Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

Murphy, Ciattarelli, Murphy fight over COVID masks, school funding, abortion, and white privilege in another heated N.J. gov debate

Murphy, Ciattarelli, Murphy fight over COVID masks, school funding, abortion, and white privilege in another heated N.J. gov debate

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli engaged in another series of heated exchanges on COVID-19 vaccines and mask policies, school funding, and white privilege in their second, but final debate before voters decide the New Jersey governors race in three weeks, while also finding some common ground on abortion.

The hour-long event at Rowan University in Glassboro was nearly as feisty as the races first debate, with the candidates cutting each other with sharp retorts and the audience frequently butting in with applause, boos, and shouts.

Murphy, who is seeking a second term, continues to lead Ciattarelli, formerly of the state Assembly, in public-opinion polls, though the margin has waned as the Nov. 2 election approaches and more people begin to pay attention.

Both candidates continued to offer starkly different visions for New Jerseys future on Tuesday. New Jersey is broken and must be fixed, according to Ciattarelli. Murphy said its sunrise in New Jersey as the state recovers from the coronavirus epidemic and we have to keep moving forward.

Both candidates debated over how to deal with the lingering epidemic.

Ciattarelli insisted he personally encourages people to get vaccinated against the virus, though stating a one-size-fits-all approach doesnt work.

I believe that my role as governor when elected is to provide people with all the information they need to make an informed decision. At the beginning of the debate, which was co-sponsored by NJ PBS, WNYC, and Rowan University, he said, And then the choice is theirs.

Ive never said the epidemic is easy it isnt, Ciattarelli said. I believe the best way to get as much cooperation as you possibly can is to find a policy that works for largely all people, he added.

Murphy argued that leaders now understand the rules of fighting the virus: vaccines and masking.

To ignore that and disregard that playbook is putting lives needlessly at risk, he added, adding that Ciattarellis stances feel like a debate in Texas or Florida.

Murphy was also critical of recent reports that the governor and other attendees did not wear masks at an indoor ball hosted by Garden State Equality in Asbury Park this past weekend. Ciattarelli also criticized Murphy for not wearing masking at the event.

To be admitted, attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monmouth County currently has "high" rates of coronavirus transmission, and masking is recommended in such a setting.

While Murphy has lifted statewide mask requirements, he has urged people to wear masks in settings of high risk.

Republicans have also claimed that teacher union officials and the governor were hypocritical for not wearing masks at the gala when children in New Jersey are required to wear mask at school and daycare.

I do believe our leadership must be consistent in times like these," Ciattarelli said.

Murphy said he didn't wear a mask because er was on stage talking. He noted that he removes his mask on stage at public events, such as his COVID-19 briefings, often.

Are you wearing a mask right now? Were on stage, Murphy told Ciattarelli.

Ciattarelli responded, He was at a large indoor gathering. Nobody had a mask on.

Murphy replied, Nice try.

The governor was asked why he hasnt kept his promise to conduct a study into how COVID-19 was handled in the states nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where more than 8,500 people have died.

Murphy said, Were still in the middle of a pandemic." There will be, without question, a full accounting, independent of my office, on this.

Another heated issue was the state budget. Ciattarelli has criticized Murphy for adding $11 billion in state expenditures over the last four years. Ciattarelli has pledged to reduce school funding by overhauling the state's school budget by cutting $10 billion in spending and reducing property taxes.

I will tell you that the state government is overworked, inefficient, and corruptes by individual interests, he added.

But Ciattarelli did not specify what programs hed cut, instead saying a state legislator would work with him to figure it out.

I will meet with the Legislature on Day 1 and well have that conversation, Ciattarelli said.

Murphy praised how his administration has increased funding for public schools and made a $6.4 billion payment to the state's traditionally underfunded public-worker pension system.

Why is the budget going up? Imagine it (as) if you were a family and you werent paying your mortgage or rent, the governor said. Were paying our bills, he said.

He blamed Ciattarelli and previous legislators for not providing enough money in the past.

Murphy said, We inherited a complete and total mess, and you were there for six years before I was.

Ciattarelli responded, The budget is up $11 billion. People dont want a handout, they want one.

Murphy responded, That is offensive. Thats another example of forward-backward. A handout? Come on, man.

Ciattarelli defended his school funding plans against criticism that it would cut court-mandated funding to poorer districts, saying the owner of a million-dollar home in Jersey City is paying less in property taxes than someone who owns swanky $400,000 homes elsewhere.

He stated, Thats not fair. We need a more flatter, more equitable distribution of aid.

Murphy said the move would hurt poorer students, particularly in communities of color, as they would in turn hurt them.

If youre a Black or brown person or if you're an African or black American kid out there, you are going to get the rug pulled out from under you, the governor said. This is a us versus them move, he added.

The next governor will also have the opportunity to appoint four new members to the state Supreme Court. Ciattarelli suggested he would nominate justices willing to re-examine school funding and the Mount Laurel case, which requires towns in New Jersey to build affordable housing.

I am looking for people who are going to bring balance to the court, he said.

Murphy continued his attempt to suggest Ciattarelli is a supporter of former President Donald Trump, who will reverse New Jersey.

Murphy is prone to blaming Trump or former Gov. Chris Christie, both Republicans, for problems in the state, Ciattarelli said.

I promise you this: When I take office in January, I will not blame the Murphy administration for anything, Ciattarelli said. Well get the job done, the businessman added.

Ciattarelli, who has been criticized for moving left after a relatively moderate tenure in the state Legislature, was also asked on Tuesday why he supported Trump despite calling him a charlatan in 2015. Ciattarelli pushed back, beginning with a joke.

In 27 years of marriage, I want you to know Melindas called me worse than a charlatan dozens of times, he joked, referring to his wife.

Ciattarelli went on to state that after Trump was elected, he wanted him to be successful and that its un-American not to root for the president to succeed.

In addition, Ciattatelli praised Trump for handling the economy, border security, being tough with China, and moving the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which broke decades of American policy. He said he disagreed with Trump on offshore drilling, funding for the Gateway Tunnel project, and ending state and local property taxes deductions over $10,000.

But Ciattarelli didn't say whether he'd back Trump if a second White House bid were to be launched in 2024. And he wouldnt say if a Trump stumped for him.

Ciattarelli said, "I go out there and campaign on my own."

Abortion was another notable issue Tuesday, with Ciattarelli taking a noticeably moderate attitude.

Murphy believes the decision should alarm women in New Jersey and elsewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court in Texas all but made abortion illegal after it declined to hear a case that made its way through the legal system. The governor has said that the state Legislature should act now to pass the Reproductive Freedom Act in New Jersey, which would enshrine the rights into state law.

Murphy said, This has gone from something that I think people thought was abstract and theoretical to here and present danger.

Ciattarelli has said that women should have a choice, though he supports limiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. He also said he doubts the Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade, which gives women the right to an abortion in the United States.

But he added if Roe vs Wade is overturned, a state law would likely be written.

If thats what we need to do here in New Jersey to protect a woman s right to choose, well do that, Ciattarelli said.

Murphy said he'll be very happy if Ciattartelli is correct about Roe v. Wade.

But Im not expecting that, given the Trump-packed Supreme Court, the governor said.

Murphy took a dig at his opponent in another instance, when Ciattarelli refused to answer dissenting questions from skeptics who asked him to define white privilege.

Were the most diverse state in America, and if you dont know how to answer the question, its hard to believe you can govern the place, Murphy said.

A moderator gave Ciattarelli another opportunity to define white privilege on Tuesday.

Have whites had access to things that people of color haven't? Yes, thats a sad fact, Ciattarelli said. Has the Black race been disadvantaged and marginalized? Yes, thats a sad fact. And we must address it."

And I believe that Im addressing it by going into Black communities with the plan I put forth on my website, he added. Its very specific in terms of economic development, access to health care, solving the food desert issue, and working with faith-based organizations, he added.

Murphy responded, White privilege is real. The legacy of slavery is not a historical fact. Lets not debate whether or not it exists, let s accept it, sadly, and let yea do something about it. Were the most diverse state in America youve got to get that.

The governor also touted his administrations clean-energy strategy, which includes increasing offshore wind production. Murphy, on the other hand, added that its to be determined in terms of how itll be paid (for), though this wont be on behalf of the ratepayer.

Murphy hasnt provided a comprehensive analysis, according to Ciattarelli.

As for the raucous crowd, what about the drunken crowd? Murphy appeared to be bothered at times.

He said at one point that a debate had broken out at scouting.

Murphy was jeered as he said during his closing statement that New Jersey cannot afford an extreme leader and shouldnt stand with confederate flags, white supremacists and a pack of lies.

The audience was rowdy, Ciattarelli told reporters after the event. We applaud their enthusiasm, but it made it even more challenging.... I got my point across, but the whole process was a little bumpy, he said.

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Brent Johnson can be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnsb01.

Matt Arco can be reached at marco@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewArco.

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