Heated Debate Marked by Abortion, Budget, and Even More Vitriol

Phil Murphy speaks to reporters following the second New Jersey Gubernatorial Debate at Rowan University on October 12, 2021.

If you arrived at Wilson Hall on Tuesday night, you may have been mistaken into believing that you had shown up to an Eagles-Giants game rather than a gubernatorial debate. While the night started off calm, once the sun began to set, the mood shifted entirely.

In a prime example of how vitriolic our current political system has become, Murphy and Ciattarelli supporters became engaged in shouting matches, taunting one another from across the street. The scene was troubling, to say the least, as what was expected to be a moment for Rowan to shine became slightly tarnished by this shameful display of contempt for one another by the crowds gathered. 

This antagonistic attitude from the previous debate and from outside continued into the debate hall, where crowds for both sides cheered, jeered, and yelled in support of their candidates, much to the dismay of moderators David Cruz and Colleen O’Dea. Even Governor Murphy took notice of the raucous crowd.

“It appears that a debate has broken out at the hockey game” he joked.

Both candidates attempted to rise above this, as the content of the debate could be considered extremely tame when compared with the disdain harbored by the crowds for both candidates. Aided by a new, more stringent debate format, which penalized candidates for their supporters’ outbursts, the debate itself wasn’t one that was filled with either in-depth explanations of policy or the scathing personal attacks which have become so commonplace in politics recently. Audience participation aside, most reporters agreed that it appeared as though Phil Murphy won a small victory Tuesday night, which could prove extremely beneficial as the race enters its final weeks.

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican challenger who is facing a major name recognition problem, didn’t do himself any favors at the debate. While his performance could pass for acceptable, this simply isn’t enough for a Republican challenger going up against a mostly popular incumbent in a blue state. And while a candidate should, with small exceptions, remain on message, eyebrows were raised more than a few times in the press room when Ciattarelli appeared to repeat the same prepared lines from the previous debate. The Republican also had trouble explaining specifics about his policy, instead taking up vague positions and directing voters to “look at my website.”

Governor Murphy had what might best be described as an ‘alright’ performance, which looks like it will be enough for him. Thankfully for Murphy, the debate rules were not the only thing that had changed; it appeared as though the Ciattarelli strategy had changed as well. While the Republican went on the offensive in the debate two weeks ago, he took a more measured role on Tuesday. Whatever the campaign’s reasons for this alteration, it certainly did not seem to help the former Assemblyman.

COVID-19 was of course a big issue in Tuesday’s debate. For Jack Ciattarelli, he reiterated his stance on mask and vaccine mandates. And while he urged New Jerseyans to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors, Ciattarelli still refused to support mandates for both items across the state.

Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican candidate for governor, exits the media room following a post-debate press conference. New Jersey Gubernatorial Debate at Rowan University on October 12, 2021. Photo via / Multimedia Editor Nicholas Feldman

“I will always promote public health,” he said. “But I will give people the information and let them decide from there. And yes, I would like to see people get vaccinated.”

The controversy surrounding the nearly 8,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the state’s long-term care facilities remained an issue for the governor, who seemed to be loathing the question coming up once again. “We will do exactly what I have suggested.” Governor Murphy said, in reference to his call for an independent investigation. “There will be a full accounting, without question.”

Despite this being a very vulnerable issue for the Governor, and it is one of the first questions asked in the debate, Ciattarelli chose not to press Murphy on this issue. This may have been due to it not ‘sticking’ as well as Republicans would like it to; it seems as though many voters just don’t seem to care about the issue, in spite of its massive impact. Surprisingly, Ciattarelli attempted to outflank Murphy from the left on mask-wearing indoors, attacking him for not wearing a mask at Garden State Equality’s annual fundraising ball in Asbury Park last weekend. This strange line of attack perplexed many in the media room, as it seemed to be an odd position for Ciattarelli to take. While it seemed to be an attempt to blame the Murphy administration for hypocrisy, it came off as a strange tangent that served no real political purpose.

One issue at the forefront of Tuesday’s debate was the issue of the state budget, which has ballooned in size recently thanks to new federal funds made possible due to the American Rescue Plan. Ciattarelli, being a Republican, urged for a lower state expenditure, advocating for trimming the size of government. However, when pressed, Ciattarelli was unable to name which specific programs he would cut, instead stating that “state government is bloated and inefficient.” Governor Murphy responded to Ciattarelli’s calls for budget cuts by bringing up the revived state pension system and increased state education funding, words which the NJEA will appreciate, being that they have thrown massive amounts of money towards the Murphy campaign.

Perhaps the most surprising moment of the evening came during a discussion on abortion, where Jack Ciattarelli voiced his support for making access to an abortion a matter of law, rather than simply based on court decisions. After Governor Murphy voiced his support for the Reproductive Freedom Act, legislation that Democrats and progressives have deemed pertinent following the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on abortion access, Jack Ciattarelli also voiced support for codifying Roe v. Wade.

“I do not believe Roe v. Wade will be overturned, and if it is we will codify it into law,” Ciattarelli said. “I support a woman’s right to choose, plain and simple.”

In a political climate as heated as this one, taking that strong of a position for abortion rights as a Republican could prove to be a fatal self-inflicted wound on the Ciattarelli campaign, which is already dealing with having to unite a fragmented New Jersey Republican Party. This fragmentation will certainly increase, not only because of Ciattarelli’s position on abortion access but also because of his unwillingness to embrace Donald Trump.

“I think it’s un-American to not root for the President. Over the past four years Donald Trump had some significant victories in national and international politics” he said. “But no, I would not let him campaign for me. I can campaign for myself, thank you very much.”

As the race for governor begins to draw to a close, Phil Murphy picked up a crucial boost in his quest to be the first Democratic governor reelected in decades. However, once again the main story of the evening was the raucous and venomous crowd, which yelled, booed, and screamed at both one another and both candidates. A night that should have been focussed on policy instead became just another instance of antagonistic bickering and name-calling. Perhaps this really is how broken our politics has become.

For comments/questions about this story tweet @TheWhitOnline.