Murphy Defends Mandates, Taxes in Debate Over N.J.’s Future
(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy sparred with his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli on Tuesday night as the Democratic incumbent tried to highlight contrasts along national party lines over hot-button issues like vaccine and mask mandates, abortion and climate change.
During the first in-person televised debate of the race, the candidates attacked each other for an hour and tried to sway voters with a little more than a month until Election Day.
The outcome of the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, the only U.S. gubernatorial elections this year, could provide early indicators of the national political environment ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Winning a second term would be a historic feat for Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. senior director, who could become the first Democratic governor to serve two terms in New Jersey in more than four decades.
One of the key concerns among New Jersey voters is the high cost of living in New Jersey and the state’s hefty tax bills. Murphy was asked if he would raise taxes if elected to a second term, he responded “I pledge to not raise taxes.” Ciattarelli also said there will be no new taxes.
Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, has said high taxes have made the state unaffordable. Under Murphy, 64, the state legislature increased the tax rate on annual income of at least $1 million to 10.75% to 8.97%. The money was used to provide $500 middle class rebate checks. Ciattarelli, 59, and other state Republicans have criticized the move as an election-year stunt.
Murphy is favored to win the election, with 51% of registered voters saying they support Murphy in a Sept. 16-20 Monmouth University poll. Ciattarelli notched 38% in the poll. Murphy’s advantage narrowed when voters were asked about jobs and the economy, with 39% in support, while Ciattarelli got 32%.
New Jersey’s unemployment rate was 7.2% in August, 2 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The state is still recovering from pandemic lockdowns and delays in reopening dining and other activities due to safety concerns.
One of the biggest clashes between the candidates -- and across the U.S. -- is whether to impose vaccine mandates on public workers and require masks in schools, practices Murphy supports and Ciattarelli rejects.
“There are going to be many contrasts tonight, I think this may be among the biggest,” said Murphy, referring to the Covid protocols. “You can’t look for wiggle room on vaccines and ‘your body, your choice.’ You can’t ignore the science as it relates to masking. It is crystal clear.”
Likening the decision not to ask students to mask to drunk driving, Murphy said “that’s what happens in Texas. That’s not New Jersey.”
Ciattarelli said he was vaccinated and encouraged others to follow suit but declared that mandating vaccines and masks is a “threat to choice.”
He doubled down on an earlier assertion that children weren’t as susceptible as adults to Covid, a phenomenon that appeared to be true early in the pandemic but has changed with the highly-transmissible delta variant.
New Jersey has administered enough vaccines to cover 67% of its population, among the highest rates among U.S. states, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.
“A year and a half ago nobody had a playbook and the tragedy today is we have the playbook, we know what works and the assembly and governors in the deep south are choosing to throw that playbook out the window and it’s costing lives,” Murphy said.
Ciattarelli also blamed Murphy for the high number of Covid nursing-home deaths that occurred when sick residents were sent back to nursing homes, an issue under federal investigation.
Murphy said his administration was clear that Covid patients must be separated from others, replying “facts matter.”
Texas came up again in reference to the state’s recent decision to ban abortions after about six weeks, with Murphy seeking to paint Ciattarelli’s stance in line with Texas by calling out his voting record to defund Planned Parenthood.
Ciattarelli said he didn’t advocate for overturning Roe v. Wade but “here in New Jersey we don’t approve of abortions being done in months seven, eight or nine.”
Ciattarelli cast blame on Murphy for 30 New Jersey deaths that occurred as a result of the remnants of Hurricane Ida earlier this month, accusing Murphy of delaying a state-of-emergency declaration that led to one of the highest death tolls from the storm.
“Ida response isn’t about climate change, it’s about saving lives. A delay in a state of emergency is what cost lives,” Ciattarelli said.
Murphy responded to the accusations of delaying the state of emergency declaration by highlighting his belief in climate change.
“A big contrast is, is what we are going to do about the environment to hopefully prevent this from happening again,” he said.
In response, Ciattarelli said “if ever we needed a get the hell off the beach moment, this was it,” a reference to former Republican Governor Chris Christie famously telling residents at the Jersey shore to take shelter ahead of a hurricane.
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