I often compare political debates and elections to professional sports events. The May 18 Republican gubernatorial primary debate between Christie administration Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and insurgent Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli reminded me of the May, 1966 World Heavyweight Championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper, won by Ali on a technical knockout in the sixth round, when the referee stopped the fight due to cuts sustained by Cooper.
In the debate, Ciattarelli was Ali and Guadagno was Cooper. In figurative terms, Jack cut Kim to ribbons on the issues of the nexus of property tax and the education funding formula, transportation funding, and Kim’s proposal to make the office of the election of Attorney General an elective position – a virtual invitation for special interests to have undue access and influence over the state’s highest law enforcement official. If the debate was a boxing match, a referee would have had to stop it and award Jack a technical knockout victory.
Even more ominous for Guadagno was the post-debate NJTV online poll, whose participants gave Jack a 63 to 20 win. The poll is hardly scientific, and it cannot be deemed to be an accurate barometer as to debate performance.
The NJTV survey does confirm, however, what Republican grassroots operatives know to be the undeniable truth: There is a huge enthusiasm gap between the two candidates in Jack’s favor.
This gap stems largely from one factor: Kim Guadagno carries the mammoth Chris Christie albatross of gubernatorial misfeasance and malfeasance on her shoulders and thus cannot win in November. Jack Ciattarelli, who has been perhaps the leading GOP critic of Chris Christie in the New Jersey legislature, does have a path to victory over Phil Murphy, in a campaign when GOP voters thought at the beginning of the year that a Democratic gubernatorial victory was axiomatic.
I am not at this point predicting a primary victory for either Jack or Kim. This race, quite frankly, is too close to call, although there is a trend in Jack’s favor. One thing is clear, however. Democrats will react with an audible sigh of relief to a Guadagno victory, while a Ciattarelli primary win will cause them concern and even anxiety.
Both Jack and Phil are successful businessmen. Jack, however, is clearly a Main Street personality, while Phil Murphy is undeniably Wall Street, in a year when a Wall Street identification bears a major political stigma. Jack is Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, without the Stewart naivete and without the Babbitry of the Sinclair Lewis character.
Phil Murphy is the stereotypical Wall Street plutocrat, who lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous as former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, as portrayed by Agustin Torres in his series of articles in the Jersey Journal. The Murphy campaign has two of the finest Democratic political consultants in the nation in Brad Lawrence and Steve Demicco, and their commercials thus far are admirable efforts to transform Phil Murphy into a “just plain folks” small town America personage. Not even Brad and Steve, however, can reinvent Phil Murphy, and the best they can hope for is to give him the status of a Wendell Willkie in 1940, the “barefoot boy from Wall Street.” And Willkie lost.
Since the administration of Jon Corzine, Wall Street has not had a great image in New Jersey politics. Corzine was known for having an imperious view if his own stature, a tin political ear, a disdain for the “political class” who could have guided him, and an inclination to bring fellow Wall Street professionals without political experience or savvy into his administration. Corzine also appeared to have a need to establish himself as the “smartest guy in the room”, a person who didn’t know what he did not know. And Phil Murphy thus far has failed to rebut the perception that he is the second coming of Jon Corzine.
In all fairness, not every Wall Street mogul is a Jon Corzine copy. A notable exception was Lew Eisenberg, a Republican whose service as Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey under Christie Whitman established him as the greatest chair in the history of that august agency.
Lew was more than just a person of supreme intelligence and native political acumen. He was also known to be a superb listener who knew what he didn’t know, knew what question to ask, and had excellent judgment in picking his advisors and executives. Neither Jon Corzine nor Phil Murphy, however, is a Lew Eisenberg.
Yet it is not just the Main Street versus Wall Street image issue that works for Ciattarelli. The potency of his education aid formula revision proposal could have special potency against Phil Murphy.
The Democratic frontrunner is dependent on support from urban Democratic leaders who will vehemently oppose Jack Ciattarelli’s proposal to redistribute state education aid from overfunded urban schools in municipalities that have achieved major economic wealth increases, like Hoboken and Jersey City, to vastly underfunded suburban districts. Such suburban areas have consequently been compelled to raise property taxes in order to maintain education quality.
The Ciattarelli education proposal would provide deep and permanent property tax reductions to New Jersey middle class suburbanite residents. This has the potential to attract to the polls in November a major suburban middle class Ciattarelli vote from not only Republicans but Democrats and Independents as well. Such suburbanite Democrat defections could make this race uncomfortably competitive for Phil Murphy.
If Jack is the GOP nominee, he will not carry the Christie albatross burden. He will, however, have a major difficulty in surmounting the damage to the Republican brand created by both Donald Trump and Chris Christie.
The huge Murphy financial advantage, together with the above-mentioned damage to the GOP brand make Jack Ciattarelli a definite underdog against Phil Murphy if he wins the primary. Yet victory is not impossible. Jack has the communication and personality skills to convey his message to New Jersey suburbia and make the November race surprisingly competitive.
And as long as I am giving sports analogies, consider this: This year of 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Red Sox upsetting the baseball world in 1967 by winning the American League pennant after finishing in ninth place in 1966. Jack Ciattarelli, Carl Yastrzemski is waiting for you on the telephone.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.