Divides clear in first gubernatorial debate

By: - September 28, 2021 9:33 pm

Republican Jack Ciattarelli, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy sparred Tuesday night about the state’s response to Hurricane Ida, COVID-19, and Ciattarelli’s appearance at a pro-Trump rally. (Amanda Brown and Danielle Richards for the New Jersey Monitor)

Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli met on the debate stage for the first time in Newark Tuesday night in what became a raucous hour that drew a clear divide between the two men seeking New Jersey’s top elected post, replete with repeated jeering from the crowd.

The attacks started just minutes into the debate, when the two candidates traded barbs over what the Republican said was Murphy’s laggard response to the devastating remnants of Hurricane Ida, which killed 30 New Jerseyans. The conflict simmered further once COVID-19 emerged as a topic.

Ciattarelli, who for months has put himself opposite Murphy on vaccine mandates even as the state’s case counts have risen, took aim at the Democratic incumbent over widespread deaths seen in long-term-care centers in the pandemic’s early months.

“New Jersey leads the nation in nursing home deaths because Phil Murphy forced nursing homes to take in COVID-19 patients,” the challenger said. “There’s even a public record out there from one of the nursing home operators saying on a conference call with his Department of Health, ‘You realize if you do this, people will die.’”

Attacks against Murphy’s nursing home executive order, which required long-term care centers to re-admit patients who tested positive for the virus, have been a Republican favorite for more than a year, and it’s an attack Democrats privately regard as an effective one.

Murphy claimed his opponent was lying — not for the last time Tuesday night — and said his administration required nursing homes and other long-term-care centers to separate infected patients from ones who had not contracted COVID-19.

“We were crystal clear,” Murphy said. “These were residents returning to their home, and so we said, ‘You must separate them, and you must separate the staff.’ … You make decisions based on the data, the science, the facts. You don’t put your finger in the air and see which way the political wind is blowing.”

Ciattarelli faced fire for his embrace of the Republican Party’s fringes and, in particular, his attendance at a “Stop the Steal” rally last November.

He said he was led to believe the event was one boosting Republican legislative candidates on this year’s ballot, and Ciattarelli acknowledged President Joe Biden’s victory and the role former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric played in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Murphy camp has challenged Ciattarelli’s alleged ignorance of the purpose of the rally, pointing to a photo from the event of Ciattarelli with a “stop the steal” sign behind him.

“I didn’t see any of those signs,” Ciattarelli said. “If they were there, I don’t think I should be held responsible. I’ve never held the governor responsible for attending rallies where people were holding signs that said ‘defund the police’ or ‘no justice no peace,’” a reference to last year’s Black Lives Matter rallies.

Murphy said Ciattarelli’s attendance at the rally “rises to the level of disqualifying” and said the event included “the exact same cocktail that led to” the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“Come on, man,” Murphy said. “Your picture and name were on the invitation. There’s video — I’ve seen it with my own eyes — of you standing there with a ‘stop the steal’ sign right beside you. There were confederate flags. There were white supremacists.”

Some points of unanimity

Both candidates openly embraced diversity as a concept, and each acknowledged climate change as a reality, though Ciattarelli said the energy master plan issued by Murphy is too ambitious and a poor use of contemporary resources.

The Republican also appears to have changed his stance on a 2019 law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

During the pandemic, he lambasted the policy as a cause for widespread delays at Motor Vehicle Commission offices, but on Tuesday, he welcomed allowing undocumented immigrants to have licenses as a valuable law enforcement tool.

“I believe that’s a great security measure. They’re here. They’re not going anywhere. Let’s know who they are and let’s give them a driver’s license so we don’t have people on our roads driving without a license, without insurance,” he said.

Murphy pledged not to raise taxes at any point during the next four years should he win a second term, a promise echoed by the Republican. Ciattarelli repeatedly prodded the governor over Murphy saying in 2019, “If you’re a one-issue voter, and tax rate is your issue … we’re probably not your state.”

In his defense, the incumbent said his tax hikes had been largely limited to businesses and high earners. That’s true for income tax, though other taxes and fees have been raised or created during his tenure.

“We inherited an overwhelming affordability crisis. We have made progress on property taxes, but we have a long way still to go,” the Democrat said. “But I’ll tell you, if you’re a working class family today, you’re paying lower income taxes, you’re paying less for health care, you’re paying less for college.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.