Murphy, Ciattarelli clash over taxes, COVID, Trump and more in fiery NJ government debate

In an acrimonious debate that saw both candidates remove their gloves moments after their presentations, Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli fought for everything from the state’s response to Tropical Storm Ida, the number deaths in nursing homes, taxes, and abortion Tuesday night.

The hour-long debate was marked by prepared zingers, accusations of failures by both, and at times what seemed like genuine anger.

It was tense from the get-go, with Ciattarelli berating Murphy for the way he handled Ida, his handling of the New Jersey nursing home crisis as COVID killed thousands, and the governor striking the former assembly member on his abortion rights dossier and appearance at a rally for former President Donald Trump.

Ciattarelli accused the governor of waiting too long to declare a state of emergency as Ida – who killed 30 people in New Jersey – swept the state.

“If we ever needed a ‘get the hell out of it’ moment, this is it,” Ciattarelli said to the delight of fans in the audience, citing a famous line from former Governor Chris Christie.

He said Murphy did not announce a state of emergency until around 10 p.m. But by then a tornado had already destroyed a suburban neighborhood and many people in the state were hopelessly trapped in their cars or low houses. (Murphy’s office later said the declaration of a state of emergency went into effect at 9 p.m., but his office didn’t announce it to the public until an hour later.)

Murphy, who regularly issued similar statements hours before snowflakes hit the ground amid dire winter storm forecasts, initially defended his state of emergency timeline by saying his administration would make a “post -mortem “on Ida.

The governor pushed back Tuesday night, warning the public that more Idas will hit New Jersey and the rest of the country if voters don’t support someone like him who plans to tackle climate change.

Murphy, meanwhile, criticized Ciattarelli for opposing mask warrants and said it should be the parents’ choice if children wear masks in schools.

“To say it’s your call … on ‘no masking’ is supporting drunk driving,” Murphy shot at Ciattarelli. “We can’t beat him that way.”

The GOP candidate also expressed his continued opposition to vaccination mandates, although he said he encouraged people to get vaccinated and had also been vaccinated.

“Do I believe the government has the right to force you to take medication?” No, I don’t, ”he said.

The debate, held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, was the first of two governor debates between Murphy and Ciattarelli. They will meet at 8 p.m. on October 12 at Rowan University in Glassboro.

Lt. Gov. Shelia Oliver, a Democrat, and Republican Diane Allen will debate at 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at Rider University in Lawrenceville for their only meeting before the Nov. 2 election.

One of the main themes of the debate was the high death toll in the state in its nursing homes during the first months of the pandemic. Ciattarelli has repeatedly hammered Murphy for New Jersey to lead the country in nursing home deaths.

“He asked the nursing home to do the impossible,” Ciattarelli said.

Of the more than 27,300 people who have died from the pandemic since March 2020, at least 8,532 were among residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Murphy has been criticized for the way he initially treated the elderly, including by Ciattarelli, who said the governor forced sick patients out of hospitals and sent them back to nursing homes. They say it caused more deaths and lives could have been saved.

Murphy’s administration has called on residents to return to their nursing homes, citing hospitals reaching capacity during the height of the state’s crisis. But the ordinance called for isolating these people from the main nursing home populations.

“We were crystal clear,” Murphy said. “They needed to be separated.”

A surprisingly heated moment in the debate concerned police approvals – or the lack thereof.

Murphy was questioned by moderators as to why he had not won support from the state’s second-largest police union this race despite his support when he ran for office four years ago.

“You claim to be Mr. Law and Order. You have no approval from the police, ”the governor said.

Sex and children were also a subject of debate.

Ciattarelli made headlines in July after a video was released telling voters during a campaign shutdown that he was against teaching “gender identity and sexual orientation to women. kindergarten children ”that he“ would cancel ”the new LGBTQ curriculum requirements in state schools because they“ go too far ”. “

Asked about it, he replied, “I think there are certain subjects for our young students that are best left at the kitchen table,” Ciattarelli said of the LGBTQ program in schools.

“There is a lot going on at the kitchen table,” observed the governor.

Murphy, in his own campaign ads, criticized Ciattarelli for attending a so-called “Stop the Steal” rally in support of former President Donald Trump in November 2020.

Ciattarelli, who congratulated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on their electoral victory in a January 20 social media post, called the 30-second TV spot a “misleading negative” ad by the through a campaign spokesperson and said he didn’t know it was a “Stop the Steal” rally.

Murphy, however, insisted on the issue during the debate.

“Come on man. Your photo and name was on the invitation. There’s the video. There were Confederate flags,” he said, calling it “exactly the same cocktail” as the Uprising of the January 6 at the Capitol, noting that “people are dead”.

“You mean like the people in nursing homes and Tropical Storm Ida,” Ciattarelli retorted.

He also continued to hammer the governor over taxes, repeating more than once the line from one of his campaign ads where he attacked Murphy with an old clip of the Democrat suggesting that if taxes are your only problem “the New Jersey may not be the state for you. “

Murphy was asked about his treatment of women, particularly Katie Brennan, a former state official who publicly accused a former senior governor official of raping her during Murphy’s 2017 campaign.

Brennan became the center of New Jersey politics in late 2018 when she publicly accused Albert J. Alvarez, the Latin and Muslim outreach director of Murphy’s first campaign, of raping her while she was a volunteer. for the campaign.

Brennan testified at a hearing in December 2018 that she had shared her allegations with several members of Murphy’s inner circle, but her “pleas went unanswered.” She said Alvarez got a post in administration after first alerting Murphy’s team to the accusations.

Alvarez, who was hired to become chief of staff for the New Jersey Schools Development Authority after the campaign, has repeatedly denied the allegation and has not been charged after two police inquiries.

Murphy said in Tuesday’s debate that he apologized publicly and privately to Brennan and that his experience helped improve him and his administration by facing the mistakes head-on.

But Ciattarelli didn’t want it.

“She’s the most anti-female governor we’ve ever had,” he said. “We have seen this time and time again. “

Even before the debate began, the mood was charged outside, with competing pro-Murphy and pro-Ciattarelli forces gathered on the street. Among them were union groups and anti-vaccine protesters.

Protesters supporting Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger, former Assembly Member Jack Ciattarelli, were in the immediate vicinity of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center ahead of the start of the 2021 Governors Debate. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for

In the latest poll, released last week by Monmouth University, Murphy led the race with a 13 percentage point lead, 51% versus 38% for Ciattarelli, in the November contest. No Democrat has been re-elected since Brendan Byrne in 1977, although voters chose Democratic candidates for governor in back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005.

Voters gave Murphy overall good marks on his handling of the COVID crisis, although a large majority – 82% – said the stringent measures Murphy’s imposed to try to seriously harm small businesses in the state. At the same time, just over half said Murphy had a great deal or “some responsibility for the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.”

Both candidates thought they had done well in the debate.

“There’s no question who won tonight,” Murphy said, meeting with reporters afterwards. “Yours sincerely.”

He added that it was good to be back on the debate stage.

“I missed it and I will tell you the contrast couldn’t be more stark,” he said.

Ciattarelli said he was satisfied with his performance. As to who won, he replied, “It’s up to the people of New Jersey to decide.

The debates were mandatory because both candidates received matching public funds for their campaigns.

So far, Ciattarelli has received more than $ 5.5 million in state consideration for the general election race, compared to $ 8.1 million for Murphy, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission of the state. Each candidate can get up to $ 10.5 million in public funds if they pledge not to spend more than $ 15.6 million.

NJ Advance Media was a debate partner with WABC-TV, WPVI-TV, Univision65, WHYY-FM radio, WCTC radio, Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics and Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration.

Brian Taff from WPVI, Sade Baderinwa from WABC, Adriana Vargas-Sino from Univision and NJ Advance Media reporter Amanda Hoover were on stage to moderate the debate and ask questions, some submitted by students and the audience.

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Matt Arco can be reached at [email protected].

Ted Sherman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @TedShermanSL

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