Gubernatorial Debates that Mattered: 1977, 1981, and 1993 

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg shares conversations with former Governor Jim Florio, who says that Donald Trump is unfit to be president and he plans to endorse Joe Biden, as he is the most electable Democratic candidate.

The New Jersey gubernatorial race has become much closer, certainly to an extent that political commentators, including myself, did not foresee a month ago.  There are three reasons for this, one a positive factor regarding Republican candidate Kim Guadagno and two significant negative factors regarding Democratic candidate Phil Murphy.

First and foremost, after a rocky start, the Guadagno general election campaign is now message focused and operationally sound.  I give much of the credit to Chris LaCivita, the nationally renowned consultant hired by the Guadagno campaign after the primary.  Kim also projects very well in the campaign commercials.

Second, by committing to a tax hike of $1.3 billion, Phil Murphy has established himself as the Walter Mondale of 2017.  In 1984, the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale presidential race was competitive until Mondale promised a tax hike at the San Francisco Democratic National Convention.  Despite Murphy’s protestations that his income tax rate increases will only impact the wealthy, nobody really believes that.  Voters know that income tax hikes on the wealthy almost always inexorably work their way downward to lower bracket taxpayers as well.

Third, while Phil Murphy is a highly intelligent individual, in political terms, he is remarkably maladroit.  The world of Wall Street did not prepare Murphy at all for the street fighting world of New Jersey politics.  He has a political glass jaw, as exhibited most graphically by his tax hike promise and the way he seems flummoxed by the Democratic power player struggles over the position of Speaker of the Assembly.

Indeed, there is a perfect boxing analogy to apply to Phil Murphy.  He is Floyd Patterson: a skilled light heavyweight who, as a heavyweight, was punching above his weight class and had a glass jaw, resulting in genuine heavyweights knocking him down with the greatest of ease.

Nevertheless, Kim Guadagno continues to trail Phil Murphy by a double-digit margin.   The reason, more than anything else, is the double albatross of Chris Christie and Donald Trump.

The debates offer an opportunity for Kim Guadagno to deliver a solid message: “I’m neither Chris Christie nor Donald Trump.  I can make New Jersey more affordable and prosperous.”

New Jersey political history has three significant examples of the debates providing the opportunity for trailing candidates to begin to turn around a substantial deficit in the polls and emerge as the winner: 1977, 1981, and 1993.  Each of these examples, discussed below, are most encouraging to Kim Guadagno.

1977

After winning a landslide victory in 1973, in which he said that he saw no need for a state income tax, Brendan Byrne had to confront a painful reality: The New Jersey Supreme Court decisions in the Robinson v. Cahill cases, requiring that New Jersey enact a more equitable and efficient way of funding education, rather than sole reliance on the property tax.

Accordingly, after a Supreme Court-compelled closure of the schools, Byrne and the Democratic legislature enacted New Jersey’s first income tax in July, 1976.  They really had no alternative.  Since Byrne had implicitly promised that he would not support an income tax, its enactment resulted in a massive decline in Byrne’s popularity, down to a single digit approval rating. Republicans labeled him as “One term Byrne.”

Going into the 1977 campaign, New Jersey’s major political pundits gave Brendan Byrne virtually no chance for reelection.  He won the primary in an eight-candidate field with only a 30.3 percent share of the vote. The Republican nominee, the highly respected state Senator Ray Bateman, had a firm double-digit margin at the outset of the campaign.  In Trenton, people were referring to him as “Governor Bateman.” 

Under the guidance of the brilliant David Garth, Byrne then embarked on the most brilliantly strategized campaign in New Jersey political history.  His message was that he was wrong to say in 1973 that New Jersey did not need an income tax, but that he was not wrong for enacting one.  Byrne then challenged Ray Bateman to propose a viable alternative.

Bateman then committed the equivalent of political suicide with his proposal of a plan that called for nuisance taxes and a sales tax increase to fund education and make up for the revenue lost due to the elimination of the income tax.  It was obvious that the plan would result in property tax increases as well.  The plan was co-authored with former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Simon and became known as the Bateman-Simon plan.  Byrne cleverly nicknamed it with the first initials of each of the co-authors – “BS”.

The debates served as the arena where Byrne absolutely shredded the Bateman-Simon plan to pieces.  It was obvious that Bateman himself, a legislator of great integrity and competence, didn’t believe in his own plan.

Bateman began the debates ahead in all the polls, but he finished the debates behind by a double-digit margin.  During that same campaign time period, the state sent to taxpayers the first property tax rebate checks.   Byrne won reelection by a fourteen percent margin.  Anybody who believes that gubernatorial debates make no difference should study the 1977 campaign.

1981

Democratic Congressman Jim Florio and Republican Former Assembly Speaker Tom Kean emerged as their respective gubernatorial primary victors.  The conventional wisdom was that Florio would win.  He was the author of the landmark Superfund legislation.  In South Jersey, he was adored as a virtual political Sir Galahad.  By contrast, Kean was portrayed in the media as an out-of-touch aristocrat of noble birth. Furthermore, the policies of the incumbent President Ronald Reagan, then in his first year, were unpopular, despite the fact that Reagan was personally very well liked.

In the first two of three debates, however, Kean proved that the depiction of him was wrong.  Tom Kean is an individual of deep sincere personal concern for people of all walks of life, and that came through.  In terms of the content of what was said, both candidates performed well in the first two debates, with Kean focusing on the record of the unpopular incumbent Byrne administration.  This made Kean appear much less ad hominem than Florio.

Yet it was in the third debate that Florio made a stylistic error that in a very close election had to make a critical difference.

The third debate was held in Florio’s South Jersey bailiwick, at the then Glassboro State College, today Rowan University.  The overwhelmingly pro-Florio crowd cheered him and greeted Kean with appalling rudeness, booing him and heckling him at every turn.

Florio did nothing to urge his crowd to be courteous.  In fact, he encouraged the rudeness when he acerbically ridiculed Kean’s mispronunciation of South Jersey’s Delsea Drive as “Delvea” Drive.

In an election decided by only 1,797 votes, Florio’s demeanor at the third debate was certainly enough to alienate a sufficient number of voters to affect the final outcome. 

1993 

Jim Florio was then a very unpopular governor, due to his income and sales tax hikes.   Nevertheless, a New York Times poll released on September 27, 1993 declared him 21 points ahead of Republican challenger Christie Whitman. 

The reason for Florio’s lead was his sharply negative anti-Whitman commercials run throughout the month of September, 1993.  These commercials attempted to portray Whitman as an out-of-touch, superficial dilettante.  In fact, one of these commercials used the phrase “out to lunch” in describing her. 

The first debate was held on October 8, 1993.  In that debate and in the subsequent two debates, Whitman totally discredited the Florio campaign’s negative portrait of her. 

The television audience had been led by the Florio commercials to believe that Whitman would be demolished in the debates.  To be sure, Florio performed very well in the three debates, as expected.  But Whitman performed equally as well, persuading voters who disliked Florio that in Christie Whitman, they had a viable and competent alternative. 

In 1977, 1981, and 1993, the debates were clear factors in the success of the victorious candidates.  In 2017, the debates are critical for Kim Guadagno’s hopes for a miracle victory.  

I remember very well how Republican players throughout New Jersey in 1993 deserted the Whitman campaign after the news of the aforesaid New York Times poll.  The Whitman comeback resulting from her debate performance in that campaign is a beacon of hope for Kim Guadagno as she approaches the debates.  As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” 

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. 

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One response to “Gubernatorial Debates that Mattered: 1977, 1981, and 1993 ”

  1. None of those races had these two words: Trump, Christie.

    And the state voted Republican on the presidential level in those days. More Democratic today.

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