mentions talks with him and other legislative leaders during daily coronavirus briefings.

“When you’re in government as the minority leader or the minority leader of the senate, you have a responsibility first to make sure people are safe and people can eat, and people can earn a living. That’s your job. That’s what I’m focusing on,” Bramnick said. “There’s absolutely no reason, at this point, not to work with the governor.”

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