METUCHEN -The word “Forum” hovers over the sidewalk outside the stately old theater like neon graffiti etched in some other time zone.
Inside, we are here with the four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls at this debate tonight sponsored by the Middlesex County Young Republicans, where the presence of Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) and the absence of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno made Ciattarelli the resident Trenton target of the other three candidates.
“I’m so proud of the Middlesex Young Republicans,” County Party Chair Lucille Panos told InsiderNJ. “The young Republicans are stepping up to the plate big time.”
In advance of the debate, the candidates worked the big chamber, Ciattarelli down front by the stage, businessman Joe Rudy Rullo of Ocean County in the steeped, red carpeted entrance-way.
Engineer Hirsh Singh of Linwood and Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers – a retired cop and Navy officer – also politicked in the vicinity of the stage.
“The county conventions are useful – to better understand how the process works,” Singh told InsiderNJ. “But this is where we really can be heard – at forums like this.”
Citing attendance at her son’s graduation from the Air Force, Guadagno was not present at tonight’s debate.
In the middle of the scrum among the four participating candidates, a text came in blandly to InsiderNJ; “Guadagno wins Camden County GOP line.”
That’s Ocean, Warren, Hudson, Passaic and now Camden for the LG, the GOP contest’s front-runner.
Panos is backing Guadagno here in Middlesex, too, by the way.
But the out of pocket LG didn’t stop the others from engaging one another tonight in front of what turned out to be a small but impassioned crowd.
Once the event started with the four contestants onstage behind the big red tablecloth in front of about 100 people, Rullo and Rogers scrapped early. The two most vocal supporters of President Donald J. Trump, they appear intent on outflanking each other.
“Integrity and truthfulness matter,” Rogers said sharply at the man at his left elbow. “You were not correct when you
said I said marijuana dealers should be dealt with as terrorists. We’ve got to stop the killing and you do it with law enforcement.”
Rullo slapped away at the gas tax, tore into the bloated bureaucracy of Trenton – then threw an elbow at Ciattarelli.
“We don’t need someone who’s going to come up with a five-point plan,” he said without naming his opponent by name.
Ciattarelli has a five-point plan.
“You deserve specifics,” the assemblyman unapologetically told the crowd to claps. “We need a plan.”
In the process of rebutting Rullo, he ignored him and swatted away at the absent LG, noting that “in particular’ Guadagno had failed to put forward details. Ciuattarelli put an exclamation point on the idea by pointing out that schools funding lays the foundation for his five-point plan.
He caught it on the other end then from Rogers, who channeled Reagan.
“If that guy named Jack comes to your front door and says ‘I’m from the government,’ run like heck out the back door,” he cracked.
In response, Ciattarelli met another sharp elbow – this time delivered by Singh – when he turned to the young engineer’s query for specifics with – “I know you know the answer to that question because you’ve been on my website.”
Rogers sought an applause line with, “get government off our backs.”
The mood was not yet there in the mild-mannered audience.
Rullo used the term more than once as he characterized the culture of Trenton, which, if elected, he’d overhaul.
Then he tangled again with Rogers.
“Where were you when Christie called police officers pigs?” Rullo demanded.
“I was serving my country in the United States Navy proudly, Mr. Rullo,” said Rogers, voice rising and hardening at close range.
That bucked up the crowd.
Over the second half of the contest, the claps and roars of agreement came at shorter intervals.
“There’s a couple of bosses in Trenton who wield way too much power,” the assemblyman said at one point.
“Goldman Sachs has pillaged this state,” Rullo later said, bashing Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive.
As a cop with local elected office experience as a Nutley Commissioner, Rogers was less punishing than the others on pensions and benefits, and refused to rule out global warming. “Certainly there’s a lot of diversity among the four of us, and a lot of different approaches,” Rogers told InsiderNJ after the debate. “I think the audience saw my passion, and they were glad I was honest. On climate change, for example, I just admitted that I’m reading more about it.
“One line of delineation I feel was with Assemblyman Ciattarelli on post retirement benefits,” the candidate added. “He wants people already retired to have to pay more. But my point is the governor signed a promise. That’s why people don’t trust government. They don’t keep their promises.”