Murphy and Ciattarelli Fail to Focus on Statewide Concerns of Suffering New Jerseyans

Phil Murphy and Jack Ciattarelli

While so much has changed in New Jersey and in the country over the past year-and-a-half, Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate is a reminder that a lot remains the same in politics. Two men stood behind the podiums. Both with business backgrounds and comfortable financial means. Neither personally experiencing the struggles thousands of New Jersey residents have had to endure during an unprecedented time in history. 

Incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli failed to thoughtfully focus on statewide concerns that continue to overwhelm New Jersey residents. Instead, they seemed to get more animated or defensive when discussing right or left issues. The popular phrase, “All politics is local” no longer seems to apply. National issues are now driving votes in statewide elections. 

But first, here’s what New Jersey residents are trying to overcome. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs during the pandemic. Others were forced to shut down their businesses. Restaurant owners, who were able to stay open, are still reeling from the pandemic’s economic blows. While the economy is picking up, many still find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Some homeowners are having to make the tough decision of selling their homes and leaving the state because of skyrocketing property taxes and the high cost of living in the Garden State. 

New Jersey residents, who had been trying to keep their heads above water even before the pandemic, continue to have to make hard choices like whether to buy food or to pay their rents. Residents who aren’t paying high property taxes feel the effects of a Jersey lifestyle in other areas. They’re forced to fork out cash for road tolls to get to and from work even if their bank accounts are running low. The cost of riding a bus or train isn’t any better, and there’s the constant fear of cramming into these small commuter spaces even if you are vaccinated against the Coronavirus. 

In addition, the tragic human toll of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the virus despite safe vaccines have left so many suffering emotionally. There’s also another heartbreaking problem that New Jersey hasn’t been able to fully tackle. Drug-related overdoses. They’re at an all-time high in the Garden State. The state’s also trying to grapple with racial inequities. Despite being labeled a “liberal state,” an InsiderNJ investigation discovered New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the nation. 

Murphy has addressed important issues like racial injustice and systemic racism. He’s also signed into law initiatives to help those in need, including a rental assistance program that’s doling out $144 million. The logic is the money will trickle down to landlords, who haven’t been paid. But some landlords continue to comment on the Governor’s Facebook page, saying they’re unable to collect rent and risk losing their buildings. So far, there are no state loans available to help those facing home foreclosures. During the debate, the Governor didn’t talk about skyrocketing property taxes that have forced many out of New Jersey and prevented others from fulfilling their dreams of home ownership.  

On the other hand, Ciattarelli mentioned taxes during the debate, repeating Murphy’s own phrase on tape saying if “you’re a one-issue voter and the tax rate is your issue, we’re probably not your state.” Ciattarelli has been running that Murphy video on most of his TV commercials. But Tuesday night, Ciattarelli didn’t fully explain his plan to fix the problem of rising property taxes, which fund school districts. 

Murphy and Ciattarelli briefly argued over issues like school mask mandates, LGBT inclusivity lesson plans in classrooms, the state’s legalization of Marijuana and New Jersey’s tragic COVID nursing homes deaths. In their defense, these TV debate formats rarely allow for much in-depth discussion. Murphy also blasted Ciattarelli for opposing vaccine mandates.

“Vaccinations do keep people alive,” Ciattarelli countered, “I am vaccinated. Do I believe government has the right to tell people to take a medicine — no I don’t.” 

But the conversation quickly took a Jersey-style U-turn back to national political talking points. For Ciattarelli, the exit wasn’t so helpful.

Reporter Amanda Hoover asked Ciattarelli about speaking at a rally where participants held “Stop the Steal” signs. That movement, along with former President Donald Trump, have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential Election but offered no proof of any voter irregularities. Ciattarelli said he was asked to speak at the event as a gubernatorial candidate, and that as far as he knows, it wasn’t a “Stop the Steal” rally. 

“I’ve said it from the very beginning — Joe Biden was the President, the legitimate President,”  Ciattarelli said. ”I said that before he was sworn in. I do think Donald Trump’s rhetoric is what led to the riot that took place on January 6th.

“I went there,” Ciattarelli added, “I didn’t see people in the kind of apparel we find offensive. I Didn’t see any of those signs. Let me say this. If they were there, I don’t think I should be held responsible. I never held the Governor responsible for attending rallies where people were  holding signs saying ‘Defund the Police’ or ‘No Justice, No Peace.’ I can’t be responsible for what a person does at a rally.” 

That’s when Murphy got angry. Real angry. 

“When did ‘No Justice, No Peace’ become controversial,” Murphy pointed out. “Listen, this rises to the level of disqualifying. Come on man, your picture and name were on the invitation. There’s video, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, of you standing there with a ‘Stop the Steal’ sign beside you. There were Confederate flags. There were White Supremacists. It’s the exact same cocktail that led to — it was January 6th, by the way.”

Some state Republican leaders were hoping for a discussion on national affairs, and this wasn’t exactly what they envisioned. Republicans like New Jersey State Senator Joe Pennacchio say President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan troop withdrawal was a complete failure and that the hasty pull out resulted in 13 U.S. Service Members being killed by a suicide bomber at Kabul Airport. Republicans also say despite the more than 100,000 Afghans and Americans rescued, Afghan allies and Americans were left behind. Republicans also describe the Biden Administration’s drone strike in Afghanistan, which killed innocent children, as a total disaster. Republicans also believe New Jersey suburban voters aren’t happy with the huge Federal spending plan Democrats have proposed.

“I think Jack’s going to win,” New Jersey State Senator Joe Pennacchio told me before Tuesday’s debate. “What gives me hope? Two things. Joe Biden is akin to watching paint dry on a wall. He excites no one. I can’t see Governor Murphy depending on Biden to get out the vote. People are not going to flock to the polls because they are energized by Joe Biden”

Republicans like Pennacchio question a recent Monmouth University poll giving Murphy a lead in the race and instead point to other polls.

“Murphy’s economic policies are way to the left,” Republican State Assemblyman Jon Bramnick added. “No one likes that except in Denmark.”

Democrats say the math, though, doesn’t add up to a Ciattarelli victory. There are more than a million more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans in the state. In 2020, many Independents jumped over to the Democratic Party. In fact, New Jersey has more Democrats than unaffiliated voters, according to New Jersey Division of Elections statistics. Still, Republicans say many Independents and those who jumped ship and became Democrats could vote for Ciattarelli. They say that scenario combined with a strong Republican voter base could give Ciattarelli a win. Democrats insist that sort of outcome is highly unlikely. 

“I think it’s extraordinarily difficult for a Republican to win statewide in New Jersey,” said John Wisniewski, a former gubernatorial candidate and former assemblyman. “What you have currently is a united and relatively peaceful Democratic Party — all pulling for Phil Murphy — and that is a very powerful force to come up against, when as a Republican, you are a minority in terms of (voter) registration, and it requires you to sweep every Independent vote to even have a shot. It becomes very mathematically challenging to understand a path to victory.”

Wisniewski also says most voters believe Murphy kept them safe during the pandemic.

“The mix of issues in this election season are perhaps more profound than in others,” Wisniewski pointed out. “Literally, a pandemic that is killing people and efforts to reduce those numbers is creating a response by some people, who are valuing their freedom over their own safety.” 

Republicans statewide and nationally have blasted Murphy for the 8,000 COVID deaths at New Jersey Long-term care facilities and nursing homes, including Veterans Homes that are state-run. 

“New Jersey leads the nation in nursing home deaths because Phil Murphy forced nursing homes to take in COVID-19 patients,” Ciattarelli said during the debate. 

“First of all, let’s acknowledge the scale of this tragedy,” Murphy pointed out. “Over 27,000 losses of life and the tragedy within the tragedy is long-term care and our blessed Veterans in New Jersey — was not unique. This happened all over the country and all over the world. With all due respect to the premise of your question, we were crystal clear by the term with which these residents, by the way this was their home — these New Jersey residents needed to be returned to their homes. They needed to be separated and this was crystal clear — by floor, by wing and by building. The staff that served them had to be separated.”

History shows Democratic Governors in New Jersey rarely get re-elected.  Pollster Peter Woolley, who is also the director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, says Ciattarelli doesn’t have the name recognition to win this race. 

“The challenger is simply unknown,” Woolley said. “The people who always pay attention will pay attention, the rest will ignore it or default to their party identification. Since a million more identify as Democratic, that makes it pretty tough for Republicans.”

Republicans, though, disagree and believe this might be their chance to get  back the Governor’s seat. We’ll have a better idea after the next debate.

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