Murphy Wins: Our View on the Second Gubernatorial Debate

The second debate proved much better for both gubernatorial candidates, but as we gave the edge to Republican Kim Guadagno last time, this last outing we felt Democrat Phil Murphy improved considerably and won the debate.

After a too-theatrical performance last week, Murphy corrected his behavior and seemed genuinely civil and good-willed and – most importantly – more attentive to the needs of all New Jerseyans. People can dismiss those qualities as evidence of an absence of toughness or pluck, but we disagree. It gets back to what Abraham Lincoln said about politics – for all the fighting arts it requires – as an opportunity to truly – amid real disagreements – undertake friendship with others in the public square. It’s so important, even critical – especially now, at a time when we have a President in the White House who appears to lack the most basic mental and civil fitness for the job of leading in a Democratic republic.

Guadagno showed grit, determination and preparation last night and more than exceeded expectations as a formidable foe for Murphy, who was supposed to walk over her in this general election cycle. He’s not doing that, by our reckoning, in part because of the sitting lieutenant governor’s ability to corner the issue of taxes and mostly effectively define Murphy as an out-of-touch millionaire who wants to raise taxes on hard-working New Jerseyans. We loved her latest ad, “Murphy’s Law,” which features a teacher in front of an attentive and dutifully responsive class expounding on a candidate who never encountered a tax he couldn’t hike. “It’s Murphy’s Law,” exclaims the teacher. Funny and effective. But there’s more to it. Quite a bit more, in point of cold fact.

In the words of former City of Passaic mayoral candidate Carl Ellen, a local bail bondsman, “People, we are on the banks of the River Jordan.” We’ve got an underfunded public pension system of nearly $50 billion. We have received 11 credit downgrades. We have people fleeing the state because they cannot afford to live here. Many New Jerseyans we know are in a holding pattern, ready to make the leap across the border at the first opportunity. They daily size up the benefits of a local school system that serves their children versus crushing property taxes that have them teetering at the brink of ruin. Or they are somewhere experiencing the horrors of a school that is mediocre or worse – dangerous for their children, somewhere in a barely inhabitable neighborhood. It is, as usual, a tale of two cities in New Jersey, where we have an underfunded public education system – by some $9 billion. Worse, though, it’s separate and unequal. We also have over 700,000 people in the public pension system who daily live in fear that their pension monies will disappear. Gov. Chris Christie demeaned these people and scapegoated them as the problem, some of them the best we ever had in New Jersey, now in their golden years called out in the crassest terms as the enemy. Our transportation system? Don’t get me started. Trips that took an hour now take two hours.

Murphy has gone too far in making promises to public labor groups. Guadagno’s right about that. We also cannot afford to have sanctuary cities in this state with undocumented workers and their children enjoying the finest facilities money can buy while citizens in small suburban towns pay exorbitant property taxes to fund inadequate schools. We agree with Jack Ciattarelli, who kicked off his ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in former factory town Manville, noting the injustice of a local school system underfunded by $14 million, where school children use the town’s former library for classroom space.

But Murphy, we feel, has rightly identified a millionaire’s tax as one of the means by which we have to incrementally and gradually get back to financial solvency. Bullies like Trump and Christie love to pick fights with the weakest person in the room. It’s built into the fiber of who they are. It’s more difficult to pick a fight with  millionaires, who should never be scapegoated as a group, and whom we value, obviously, in part, yes, because they contribute critically to job creation. But we are in a crisis, and when in crisis, people have to sacrifice, including those with means. We’ve never loved Murphy’s storyline as a Goldman Sachs guy with no experience in elected office, but he does have the chance to prove himself a New Jersey version of Franklin D. Roosevelt – a traitor to his class – if he manages to convincingly make the case for why the “wealthiest among us” as he says, almost laughably at times, need to pay more. Will millionaires simply continue to flee? Yes, they will, along with everyone else, but leadership will require making the case in a way that appeals to, yes, as former Vice President Joe Biden once said, a sense of patriotism.

Murphy wants to legalize marijuana. Guadagno doesn’t.

We agree with Murphy.

We have prisons crammed with people, mostly minorities, and many of them there on nonviolent offenses. We need to put an end to the madness – and the stress on our criminal justice system.

We understand what Guadagno said last night when she criticized Murphy as disingenuous for referring to the marijuana as a social justice matter rather than what he originally said it was: another way to raise a total of $1.3 billion in new revenues. Most estimates we’ve seen have put the dollar amount for pot legalization tax revenue at $300 to $400 million.

But the fact that Murphy even mentions social justice demonstrates a critical part of his message – and, we hope, commitment – that Guadagno simply lacks. Several times last night, Murphy mentioned the African American communities in our state, a constituency he needs to win the election. Guadagno’s campaign deserves credit for turning this into a dogfight. The polls show it to be a double digit lead for Murphy. We believe it’s closer right now. The atmosphere  – that overriding fear of higher property taxes in an overtaxed state along with vast stretches of public apathy – makes a footrace seem almost inevitable.

But here’s really what it comes down to, in our view.

Guadagno has been part of the Christie Administration for eight years, and while the governor has mocked his way through governance, she has remained muzzled; duct taped on the rubber chicken circuit while Christie pursued the presidency. The LG hit her stride last night for the first time, but mostly it’s been a case of her not really having a handle on her public voice.

That’s not training for the job when we have a lunatic like Trump in the White House.

We’re not crazy about having another Goldman Sachs guy in Drumthwacket. Frankly, we think it’s a lamentable situation, mostly brought on by a Democratic Party too lazy to recruit its own party people, and too cynical to believe that any of its own people really have value. What good is a party that doesn’t look to its own elected official ranks come clutch time? Not much, which is why you see Citizen United PACs dominating the money game and party organizations losing ground by the cycle. They won’t be around much longer at this rate, and Jeff Brindle of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) has been saying that for years.

But…

We cannot afford in this state – not a single one of us – to put in the chair of power someone who’s been silent with Christie as governor, because what it will mean is having Donald Trump as President of the United States and worse – governor of my beloved New Jersey. Whatever Guadagno’s strengths, and we saw some of them on display last night, she doesn’t have the record of standing up to New Jersey’s favorite bully to now stand up to the President.

Murphy is a self-made man.

Again, we would prefer elected office experience on that resume. And frankly we would prefer – if he must come from business – that he built his own business – not come from the bureaucracy, like someone else we all knew – of a too-big-to-fail bank like Goldman Sachs.

But it’s his story, and now it’s the only story that stands between New Jersey and a Trump takeover.

Guadagno landed numerous shots last night, and we give her credit, but as she came off a week of pandering to the National Rifle Association for gun money to fund her campaign effort in the aftermath of the worst gun massacre in the country’s history, Murphy last night showed something that we now desperately crave as a civic body: civility. That’s politics, people. Not to mirror the thousand agonies out there with a flare of similarly emotionally wrought anger. But to attempt to revolve it with discourse. We are tired of Christie’s and Trump’s despicably bad manners. Class counts. And Murphy throughout his time in public life has consistently proved himself a gentleman. We may not agree with him on everything, or even, finally, much, but as we have noted, we agree on some foundational elements of his plan, most significantly an instinct for requiring the powerful to pay more to help those of our more vulnerable populations. We refuse to oversimplify. Whoever gets the governorship will have an enormous job. We all know that. Perhaps New Jersey will prove ungovernable, any of Murphy’s or Guadagno’s efforts ravaged by a Democratic Party at war with itself. But Murphy last night positioned himself as a man unafraid – in these times of peril and crass self-interest – to smile – and to invoke the names of those leaders who have inspired us in the past, the Kennedys, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

We need to be inspired.

Can Murphy do it?

Probably not.

InsiderNJ last night called numerous people in both parties immediately following the debate – these are people who do politics for a living, junkies! – and to a person they had not watched. Chairs of parties – apparently too disinterested to switch over to Murphy versus Guadagno – even just during the commercials portion of the Yankees-Astros game.

People are tired.

They don’t believe.

But we must fight cynicism.

We must fight mean-spiritedness.

Get off the couches.

Baseball’s fun.

This is life and death.

We must, as U.S. Senator Cory Booker has always insisted, again quoting Lincoln, on finding the “better angels of our nature.”

It’s crunch time, people.

We have to decide.

Murphy, for all his flaws, looked better equipped to be that person for now, with the weight of darkness pressing down – not only on our state – but on our country.

 

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