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Covid, Ida and taxes: the issues at stake in 1st NJ governor's debate

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli faced off Tuesday night in the first of two New Jersey gubernatorial debates. The treatment of dreamers was one of the few points of common ground. Lee este artículo en Español.
29 Sep 2021 – 01:49 PM EDT
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NEW JERSEY - Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli faced off Tuesday night in the first of two New Jersey gubernatorial debates.

Murphy, who aims to become the first Democrat in 44 years to win re-election, defended his legacy in the face of two major catastrophes that have struck his state in the past year and a half: the covid-19 pandemic and the remnants of Ida.

Ciattarelli, a relative unknown on the New Jersey political scene, comes with relatively low numbers in the polls, opting to play offense in an attempt to discredit Governor Murphy's legacy.

Tensions were high in a debate with plenty of audience participation in the form of notable cheers and boos, distributed almost evenly between the two candidates.

A wave of catastrophes

The issues that kicked off the night would seem to be the most pressing on the list: the state's response to two catastrophes: the toll of hurricane Ida and the pandemic.

Ciattarelli came in strong, with no holds barred, pointing to Murphy's record, both with the 30 deaths resulting from Ida as well as the thousands of nursing home deaths during the pandemic (echoing the scandal faced by his former counterpart Cuomo).

The former assemblyman criticized Murphy for declaring a state of emergency late as the remnants of Hurricane Ida approached, all but blaming him for the high death toll during the storm.

But Murphy’s response was more centered on a long term view, promising 100% clean-energy use by 2050. “We are already too late”, he lamented, regarding the issue of climate change.

On the issue of covid-19, Ciattarelli defended the right of residents to choose whether or not to get the vaccine and said it is not a governor's duty to tell people "what medicine they should take," especially in schools.

"When it comes to facemask and vaccine mandates, I'm opposed. It's a decision best left to parents and individuals," the republican reiterated on his Twitter.

Governor Murphy, who has been as strict with his vaccination mandates as New York's governors have been, stood his ground on the issue, comparing not getting vaccinated to drunk driving, noting that it affects both you and the other driver.

Playing partisan politics

Partisan politics played a central role in the candidates' respective arguments. Murphy, a centrist Democrat, has positions that align with those of his party, such as gun control (he favors stricter laws) and abortion (he is a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood).

Meanwhile,Ciattarelli's views lay squarely on the opposite end of the political spectrum: he opposes gun control laws, and has been in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood. The republican candidate also touted his support of law enforcement, pointing out that Murphy has not been a friend to the boys in blue. This, he claims, caused the The Fraternal Order of Police, the state’s second-largest police union, to withdraw its support for him during this election cycle.

"We need reforms,” he said, adding that it’s important to have the support of the police. “We have to respect the rule of law in New Jersey," Ciattarelli said. To this, Murphy responded that Ciattarelli has no support from law enforcement or police organizations.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there was common ground on the issue of immigration. Given the efforts that have been made during the current administration on behalf of the immigrant community, Ciattarelli indicated that young people coming to the U.S. should “not be denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams."

"I celebrate diversity," said Ciattarelli, who supported both the DREAM act as well as licenses for undocumented immigrants. Despite this, Murphy was relentless in calling his opponent "extremist" and even "dangerous."

The specter of Trump and "extremist" politics

During the debate, Governor Murphy doubled down on his description of Ciattarelli as a candidate hampered by his support of Trump, whom he backed in his campaign to discredit the results of the 2021 election. The governor alluded to the Jan. 6 insurrection, which he said "nearly overthrew our democracy," and said his opponent's complacency is cause to disqualify him.

Murphy contends that a GOP victory would lead to a rollback of New Jersey's strict gun laws and jeopardize funding for women's services, including abortion.

Although Ciattarelli extolled former President Donald Trump's policies in the GOP primary, he has softened his rhetoric heading into the general election, where there are more independent and Democratic voters.

In his closing statement, Murphy offered a warning, saying, "We have to keep moving forward. We cannot go backwards. We cannot contemplate extreme leadership in this state."

For his part, Ciattarelli aligned his speech with a signature issue of his party: lowering taxes. His background as an accountant has led the Republican to focus his campaign on affordability, arguing that New Jersey's taxes are too high. This debate was no exception, as his closing statement was a simple pledge to "lower property taxes,” a far cry from the extreme agenda that his opponent has accused him of pushing.

The second debate will be held on October 12.

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