The Final Lap: Ciattarelli and the New Jersey Politics of Race

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg argues that there is hope for the New Jersey Republican Party to capture the governorship in 2021 if former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is the nominee, provided he can overcome the anti-Republican landscape prevailing in the Garden State.

Traditionally, Columbus Day, celebrated this Monday, October 11, 2021, marks the beginning of the last lap of the gubernatorial campaign.  This year, a debate will be held the day after Columbus Day between incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli.  As the candidates approach the last lap, there are two political demographic considerations that are shaping the final outcome.

The first demographic consideration  is the overwhelming percentage of Democratic voters supporting Phil Murphy, approximately 90 percent in both the Monmouth Poll, the gold standard of New Jersey polls, and the Stockton University Poll, which is rapidly climbing in stature in the Nate Silver Rating of Polls.

There are currently one million more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey.  As long as Murphy continues to hold this lead among Democrats, it is numerically impossible for Ciattarelli to win, regardless of how well the GOP challenger performs among Republicans and Independents.

The second demographic consideration is Ciattarelli’s total inability to win the support of African-American voters.  Among this constituency, he trails Murphy 87-4 in the Monmouth Poll and 73-7 in the Stockton Poll.

The message from these two polls is clear:  In order for Jack Ciattarelli to become competitive with Phil Murphy in the closing days of the campaign, he will have to attract the support of massive numbers of White Democratic voters.  He has no hope of gaining increased support from Black Democrats, who suffered through four years of Trump racism and will never support Trump supporter Jack Ciattarelli, especially after they learned that he spoke at a Trumpist Stop-the-Steal rally.

So the question is: What will Ciattarelli’s particular message to New Jersey White Democratic voters be?

Jack Ciattarelli is not a racist or a bigot. He will not attempt to foment or arouse anti-African-American hatred among White New Jersey Democrats.  He is not a 21st century version of Tony Imperiale.

But Jack Ciattarelli is well-aware that among white, working-class New Jersey Democrats, there are many who, while not racist themselves, harbor racially-motivated grievances and resentments, based upon their perception that African-Americans are receiving and may continue to receive unwarranted special assistance.  Forms of such “special assistance” include increased school aid, the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the public school system, and affirmative-action assistance to African-Americans seeking private sector employment.

The white Democrats harboring racially-based grievances and resentments are a definite minority among all white Democrat voters.  My personal view is that these perceptions are inaccurate, stemming from a lack of knowledge as to how many serious obstacles remain in the way of African-Americans attaining their American dream.

I also do not believe there is a sufficient number of such New Jersey racially aggrieved White Democrats to swing the election to Jack Ciattarelli.  Yet after watching the Murphy-Ciattarelli debate on September 28 and listening to Ciattarelli’s appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC-AM radio on September 29, I have no doubt that these are the white Democrats that are the focus of Jack Ciattarelli’s attention and appeals.

There is a danger to the body politic in the Ciattarelli message to these voters. These appeals consist of the same Trumpist rhetoric Republican candidates use to appeal to Trumpist base voters.

And such rhetoric has the ultimate effect of racially polarizing New Jerseyans, making it all the more difficult for Jack to govern effectively in the highly unlikely event of a Ciattarelli come-from-behind upset.

There are four examples of recent Ciattarelli racially polarizing rhetoric and/or positions that stand out in this regard.

The first was Ciattarelli’s opposition to Critical Race Theory as he set forth at the September 28 debate, as amplified by him after the debate as follows:

“I don’t believe we should be teaching students that white people perpetuate systemic racism or that the white student is the oppressor or the Black and brown student is the oppressed.”

Unfortunately, with this statement, Ciattarelli is blatantly denying the essential truth about Black-White relations in America.  And as Phil Murphy noted in response to his statement, we should not be afraid of teaching our progeny the truth about race in America.  The Governor’s response, as follows, was one of the high points of his campaign:

“…. with all my heart, we need to teach our kids the whole truth and nothing but the truth…You have to teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth, including about slavery, oppression, racism in our country’s history.”

On the Critical Race Theory issue, Murphy has chosen to take the high road, while Ciattarelli is opting for the low road.  In New Jersey, the high road usually wins.

The next Ciattarelli assertion relevant to racially motivated grievances was an insinuation he made in response to a comment by Brian Lehrer regarding the massive economic inequalities faced by Americans of Color.  Lehrer’s comment was as follows:

…the median wealth for a white family in New Jersey is around 352,000 dollars. For a black New Jersey family $6,000 and 7,000 for Latinos. 80% of white families in the state owned their own home, just 40% of blacks and Latinos. Newark, Camden and Paterson rank among the poorest cities in America.

Ciattarelli’s response was as follows:

If you go back 100 years, those very same statistics might have been applied to the Italian immigrants, the Polish immigrants, the Jewish immigrants, that all came to the United States.

Now I find this Ciattarelli assertion to be an offensive insinuation and restatement of the following words I often heard during my childhood and adolescence from Jews of my parents’ generation (although not my parents themselves):

“We made it – why can’t they (African-Americans)?”

I am a Jewish activist, proud of my heritage, and dedicated to fighting antisemitism wherever it may exist and however virulent it may be. One of my proudest accomplishments of my governmental / political career was my crafting of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Act while I served as an Assembly Republican Senior Policy Advisor back in 1993.

But when it comes to America, the hardships faced by African-Americans have always been far worse than those faced by Jews. My grandparents and great-grandparents came to America of their own free will, and while they faced discrimination, it was nothing compared to that faced by African-Americans, who had come 250 years earlier, as slaves and in chains.

The preservation and enhancement of the African-American-Jewish alliance is a major priority of my personal and political life. The Ciattarelli insinuation makes my task more difficult.

The most noteworthy Ciattarelli initiative having an implicit, if not explicit message to racially aggrieved white Democratic voters is his real estate tax / education funding proposal. This measure, despite Ciattarelli’s denials, has the unmistakable impact of providing more real estate tax relief to suburban whites at the expense of African-American urban residents.

During the remaining few weeks of the campaign, this may be the most racially polarizing issue. The irony is that based upon the New Jersey Supreme Court Abbott v. Burke decision, this Ciattarelli proposal may be found to be unconstitutional.

The final controversy that arose at Ciattarelli’s appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show was his unwillingness to answer the host’s question regarding Jack’s definition of “white privilege” This was a term originally coined by the famous Harvard Ph.D sociologist Peggy McIntosh in her 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

While Ciattarelli declined to answer the “white privilege” question, his running mate, Diane Allen gave an excellent answer in her lieutenant-governor debate with the incumbent, Sheila Oliver, as follows:

“I suppose white privilege is the fact that for many people who are white, we are able to accomplish things and do things thinking we’re doing it on our own, when in fact, perhaps we’re doing it because we’re being given a little leeway because of our color.  Most of us are probably not aware of that as it happens.” 

Allen added that kids should learn about slavery and the nation’s history, but that it should be done in a way that brings people together.

It is a core mission of any New Jersey governor, to confront the basic racial issues and sociology upon taking the oath of office.  Jack Ciattarelli’s refusal to answer the white privilege question indicates that he is not ready or able to deal with the state’s continuing issues of race.  By contrast, Diane Allen, by her answer, demonstrates a readiness and high competency in this regard, qualities almost impossible to find in a New Jersey statewide Republican candidate in this era of Trumpism.

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.

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  • Kathleen Demarest

    ………………..………CONCERNED
    I have heard and read often about these million plus Democratic voters in
    New Jersey, but they have to be motivated to vote. It doesn’t seem to be
    high on their list of priorities.
    It is number 1 on my list, but I can’t elect Governor Murphy on my own,
    would that I could.

    The MAGA group, the anti- maskers, the closet racists, etc.have a purpose.
    They will vote.

    Alan Steinberg, you live in a world far different than mine; in your world
    everyone lives, breathes politics. In mine, not so much.
    Although I think they should, not everyone in New Jersey reads InsiderNj
    Columns. Enough with informative columns, start pushing, perhaps scaring
    reluctant, complacent Democratic voters out the door with ballet in hand
    to the mailbox or to the voting booth.

    LET’S NOT CLAP OUR HANDS IN VICTORY UNTIL VICTORY IS WON!!!

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