Candidates hoping to succeed Gov. Christie stay on message in first N.J. debates

Two Republicans and four Democrats hoping to succeed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie next year took part in their first primary election debates Tuesday night.

At times contentious, the debates shined little new light on the candidates jockeying to replace one of the most outsized personalities in the governor’s office in recent memory.

Christie can’t run for a third term because of term limits.

The Republicans

To the surprise of those in political circles, the GOP primary has become the race to watch.

Christie’s Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno is facing off against Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli of Hillsborough.

On Tuesday night, both candidates vowed to lower taxes and both candidates accused the other of being unable to do it.

“It’s obvious the lieutenant governor does not understand what a tax restructuring is. She does not understand my five-point plan,” said Ciattarelli, in response to Guadagno’s contention that his plan would raise taxes. “I can recommend a good CPA to her to help explain it to her,” said Ciattarelli, a former accountant.

But Guadagno also fielded criticism of her own proposal. Ciattarelli said her “circuit breaker” plan to cut taxes relied on “phantom revenue” from a future state government audit that may yield little or no savings.  Guadagno’s plan would limit school property taxes to five percent of a family’s income and give up to $3,000 in relief 

Guadagno replied that tax relief could not wait. “Those senior citizens I talked about, those people living paycheck to paycheck, we need to help,” she said. “Those millenials, who are going to move out of the state if we don’t implement the circuit breaker plan that I have proposed now, are going to leave.”

Both agreed that the two percent cap on property tax increases was a failure and that public workers would have to make some sacrifices to make the state pension system solvent in the future.

The candidates also weighed in on a few national issues.

Ciattarelli blasted municipalities that declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” claiming that it encourages illegal immigration by foreigners looking for a safe haven in the U.S.

“I think we should all be supporting our president during this age of terrorism to do everything possible to protect the homeland,” Ciattarelli said.

In response to a question about the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Guadagno lamented that 530,000 people in New Jersey would lose insurance coverage. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” she said.

The Democrats

The four Democratic candidates who debated largely placed the blame for the state’s problems at the feet of Gov. Christie, a Republican.

The unemployment rate, the high number of foreclosures, the public mistrust of government — all were a product of Christie, they said.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak chided the governor for his continued public feud with the public school teachers union, and said that public education must be a priority of the next executive.

“We have to bring respect back to the teachers and into the classroom,” said Lesniak. “The biggest mistake Gov. Christie has made is to demonize our teachers.”

On major issues, the Democrats mostly agreed: the state should invest in infrastructure; improve public transportation; move toward cleaner, greener energy.

But they were not in lockstep on everything.

In response to one question about bipartisanship, three of the candidates touted their ability to reach across the aisle, while former prosecutor Jim Johnson vowed to stand his ground.

“I understand the spirit of the question,” he said, “but in the age of Donald Trump, there are some times when we’re just going to have to fight. And there are some issues that we’re going to have to take a hard line on.”

Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, called for the state to establish a public bank, which would be operated by state government and serve residents. Assemblyman John Wisniewski called the idea “a disaster.”

“If Mr. Murphy wants to create a state bank, maybe he should go back to Wall Street,” he said.

Wisniewski used the state bank proposal as a way to criticize Murphy’s ties to his former employer, Goldman Sachs.

Murphy, who has secured all 21 county Democratic Party endorsements and holds a steady lead in the polls, funneled millions of dollars of his own money into his campaign.

Johnson, casting himself as the candidate that could bring change to Trenton, said a vote for Murphy was a vote for the entrenched political culture of New Jersey.

“If we don’t stand up and open up this process to all of us,” he said, “it will get us Phil Murphy. That is not the change we are going to bring to this state.”

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