Ciattarelli looks to shore up Lakewood after Murphy wins key endorsement
GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli visited Lakewood Thursday, the same day the influential Lakewood Vaad endorsed his opponent, Gov. Phil Murphy. (Danielle Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
Jack Ciattarelli’s political future could rest on Lakewood.
On Thursday, the Republican candidate for governor returned to the state’s fastest growing municipality — one that, by all accounts, overwhelmingly favors GOP officeholders — for a series of events that included visits to the police department, small businesses, and a synagogue, among others.
“Very much like my trip to Israel two months ago, I’m here today to show solidarity with the Jewish community of New Jersey,” he said at a mid-afternoon press conference in Lakewood’s town square.
Lakewood, now the fifth most populous municipality in the state, hosts New Jersey’s largest Jewish Orthodox community, and that population has increasingly defined the town and its issues, including busing, vaccination, and the broad use of Yeshivas and religious Orthodox schools.
Gov. Phil Murphy won plaudits from religious and community leaders for his handling of COVID-19 here.
The virus ravaged Lakewood in the early months of the pandemic, when many Orthodox residents proved resistant to mitigation measures like masking and social distancing. The governor urged outside residents to steer clear of leveling blame, repeatedly warning against anti-Semitism.
The Lakewood Vaad, an 11-member council of Orthodox Elders has endorsed Murphy, as it did in 2017. That endorsement carries great weight in Lakewood.
Still, this is a place where Democrats rarely score electoral victories.
Murphy carried the township in 2017, narrowly defeating Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno with 5,758 to her 5,644. The same year, Lakewood voters backed Republican Ocean County Commissioner Joe Vicari over Democratic challenger Helen Dela Cruz in a 7,784 to 3,270 vote.
Gov. Chris Christie won the town 11,850 to 2,427 against Sen. Barbara Buono in 2013. He carried Lakewood by tighter margins in 2009, when the Vaad issued a controversial endorsement of Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie won 10,528 votes to Corzine’s 5,910.
Donald Trump carried the district by 65 points over President Joe Biden last year.
Ciattarelli appeared confident the governor wouldn’t carry the township again in November.
“I’m not at all concerned about that endorsement, quite frankly,” he said. “We’ll just going to continue doing what we’re doing at the grassroots level and I’m confident it’s going to work out just fine.”
He later attacked the governor, charging he only came to Lakewood because of political expedience.
“The best way to develop goodwill and community is by coming here repeatedly, listening and engaging with the people who live here,” Ciattarelli said. “Here in Lakewood, I’ve done that numerous times over the past 22 months.”
Murphy was in Lakewood on Tuesday.
While the Vaad might be on the governor’s side, other issues could keep residents in the Republican’s corner.
Orthodox Jewish communities have historically resisted vaccinations. As of Thursday, only 28% of Lakewood’s population had completed a COVID-19 vaccine regiment, though rates were far higher among older residents. Some Orthodox Jews took part in protests against a bill that would have eliminated oft-abused religious exemptions for public school immunization requirements.
“Choice of vaccination — medical exemption, religious exemption — that’s so key to all of us here. That’s part of the American way,” said State Sen. Bob Singer (R-Ocean), a Lakewood resident who joined Ciattarelli at Thursday’s rally.
Murphy has issued vaccine mandates for health care workers, government employees, and public contractors, among some others, but has so far avoided broader mandates, opting instead to let businesses impose their own rules.
Ciattarelli is vaccinated and has spoken in favor of immunizations but opposes mandates.
The issue wasn’t a centerpiece of Thursday’s press conference, where he instead plugged other issues, like an expansion of Route 9 to alleviate choking traffic caused by Lakewood’s booming growth and school vouchers that would shift more public resources to Yeshivas that educate an overwhelming share of the township’s youth.
“This governor hasn’t approved charter schools. He doesn’t approve of vouchers. I approve of both. I think people need to have choice,” he said. “You’ll see a voucher program out of me very much along the lines of what we saw in Ohio, which has been a huge success.”
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