Final gubernatorial debate ends with few new details

Ciattarelli said he backs codifying abortion protection if Roe v. Wade falls

By: - October 12, 2021 10:26 pm

GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli has chipped away at Gov. Phil Murphy’s lead “but hasn’t delivered the knockout he needs,” said polling director Patrick Murray. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, Pool)

The final debate between Gov. Phil Murphy and challenger Jack Ciattarelli again drew sharp lines between the two candidates, though much about their platforms remained hazy Tuesday night.

In one notable moment, Ciattarelli, a Republican, said he would codify abortion protections as governor should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.

“I have been very, very consistent on bodily autonomy-type positions. I’ve been very consistent on ‘my body my choice,’ so yes, if that’s what we need to do in New Jersey to protect a woman’s right to choose, we will do that,” the Republican said, adding he does not believe the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe.

At the same time, Ciattarelli backed imposing new limits on abortion, saying he would bar the procedure after the 20th week of pregnancy. New Jersey’s abortion protections do not impose a time limit on the procedure.

Abortions that late are exceedingly rare. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they account for as little as 1% of abortions.

Facing questions over the stalled Reproductive Freedom Act, which would codify abortion rights protected now by case law only, Murphy, a Democrat, insisted lawmakers would move the bill during this year’s lame duck session. Murphy has cited the bill on the campaign trail as he seeks support from New Jersey voters.

Despite some dissent in his caucus, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has said some of his members feel there is no urgency on the issue because they too doubt the Supreme Court will strike Roe.

Murphy is seeking a second term in November and polls show he is widely favored to win, with the two most recent surveys putting his lead over Ciattarelli between nine and 13 points. Ciattarelli’s campaign is outspending Murphy’s, but pro-Murphy outside groups have spent millions aiding the incumbent.

Four years later, Christie still a target

Murphy, faced Tuesday with questions on why he has failed to identify a dedicated funding source for NJ Transit and has allowed the transportation network to operate on capital expenses, fell back on an answer he’s favored since entering office in 2018: Blame Chris Christie.

“If you talk about the mess that we inherited, the mess within the mess was NJ Transit. No engineers, political cronies, underfunding, unsafe, a disaster,” the governor said. “We are fixing NJ Transit. On-time performance is up. Cancellations are down. Customer satisfaction is up, and we’ve done it without raising one dime of the commuter paying their fare over the past four years.”

Though Christie did slash the agency’s funding and nix an agreement that would have seen work on new trans-Hudson tunnels start years earlier, the governor has faced criticism from fellow Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, for issues like the capital-to-operating transfer.

Ciattarelli saw the incumbent’s answer as an attempt to pass the buck.

“One of the things that infuriates the people of New Jersey — you asked for the job. You asked for the job. You knew what you were getting yourself into,” Ciattarelli said. “Yet you know what we hear repeatedly from you? It’s always the previous administration’s fault or it’s Donald Trump’s fault.”

During a brief press conference following the debate, Murphy defended blaming present problems on a governor who has now been out of office for close to four years.

“When NJ Transit is as wrecked as it is … that’s probably a five or 10-year fix thanks to those guys, so the answer is it’s quite fair,” he said.

Tuesday’s debate saw little in the way of policy specifics from the challenger, who again declined to say how his proposal to equalize state school funding aid across New Jersey’s districts would function.

“I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not going to leave any child behind, I’m certainly not going to adversely affect the quality of our K-12 education in New Jersey,” he said.

Murphy repeated an attack charging the former assemblyman’s plan as one that would slash school funding in urban and largely non-white districts, on Tuesday alleging it was identical to a flat-tax plan that would have cut aid to urban districts and redirected it to wealthier — and largely white — suburbs.

“If you’re in a Black or brown community or you’re a Black or brown kid out there, you’re going to get the rug pulled out from under you,” he said. “This is the same flat-tax plan Chris Christie proposed in spring of 2016, and he was driven out of the state. This is an us-versus-them move.”

Ciattarelli insisted the two were not identical, adding that, unlike the widely panned Christie plan, voters would approve of his policy.

Tuesday’s debate again featured an unruly crowd that began its cheering and heckling just minutes into the debate despite repeated pleading from moderators that they keep a respectful silence. The crowd’s refusal to simmer down appeared to irk even the candidates, both of whom faced numerous interruptions during the hourlong affair.

“The audience was rowdy. I think it made it more challenging,” Ciattarelli told reporters after the debate. “We applaud their enthusiasm, but it certainly made it more challenging.”


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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.