In Fair Lawn on Thursday, October 28, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli made a stop at the Athletic Club just off the town’s main drag. Ciattarelli’s town hall was, in every sense, a traditional, suburban style piece of political show that could have easily been from the pre-Trump years.
For a man like Jack Ciattarelli, by all accounts a moderate Republican, that kind of theme is one he doubtless wants to further cultivate. Few were the red MAGA hats, one attendee was even sporting a Reagan/Bush 1984 hat. What Jack did have, however, was a room packed with supporters where every seat was taken and the walls were lined. (Fortunately for Jack, he has had his COVID vaccine, and encouraged others to do so as well.) “Number one, I’m vaccinated. I promoted my vaccination, and I encourage you to get vaccinated. But know this. I don’t believe government has a right to tell you that you have to take a vaccine.” The Murphy administration has denied planning for more robust vaccine mandates, but Republicans do not put much stock in this.
The town hall was, overall, a demonstration of apple pie Republicanism, or what Ciattarelli called “common sense conservativism.” Often lighthearted, Ciattarelli cracked a number of jokes—most of them at Murphy’s expense to the crowd’s delight—he related his own family history of hard-working people who earned their way and were never resentful of others’ success. Any zing at the governor was met with cheers and applause, as one would expect, as he extolled the virtues of hard work and personal responsibility. Absent was conspiracy mongering, churlishness, scapegoating, and tellingly, any mention of the previous president.
Ciattarelli worked the crowd well and, by all accounts, made an excellent demonstration of what New Jersey Republicans used to be.
But the sound was cutting in and out in the beginning. “This microphone is being as uncooperative as Phil Murphy has been for the last four years,” Ciattarelli said to applause before being given a new mic.
Technical details now sorted, Ciattarelli stepped up to the plate and took a swing at the governor. “In my experience, in my life in business, sports, and politics, when the other side starts calling you names, that saying something. He’s been calling me all kinds of names, but in five days, I’ve got a new one he call me: Governor-elect.”
Some rare red meat for the Republicans was promptly laid on the table, drawing on the national attention Phil Murphy has tried to garner for his campaign. “So let’s see now, over the past two weeks, who’s come to New Jersey? He brought in Joe Biden and he brings in Barack Obama—I’m OK with this—he brought in Bernie Sanders. Guys, he can bring in the ghost of FDR.”
Many political insiders as well as those who are careful observers have suspected that Phil Murphy has aspirations for federal office, whether to make his own presidential run or have a White House position in the future. Such was the undoing of Chris Christie who became something of an absent governor while he was campaigning, ultimately unsuccessfully, in the Republican primaries. If Murphy is hoping to further nationalize his brand by bringing in the support of the likes of Biden, Obama, and Sanders, then Ciattarelli let the audience know that he harbors no such ambitions of his own. The message was perfectly clear: he was someone they could trust would be concerned about their New Jersey issues, rather than turning an eye towards DC. “All I care about is New Jersey. Let me make one thing perfectly clear, I do not want to be US senator, I do not want to be president, and I don’t want to write a book. I just want to be governor of the state.”
This was one of many ways in which Ciattarelli sought to shape the message as a choice between an out of touch, ultra-liberal from out of state tied to Wall Street, and a homegrown son of the Garden State who built his successes through small business and who actually understands the typical New Jerseyans’ concerns. “You know what this guy’s problem is? He wasn’t raised here. Never went to school here. Never worked here. Never owned a business here. He’s not Bergen County, New Jersey. He’s not our governor.”
The former assemblyman took down Biden’s pro-Murphy visit to New Jersey while encouraging people to go out and vote, simultaneously tamping down suggestions or concerns that the election was rigged or that it was not worth the effort—a lingering symptom in the Republican Body Politic of Trump’s wrongful accusation that the presidential election was stolen and illegitimate. “If you sit home, you’re cutting your nose to spite your face. And let me say this about people that are still a bit scarred, whatever their opinions are about last year’s election. If you want to stick it in Joe Biden’s ear—I always change the word depending on what county I’m in—if you want to stick it in Joe Biden’s ear, beat Phil Murphy.”
Ciattarelli dismissed Murphy’s political-celebrity endorsements and took aim at the core issues he has been striking at throughout most of his campaign, resonating well with the audience. “This guy’s failed New Jersey. He failed seniors and veterans in our nursing homes when he didn’t follow the science. The CDC said do not put COVID-19 patients in the nursing homes. He did and New Jersey leads the nation in deaths. He failed mom and pop shops on Main Street: one out of three closed their doors forever, 50% of which were owned by females and minorities. He failed our children who weren’t in school for an entire year. He failed every one of you who had to stand for five hours on line at Motor Vehicle. He failed every one of you that can’t get anybody on the phone in any department of state government. He’s failed women, the black community, and he’s failed all those that were in the path of Hurricane Ida. This guy’s declaration of the State Emergency came 13 hours after the Pennsylvania Governor, three hours after the tornado, two hours after the flash flood, and 30 fewer New Jerseyans are with us today. If ever there was a time for one of those ‘get off the beach’ moments. This guy failed us.”
The balance of Ciattarelli’s discussion orbited around traditionally safe Republican issues which would appeal to the day-to-day concerns of average voters. He pitched a new school funding formula and tax approach without going into too much detail when a member of the audience who is a realtor said New Jersey was too expensive to retire in, and that many people will move to other states. “For me, I usually don’t like to get the crowd in the weeds with regard to specific policy proposals for our tax code. But I’m a CPA, I get excited about this shit.” (He said the news would love that line, and so Insider NJ obliges.)
Ciattarelli then did a pivot, referring to the debate with the governor where Murphy mocked him for saying that realtors should be able to carry a handgun for self defense. “One of the questions that was asked at the first debate was my position on the Second Amendment. And if it was up to Phil Murphy, he would repeal the Second Amendment. It’s a constitutional right. People have a right to bear arms, they have a right to defend themselves. I will always strike the right balance between that right and the public safety. But when I talked about carrying concealed and dangerous professions, I mentioned realtors, and he mocked realtors. Our dashboard headquarters lit up because there’s 60,000 realtors statewide, and they didn’t really like it. Go home tonight and Google violence on realtors who are trying to earn their living sitting all alone all day in an open house. Google violence on the people that replenish ATM machines. Do you know there are people in Phil Murphy’s own state government that work in child services? They have to go and check on children in troubled homes. Do you know what they bring with them? A police officer. Yes, because it’s a dangerous profession.”
As Ciattarelli continued, he then touched on one of the issues which has been hindering the ability of discourse to continue in a civil manner, although obviously framed within a perspective advantageous to him in particular and Republicans in general. But nevertheless, Ciattarelli consciously or otherwise highlighted the common tendency in politics to equate a difference of opinion with an assessment of personal character. “Why can’t we have a reasonable conversation on these things? You know why? Because in Phil Murphy’s world when he disagrees with you, you’re not just wrong, you’re bad. He incites class warfare. He is the one that incites ‘us versus them’. We should be able to have these conversations.”
Returning to nuts and bolts, down-home policy, Ciattarelli was able to whip up cheers and applause by saying a Ciattarelli administration would see such things as New Jerseyans being able to deduct student loan interest on their taxes, first time home buyers deducting mortgage interest for the first three-to-five years they own the home.
Covering topics from voter ID to the propriety of certain subjects in school to defending qualified immunity for police, Ciattarelli outlined his pitch for victory after describing how he won past elections in heavily Democratic districts through hard work and perseverance. He highlighted that no Democratic governor has been reelected since the 1970s and that he would not be the candidate to let Murphy break that tradition. “Don’t take it for granted. If we continue to work hard over the next five days. I’m convinced that we can win. I’m in a better position today, with the internal poll numbers out of both camps, than Tom Kean Sr., Christine Todd Whitman, and Chris Christie were at this point.”
Ciattarelli is contending with the political reality of a Democratic advantage of voters by nearly one million in a state of about nine million residents, no small thing to overcome. Additionally, the Republican brand continues to grapple with the legacy of Donald Trump, a man Ciattarelli had condemned in 2015 as “unfit for president.” One source suggested that Trump would make an appearance in support of Ciattarelli, but thus far there has been no clear indication of such. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Murphy cultivated a good relationship with the White House with respect to acquiring PPE and ventilators from the state. This was achieved through a schmooze-fest that paid dividends for both New Jersey and the governor himself. But in politics, nothing is ever permanent and as far as the 2020s are concerned, no norms can be taken for granted. For Ciattarelli to pull an upset in the race, he would have to win over the bulk of the unaffiliated voters—a task far more likely than being able to erode at Murphy’s base. The Patersons, Elizabeths, and Jersey Cities are no-gos for Jack, but by wooing enough of the suburbs—working class, middle class like Fair Lawn–his campaign, perhaps, may keep Murphy awake at night until Election Day.