In their second, and final, debate before voters decide the New Jersey governor’s race in three weeks, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli on Tuesday night traded another set of bitter exchanges over COVID-19 vaccines and mask policies, school funding, and white privilege — while surprisingly finding some common ground on abortion.
The hour-long event at Rowan University in Glassboro was nearly as feisty as the race’s first debate, with the candidates cutting each other with sharp retorts and the audience frequently butting in with applause, boos, and shouts.
It comes as Murphy, who is seeking a second term, continues to lead Ciattarelli, a former member of the state Assembly, in public-opinion polls, though the margin has thinned.
On Tuesday, both continued to present remarkably different visions for New Jersey’s future — starting with policies for how the state should handle the lingering coronavirus pandemic.
Ciattarelli insisted he personally encourages people to get vaccinated, but he maintained he is against vaccine and mask mandates because a “one-size-fits-all approach” doesn’t work for many residents.
“I believe that my role as governor when elected is to provide all the information people need to make an informed decision. And then the choice is theirs,” he said toward the beginning of the debate, co-sponsored by NJ PBS, WNYC, and Rowan University.
Murphy argued Ciattarelli would put lives “needlessly at risk” through his COVID-19 policies.
“This feels like a debate in Texas or Florida,” the governor said.
Ciattarelli also slammed Murphy over recent reports the governor and other attendees did not wear masks at an indoor ball hosted by Garden State Equality in Asbury Park this past weekend.
Attendees were required to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get in. But Monmouth County currently has “high” rates of coronavirus transmission and masking is recommended in such a setting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While Murphy has lifted statewide mask mandates, he has urged people to wear masks in settings of high risk. And Republicans have accused the governor of being hypocritical for not wearing a mask at the event when children are required to wear masks in school and daycare.
“I do think our leadership needs to be consistent in times such as these,” Ciattarelli said.
Murphy suggested he did not wear a mask because he was on stage speaking — something he said often does at public events, such as his weekly COVID-19 briefings.
“Are you wearing a mask right now? We’re on stage,” Murphy said to Ciattarelli.
Ciattarelli countered: “He was at a large indoor gathering. Nobody had a mask on.”
“Nice try,” Murphy replied.
The governor was also pressed on why he has not yet fulfilled his promise for a review examining how the coronavirus pandemic was handled in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where more than 8,500 people have died from COVID-19.
“The challenge is we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” Murphy said. “There will be be a full accounting, without question, independent of my office on this.”
Another heated argument involved the state budget. Ciattarelli has attacked Murphy for adding $11 billion in spending in the last four years. And he has vowed to cut $10 billion in spending. reduce taxes by revamping the state school funding formula.
But Ciattarelli did not directly answer what programs he’d cut to reduce spending, instead saying he would work with the state Legislature to figure that out.
“We will all sit down together, tighten the belt and find places to cut,” he said. “I will tell you that state government is bloated, inefficient, and corrupted by special interest.”
Murphy touted how his administration has increased funding for public schools and recently made a $6.4 billion payment to the state traditionally under-funded public-worker pension system. He also blamed Ciattarelli and previous lawmakers for not providing enough funding in the past.
”We inherited a complete and utter mess, and you were there for six years before I was,” Murphy said.
Ciattarelli countered: “The budget’s up by $11 billion. People don’t want a handout, they want a hand-up.”
“That is offensive,” Murphy responded. “That’s another example of forward-backward. A hand out? 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 a $400,000 home elsewhere.
“That’s not fair,” he said. “We need a flatter, more equitable distribution of aid.”
Murphy said that will hurt poorer students, especially in communities of color.
“If you’re in a Black or brown community or you’re a Black or brown kid out there, you’re gonna get…