Seldom does substance align with politics in today’s era of anonymous Facebook posting and virtual anger, where ugliness prevails as constituencies dissolve into complacency and elected officials run from real rhetoric, or run to concocted slogans in the 11th hour to spare themselves a defining and well-considered stance. But after a quietly nasty, empty season of YouTube ads and TV mudslinging, substance and politics strangely merged tonight against the backdrop of enduring crisis as the 2021 Gubernatorial Contest came alive in a hard-hitting, raucous first debate on ABC News.
The debate showed two candidates equally possessed of a tough and educated New Jersey style, clearly delineating their views in unsparing fashion, clashing throughout but in a civil, thoughtful and well-spoken vein.
Each tried to depict the other as an extremist, as Democratic incumbent Governor Phil Murphy seized on Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli’s speaking role at a “Stop the Steal” rally to tie his rival to President Donald J. Trump and an insurrectionary right-wing mob. For his part, Ciattarelli hammered at Murphy’s reluctance to talk about property taxes and noted the state’s inflated budget, an $11 billion jump from the years of former Republican Governor Chris Christie.
Both candidates’ views or records on New Jersey’s most vulnerable populations jumped right to the fore of the discussion, as Ciattarelli criticized Murphy for his handing of the pandemic, specifically pointing to 8,000 nursing home deaths our a third of all COVID-19 casualties, and Murphy objected to the Republican’s comments about children not being vulnerable to the virus.
Ciattarelli said he didn’t quite express himself clearly when he spoke on the topic, and clarified that the delta variant is indeed different from COVID, but Murphy throughout strove to underscore Ciattarelli’s propensity to have it both ways on COVID-19: publicly professing support for the vaccine, but also campaigning without a mask at GOP primary events.
On another occasion, as Ciattarelli sought to depict Murphy as anti-women, based in part on the Katie Brennan scandal, Murphy said he had apologized to Brennan and did so again tonight. The subject came up repeatedly during the hour-long debate, as Murphy brought up Ciattarelli votes in the assembly n opposition to Planned Parenthood funding, and Ciattarelli noting Murphy’s backing for a bill that would allow legal abortions at seven months.
“This has been the most anti-woman governor we’ve had,” Ciattarelli said.
“A guy who votes to defund planned Parenthood ain’t a governor for women, period,” Murphy shot back.
The men disagreed on Tropical Storm Ida, which claimed the lives of 30 New Jerseyans last month. Murphy took the occasion to speak about climate change and brand Ciattarelli as late to the game on the subject; while Ciattarelli expressed his dismay over the governor’s specific crisis response to Ida.
The men disagreed too on law enforcement, with the challenger using the Police Benevolent Association’s decision to forgo a gubernatorial endorsement this year to skewer the incumbent as anti-cop; while Murphy talked about the delicate balance between individual rights and public safety and said Ciattarelli, the self-professed law and order candidate, should have snagged the endorsement. Murphy noted that he had two other police endorsements, even if he lacked backing from the PBA.
“Demoralized cops with curfews at the Jersey Shore,” bewailed Ciattarelli.
As an assemblyman in the Christie years, Ciattarelli “rubber stamped Chris Christie’s agenda,” the governor said.
In a clash on property taxes, Ciattarelli said people would never hear Murphy talk about property taxes and bemoaned an existing schools funding formula that sends Abbot aid to towns like Hoboken at the expense of other had-working, cash-strapped New Jersey communities.
Murphy – who already secured a millionaire’s tax during his tenure – pledged not to raise taxes over the course of the next four years should voters return him to office.
As the sparred over their respective baggage, real and otherwise, Ciattarelli defended his presence at the Stop the Steal rally.
“I didn’t see those signs; I can’t be held responsible,” he said.
When the Republican challenger said he never held Murphy responsible for marching or appearing at rallies where signs like “No Justice, No Peace” appear, Murphy pounced. “When did no justice no peace become controversial?” the governor wanted to know. “Your picture and name were on the invitation.”
Tangled up with his rival, Ciattarelli umped on the occasion to pivot to his favorite issue.
Murphy said if taxes are not your issue, “New Jersey’s probably not your state,” and again dug the incumbent.
The final stretch of the debate featured some more defining moments for both men as Ciattarelli objected to teaching children that white people perpetuate systemic racism and pressed for more consideration of the golden rule as a core lesson, and Murphy advocating for the whole grim truth in classrooms. Murphy zinged his opponent hard when Ciattarelli tried to explain his campaign trail comments about not wanting “sodomy” taught to children in schools – a subject better left to “kitchen tables.”
“There’s a lot going on at your kitchen table,” Murphy grinned, then grew grim as he chastised the Republican for using “sodomy” as a dog whistle.
Ciattarelli toward the finale criticized the governor’s support for recreational marijuana legalization, and reiterated his own support for decriminalization. The way Democrats rammed legalization through has created buyer’s remorse in the state, as evidenced by many municipalities passing ordinances banning the siting of marijuana dispensaries in their towns.
At the end of the clash (they will meet again on Oct. 12th in their second and final on-stage collision), Ciattarelli crossed the stage to shake hands with Murphy, who greeted him warmly.