Few surprises in sleepy lieutenant governor debate

By: - October 5, 2021 10:38 pm

Diane Allen, left, the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver at an Oct. 5 debate at Rider University. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Sanders of the New Jersey Globe)

The first question at the only debate in the race for New Jersey lieutenant governor pretty much set the tone for the rest of the hourlong event Tuesday night at Rider University: Does this office you’re both seeking really need to exist?

Moderator David Wildstein might as well have asked if the debate needed to exist: Most of what Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Diane Allen, said felt like a repeat of last week’s gubernatorial debate, where Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli sparred over taxes, coronavirus response, abortion, vaccine mandates, and more.

There were a few surprises Tuesday, like when Wildstein, editor of the New Jersey Globe, asked Oliver to respond to anonymous criticisms that she often is “not in the room” where impactful decisions occur.

Oliver responded that she has such a strong relationship with legislative leadership that she’s “the Steve whisperer,” a reference to Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“I can exert influence on outcomes of things that happen in Trenton without always being in the room,” she said.

Otherwise, Oliver and Allen stuck to the script for questions posed by Wildstein, Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics, and Shennell McCloud, CEO of Project Ready.

On tax relief, Oliver said she and Murphy would focus on growing the economy, such as facilitating the state’s robust film industry, to counter any need for new taxes. But Allen called that promise hypocritical, saying Murphy recently raised taxes on businesses, and such hikes drive businesses to leave the state.

With an approval expected soon on a coronavirus vaccine for children under 12, Allen said while she thinks children should get inoculated, she doesn’t believe it should be mandated.

“My son nearly died from an MMR shot as a child,” she said. “It’s not one size fits all.”

Oliver cited the critical role vaccines played in controlling illnesses like polio, mumps, and diptheria as a reason why she supports requiring children to get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available.

On abortion access, Allen distanced herself from Texas’ recent controversial abortion ban, because it “pits people against each other in a very strange way” and bans abortion before many people even know they’re pregnant. But she said doesn’t support the Reproductive Freedom Act, which would codify and expand abortion access in New Jersey, because she objects to late-term abortions.

Oliver had a quick response to that: “Jack and Diane think the government should not mandate vaccinations, but conversely, they think the government should tell a woman whether they should bear a child or not. That is hypocritical.”

Both candidates agreed that giving undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses — a law approving that went into effect this year — makes roads safer. But Allen said some people think undocumented immigrants can then use the licenses to vote. They can’t — and Oliver accused Allen “in a very dog-whistle fashion” of referencing the voting rights battles taking place in states like Georgia and Texas.

The lieutenant governor position is the second highest-ranking position in state government. But it’s a job that has only existed since 2010. After the unexpected resignations of former governors Christine Todd Whitman and James McGreevey left lawmakers as acting governors, legislators created the post mostly to ensure there would be a substitute governor when the actual governor was absent.

Two months ago a Monmouth University poll showed most voters don’t know who Oliver and Allen are.

The two main-party contenders for lieutenant governor are considered trailblazers.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, joined the New Jersey Assembly in 2003 to represent Essex and Passaic counties’ 34th District. She became Assembly Speaker in 2010. She was the second woman — and the first woman of color — in that post. She’s also the commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs.

Oliver is the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, a position to which she was elected in 2017. She’s the second Black woman in U.S. history to lead a state legislative house. She’s a Newark native, former East Orange school board member, ex-Essex County Freeholder, and a founder of the Newark Coalition for Low Income Housing.

GOP challenger Diane Allen is a former TV reporter and news anchor in Philadelphia who served 12 years in the New Jersey Legislature — 1996 to 1998 in the Assembly and 1998 to 2018 in the Senate in Burlington County’s 7th District. She held several leadership positions and is a former chairwoman of the National Foundation for Women Legislators. She ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2002.

She’s known for advocating for workplace protections for women and wrote the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, which became law after she left the Senate. She also successfully fought her former employer CBS in an age and sexism discrimination lawsuit. She’s from Burlington County and ran her own media production company after she left broadcasting.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.