An uncivilized crowd repeatedly threatening to erupt into a mob drowned out the candidates for governor in a debate tonight as Governor Phil Murphy and his challenger Jack Ciattarelli did their best to wade through the boos, catcalls and screamed epithets.
“A debate has broken out at a hockey game,” Democrat Murphy groaned at one point.
The NJTV crew did a good job of preventing bedlam, but from the get-go the audience demonstrated a lack of decorum, and Murphy could barely make himself heard as the crowd deviously cycloned him.
Republican Ciattarelli tried to break into Murphy’s lead by projecting placid reserve, as his supporters appeared to rattle Murphy on more than one occasion.
“The reason you can’t hear me is because your supporters are applauding,” NJTV moderator David Cruz told Ciattarelli at one point.
But the Republican had bigger problems than controlling his own people, as he struggled to explain his position on COVID-19 masking and vaccines.
“I would like to see people get vaccinated,” said the Republican nominee.
Murphy pounced on that point.
“The debate is a difference between moving forward or slipping back to the bad old days,” Murphy said. “The tragedy is there is a play back.”
Ciattarelli doesn’t support masking mandates for children.
He tried to turn the debate around on the governor, who attended an indoor conference “in which nobody was wearing masks.”
“I do think our leadership needs to be consistent,” the Republican chastised.
Murphy said he was on a stage at the event, and that he had provided 227 COVID updates the same way.
“He was at a large indoor gathering” in defiance of CDC guidelines, Ciattarelli persisted.
“Early on statewide steps as we reopened the school year, the reality of the pandemic was that it was different depending on which part of the state you were in,” Murphy said moments later, as he explained his schools shutdown policies. “We have over 600 school districts, we had the ability to be flexible.”
Pressed for which specific programs he would cut, Ciattarelli was vague.
“I will sit down on day one with the legislature and we will have that conversation,” he said.
Murphy blamed Ciattarelli for being a Republican elected official in state government during the years of Governor Chris Christie.
“You were there,” Murphy taunted.
Then Ciattarelli got tough tough with him.
“The budget is up $11 billion,” said the challenger. “If he had cut property taxes in half, I wouldn’t have run for governor, I would have endorsed him.”
Murphy fought back. The current $4.2 billion is spoken for; on its way the $3.8 billion in American Rescue Plan money.
Ciattarelli staked his public policy claim as an opponent of the current schools funding formula.
“I’m not going to leave any child behind, even though I think there is room for much improvement,” he said, promising he would not continue to send Abbott School Aid to cities like Jersey City and Hoboken, where millionaires live, while places like Toms River, Hillsborough and Parsippany endure cuts.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t realize million dollar homes pay less than a $400,000 home,” he said. “We need a flatter and fairer formula.”
Murphy tried to turn that into a GOP war on “Black and Brown” underprivileged children.
“If you’re a black or brown kid out there, you’re going to get the rug pulled out from under you,” the Democrat said.
Ciattarelli swung back with a nod to Christie’s favorite education subject: charter schools.
“He hasn’t approved a single charter school for the City of Newark where two-thirds of people want charter schools,” Ciattarelli said of Murphy.
The governor merely made a face.
Ciattarelli tried to explain his wobbly positions on former President Donald J. Trump.
After calling Trump a charlatan, he backed him in 2020, and tonight tried to laugh it off by saying his wife had called him worse names.
“We know how politics can work; once he was elected, I wanted him to be successful,” said the challenger. “Our second child is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.”
He insisted he disagreed with the president on key policies.
“We don’t want offshore drilling, we want Gateway, and we want our SALT deduction back,” he ssaid, and offered the following when asked if he would welcome Trump in to campaign for him:
“I’m not into other people campaigning for me. I go out and meet with the people of New Jersey every day of the week. I’ll win my own election.”
Murphy tangled with Cruz on marijuana expungements.
“We’ve expunged 362,000 [cases],” the governor said, insisting that his motivation to legalize marijuana went to the heart of a search for social justice and an end to tormenting people for low-end drug crimes.
On a question about what a Supreme Court would look like with Governor Ciattarelli in charge, the challenger said, “We need balance on our court. I’m not for a litmus test, but… we have flaws in the Mount Laurel housing decision. The way we do it is nuts. It flies in the face of climate change [priorities].”
Ciattarelli next fielded a question on his stance on a woman’s right to choose. He directed the focus on what he described as a too activist-minded and extreme Murphy Adminitration.
“No one supports their daughter seeking an abortion in months seven, eight or nine,” he said, in opposition to proposed legislation backed by Murphy. “I do not believe Roe v. Wade will be overturned. I support a woman’s right to choose.”
“I’m not expecting that with this Trump-packed Supreme Court,” Murphy shot back.
Ciattarelli and Murphy got briefly wrapped up on a question about white privilege.
“We need to revitalize our black communities; the governor just announced a diversity study,” said the Republican. “Have whites had access to things that people of color have not, yes, that’s a sad fact. I believe I am addressing it economic development, healthcare, solving the food desert.”
Murphy exclaimed in response:
“White privilege is real, let’s accept it, sadly; we’re the most diverse state in America.”
Ciattarelli looked on in bewilderment.
The governor’s remark somewhat exactly mirrored Ciattarelli’s, with a squeeze of outrage.
While People’s Organization for Progress Founder Larry Hamm leads a march from Montclair to Trenton in pursuit of a Civilian Complaint Review Board, neither candidate appeared eager to embrace the concept as presented.
They both tried to sidestep the question.
“This governor and his attorney general are the most anti police we’ve ever had,” said Ciattarelli, who backs law enforcement reforms, including more women, more black and brown community policing programs.
However, “I’m very fearful of a number of programs, such as getting rid of qualified immunity and civilian complaint review boards.”
Murphy made sure to correct the record on police.
“There is one candidate who has multiple endorsements from police unions, that’s me,” said the governor.
Regarding civilian complaint review boards with subpoena power: “I don’t think there’s one size fits all. I would take it on a case by case basis.”
The bill in the legislature would enable municipalities to create review boards.
As the debate wound down, Murphy bragged about his aggressive climate change combat plan, and swatted prodigiously at the previous administration.
“The mess within the mess that was NJ Transit,” he railed.
“We’ve done it without raising one dime paid by commuters over the past four years,” Murphy added of his administration’s attempts to rectify NJ Transit. “It was pathetic what we inherited. Held up as the gold standard, it had been ruined by the previous administration.”
Ciattarelli sought a moment.
“You asked for the job,” he told Murphy, addressing him face to face. “You knew what we were getting ourselves into and yet we hear repeatedly it was either the former governor’s or Donald Trump’s fault. I promise not to blame the Murphy Administration.”
He seemed too comfortable unflappable by that point, at least until the crowd swamped him during his closing statement.