Analysis of the N.J. gubernatorial debate

Listen 0:00
Appearing separately both candidates answered reporters' questions after the debate. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Appearing separately both candidates answered reporters' questions after the debate. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The two candidates running to replace Gov. Chris Christie debated face to face for the first time last night, spending an hour trading accusations and boasts on issues ranging from property taxes and pension funding to handling the state economy and curbing gun violence.

The fast-paced debate in Newark provided a new opportunity for Republican Kim Guadagno, Christie’s incumbent lieutenant governor, to change the dynamic of a contest that so far has her trailing in the polls behind Democrat Phil Murphy, who’s been portraying Guadagno as a third term of the extremely unpopular Republican governor

Guadagno was clearly the aggressor throughout the debate, accusing Murphy of overpromising and lacking a credible plan to address property taxes. She also suggested he’ll be too weak on immigration issues, and at one point called Murphy a “coward” when the discussion moved to disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Pushing back

For his part, Murphy wasn’t shy about pushing back, accusing Guadagno on several occasions of making things up and intentionally misleading the audience, including on tax policy. He also repeatedly attempted to connect Guadagno to unpopular decisions made by Christie and Republican President Donald Trump, including on healthcare and the environment. And during the immigration discussion, Murphy said Guadagno’s position was “un-American” after she pivoted from talking about undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to highlighting violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in recent years.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Yet despite the fireworks, Guadagno didn’t appear to generate the type of attention-grabbing moment that many believe she needed last night to change the current direction of the election. Murphy also seemed to steer clear of making any major gaffes that would threaten his frontrunner status.

The debate at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center got off to a fiscal-policy-focused start, with questions about property taxes, pension funding, and a proposal by the Trump administration to abolish a federal tax deduction that currently allows New Jersey homeowners to write off their high property-tax bills.

Full funding for school aid

Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, used the property tax question to highlight his call for full funding of the state’s school-aid law. He said Christie’s shorted school funding by $9 billion during his tenure, which has forced more of the burden onto already overburdened homeowners.

“We will fully fund public education in this state,” Murphy said.

But Guadagno, a former Monmouth County Sheriff and state and federal prosecutor, immediately faulted Murphy for not taking a firm position on the issue of police and firefighter salaries, specifically citing his reluctance to say for sure that he would renew a 2 percent cap on salary increases that can be awarded by arbitrators who are called in to settle contract impasses. She also highlighted her proposed “circuit-breaker” program, which would devote about $1.5 billion to provide state-funded property tax relief.

“For people that are listening tonight, I know that the number one issue facing them today is property tax relief, and I know we have the highest property taxes in this country,” Guadagno said.

Public pensions

The two candidates had a similar exchange on pension funding, with Guadagno pointing to a 2015 report on public-employee benefits that called for a freezing of the current pension system and moving employees into a new retirement with some features of a 401(k). But Murphy accused Christie of repeatedly vilifying public employees, and breaking promises on pension funding.

“We will fully fund our pension obligations, and we’ll get there as fast as we can,” Murphy said.

Guadagno, 58, shot back at Murphy, 59, saying Christie has been following a similar, incremental approach to ramping up pension funding.

“Quite frankly, Phil, that sounds like the Chris Christie plan,” Guadagno said.

Consolidation by force or agreement

Property taxes were also at issue on another policy question, which was posed by NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney, who served on a panel of reporters that questioned the candidates. Asked about the outlook for consolidating the state’s numerous school districts to cut costs, Guadagno pointed to towns where school districts are fragmented among different age groups even within the same community, and said she would encourage more consolidations as governor.

“You could either force it or do it by agreement,” Guadagno said.

Murphy, meanwhile, went right back to the school-funding issue, and also talked about affordable housing and encouraging more shared services.

“I think you can incent school districts and communities to share services as opposed to hitting them over the head with a stick,” Murphy said.

The debate also covered a lot of ground on other issues, including gun violence and ways to prevent mass shootings like the recent massacre in Las Vegas, where a lone gunman killed 58 and wounded more than 500.

Murphy bragged about having an “F” rating from the powerful National Rifle Association, and said he would do more to keep guns from getting in the hands of violent criminals, improve background checks, and work harder to keep weapons from coming into New Jersey from other states.

“I am strongly of the opinion that I would sign all of the gun-safety laws that have been vetoed by the Christie-Guadagno administration,” Murphy said.

That led to a response from Guadagno, who said the issue of gun violence “is not a political problem.”

“I don’t believe the answer is to take guns out of the hands of honest, law-abiding citizens,” she said.

Calling Murphy a coward

But it was the discussions of immigration and Weinstein that drew maybe the strongest accusations among the two candidates. Murphy is a former finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, which has accepted donations from Weinstein, who is now being accused of sexual harassment and making unwanted sexual advances on numerous women. Guadagno charged that Murphy has not been aggressive enough in coming forward to condemn Weinstein.

“I want to call Phil Murphy a coward,” Guadagno said. “Shame on him for not coming forward earlier.”

Murphy, meanwhile, pounced during a discussion about so-called dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents. The dreamers had been protected for years from deportation by an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama, but Trump rescinded the order last month, leaving the fate of roughly 22,000 New Jersey residents in question. When Guadagno moved from talking about the dreamers to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in general, Murphy said she was committing the same error as Trump by effectively stereotyping all undocumented immigrants as criminals.

“With all due respect, let’s not tell half-truths or untruths about any of this,” Murphy said.

“You pit ‘us’ against ‘them.’ You cast a pall over entire communities of people. That is un-American,” he went on to say.

The best policy?

As the debate wrapped up, both candidates focused again on policy-oriented messages, with Guadagno using her time to portray the November 7 election as one that will determine whether the state will continue to be affordable for most New Jersey families.

“It’s about making New Jersey a place where we can afford to live again,” she said.

For his part, Murphy cast the decision before voters as one of “turning the page” to a different brand of leadership after nearly eight years under Christie and Guadagno.

“We can turn the page, we can change leadership, leadership that celebrates and rebuilds the middle class, and the bridge into the middle class,” Murphy said.

After the debate ended, both candidates spoke separately with reporters about their experiences on the stage. Guadagno was also pressed to answer why she bragged about some elements of Christie’s record, including an improved unemployment rate, but distanced herself from most others, and Murphy was challenged to explain whether he did enough to ease concerns about property taxes, which polls show is the top issue this year for voters. And when asked how they thought they fared overall, Guadagno responded by saying she “loved every single second of it,” and Murphy said “we got our message out, we held our own.”

The two candidates will debate for a final time on October 18 at William Paterson University, and voters will go to the polls to decide the contest on November 7.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal