Murphy, Ciattarelli spar in first debate of 2021 N.J. governor’s race

The two candidates drew clear contrasts on a range of pressing issues from the COVID-19 pandemic to teaching critical race theory in schools.

Gov. Phil Murphy (left) and ack Ciattarelli stand at podiums on opposite sides of a stage

Gov. Phil Murphy (left) and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli appear in the first debate of New Jersey's 2021 governor's race on Tuesday, Sept. 28. (6abc)

New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli met for their first debate Tuesday night, in which the two candidates drew clear contrasts on a range of pressing issues.

Topics in the debate, hosted at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, included Murphy’s response to recent storms spurred by remnants of Hurricane Ida, the treatment of women, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The jabs came swiftly, with Ciattarelli blaming the deaths of 30 New Jersey residents in the aftermath of the storms on Murphy’s failure to declare a state of emergency until that night — roughly 12 hours after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf had done the same and after parts of the state were already grappling with severe flooding and tornado damage.

Murphy countered that his administration is moving aggressively to mitigate the effects of climate change, which is causing more frequent and severe storms like Ida.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Murphy, whose administration was charged with failing to address rape allegations from former campaign aide Katie Brennan, said he has apologized publicly and privately to Brennan. He added that women make up the majority of his cabinet and that the lessons from that episode have stuck with him since.

Ciattarelli said Murphy can’t reconcile his record on women and how they were treated in his administration.

“I’ll go as far as to say this has been the most anti-woman governor we’ve had,” said Ciattarelli, who has made the treatment of women in the Murphy administration an issue in his campaign, featuring Brennan in an attack ad. Brennan denounced Ciattarelli’s use of her testimony in the ad.

“Ask the women that worked on his campaign four years ago. Ask the women that played on his professional soccer team. Ask the women that worked at the embassy in Germany,” Ciattarelli continued. “We’ve seen this time and time again. Ask the women who were inmates at Edna Mahan prison.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Why don’t you ask Sheila Oliver, who’s sitting right there, my partner in government,” Murphy responded, referring to his running mate and current lieutenant governor.

Ciattarelli hammered Murphy over the deaths of about 8,000 nursing home residents in the state, blaming the governor’s executive order requiring long-term care facilities to take in residents who had tested positive for COVID-19. Murphy said his administration had been “crystal clear” that those residents and staff caring for them were supposed to be separated from the rest of the population.

Murphy also painted Ciattarelli as backwards for his stance against mask mandates and vaccine requirements in favor of personal choice.

The debate, which aired on WHYY, as well as 6abc in Philadelphia and WABC-TV in New York, also included social issues drawing national attention, such as the new law in Texas that bans abortions as early as six weeks and whether critical race theory should be taught in schools.

Moderator Sade Baderinwa of WABC-TV asked Ciattarelli about remarks he made at a town hall in Bergen County earlier this month.

The Republican told the audience at the Hasbrouck Heights VFW that “a recent study that showed that less than 15% of high school students in this country know that slavery was central to the Civil War. That would suggest that something’s wrong with our public school curriculum. But at the same time, we are not going to teach that white people perpetuate systemic racism.”

Baderinwa asked what Ciattarelli meant by the statement and if he believed systemic racism existed.

“I don’t think we should be teaching our students that white people perpetuate systemic racism,” he said. “I think what we should be teaching our children is the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That’s what we should be teaching our children.”

Murphy said he believes “with all my heart, we need to teach our kids the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“You have to teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth, including about slavery, oppression, racism in our country’s history,” he said.

After the debate, Ciattarelli doubled down on his stance, though he did say systemic racism existed.

“I don’t believe we should be teaching students that white people perpetuate systemic racism or that the white student is the oppressor or the Black and brown student is the oppressed,” he said. Ciattarelli did not answer questions about who he thought perpetuated systemic racism.

Ciattarelli said he was happy with his performance during the debate. In his post-debate comments, Murphy said “the contrast could not be starker.”

“It’s pretty clear there’s a huge chasm between what this guy stands for and not only what we stand for, but what we have in fact done,” he said.

This is the first of three debates this campaign season. Ciattarelli entered the debate trailing by double digits in the latest Monmouth University Poll.

The second debate will feature the respective running mates, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and former state Senator Diane Allen. That debate will take place on Oct. 5 at Rider University in Lawrenceville.

The final debate, the second between Murphy and Ciattarelli, will take place at Rowan University in Glassboro. Murphy is leading in North and Central Jersey, but is “basically even” with Ciattarelli in South Jersey.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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