The differences between State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton) and Democratic challenger Rupande Mehta were in sharp contrast during a New Jersey Globe debate Sunday evening.
Bucco repeatedly touted his record — both in the State Senate and the Assembly before then — as Mehta attacked him over past votes. More than once, both candidates claimed the other was lying, and though it stayed civil, the conversation frequently veered into attacks over partisanship.
During an exchange on abortion — Mehta supports it, and Bucco does not — the challenger went after Bucco’s record on other women’s issues.
“Sen. Bucco said he’s not anti-women, but his record clearly reflects otherwise,” she said. “He has voted against women’s health care. He has voted to slash equal pay. He does not believe in equal pay for women. He’s voted to not end discrimination against women.”
The incumbent claimed Mehta was twisting his record on abortion, noting he did not oppose it in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is at risk.
He said her criticism on the gender pay gap was also off the mask.
“I voted for one of the most stringent, comprehensive equal pay for women bills in the state’s history in 2018, the Diane Allen Equal Pay legislation,” he said. “It’s probably the most stringent in the country. I voted for it.”
The Diane Allen Equal Pay Act requires public employers to compensate employees who do similar work without gender bias. Two Verona officials won the first settlements under the law last week.
Both candidates agreed Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of the pandemic in the state’s long-term care centers demanded a probe, but Bucco charged his opponent had done little to make that clear on his campaign trail.
“We’ve called upon the governor to form a task force. The senate president has agreed to form it,” Bucco said. “Rupande Mehta has been silent in supporting us in this effort. She should have joined us and sent a letter to the governor. She had every opportunity to do that.”
The Democrat said she kept her concerns to herself because she was not a Senator.
“If I get to the Senate, I will bring it up, and I will investigate it,” she said.
The exchange set off a series of taunts over political courage from other side. Mehta claimed Bucco’s was a fair-weather bipartisan.
“You’re touting your bipartisan record, but in this case, somehow it slips,” she said. “Every time it gets tough, it’s just easier to resort to name-calling and yelling at the other side, but somehow the bipartisan record that you’re talking about, we don’t see it in these instances when it gets hard.”
The Republican charged Mehta was playing politics by not raising alarms over $400 million worth of pork in this year’s budget.
In violation of state law, the legislature has not released budget resolutions for those additions.
“That’s just wrong,” Bucco said. “We need transparency, but yet, my opponent, who says she’s bipartisan, hasn’t criticized it one bit. But I forgot, she’s not in the legislature yet, so she doesn’t have a voice until she gets there.”
Mehta again said she’d stayed silent because she doesn’t hold state office before attacking Bucco over his effectiveness.
“I don’t have a voice because I’m not in the legislature,” she said. “Sen. Bucco, you are in the legislature, and we still don’t happen to hear your voice.”
Bucco said he wants Motor Vehicle Commission Chief Administrator Sue Fulton to resign. Mehta declined to say where she stood on Fulton, saying those decisions lay with Murphy but adding everything, including terminations should be on the table to deal with long lines the agency has seen for months.
The contest between the two is the only race for State Senate this year. It was triggered by the death of Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, the incumbent’s father.
“It’s never easy when you lose a parent. It’s even harder when your parent served with you in the legislature and essentially was my best friend,” Bucco said.
His ascension prompted another special election for Bucco’s Assembly seat. There, Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Mendham) faces a challenge from Chester Democratic Municipal Chairwoman Darcy Draeger, who ran for the seat last year.
The debate was moderated by New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein.