NEWARK, NJ - The second and final gubernatorial debate amongst the New Jersey Democratic candidates took place last night in Newark sponsored by NJ TV.
It was civil and produced no surprises. The Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls largely agree on most issues. But so do the majority of most likely Democratic Party voters – according to recent polls, more than 50 percent of voters are still undecided three weeks before primary day, June 6.
There are six candidates competing on the Democratic side for the opportunity of running for governor this fall – but only two-thirds of them made it to the stage last night. Activist and former firefighter Bill Brennan and Tenafly Borough Council President Mark Zinna have made a good showing on the stump appearing before county parties and activist groups around the state, but they were not permitted by NJTV in the debate. In response, Tuesday night at the first debate at Stockton University in Galloway Township in Atlantic County, they held their own debate contest outside in the street. That was with several of the Republican gubernatorial candidates -who were also not allowed in their party’s debate.
None of that moved the needle for any of the minor Democratic Party candidates - as collectively they have not reached the numbers of the Democratic leader Phil Murphy.
Zinna and Brennan, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, still hover in single digits. As matter of fact, with the Quinnipiac poll having a margin of error of 4.3 percent, Zinna could be polling as high as 5.3 percent or fall into the negative range - that’s statistically, of course.
The candidates participating in the NJTV debate were Jim Johnson, former U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement under Obama; state Senator Raymond Lesniak (LD-20); Phil Murphy, former United States Ambassador to Germany and former Goldman Sachs executive; and state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (LD-19).
NJTV Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron moderated the debate and wasted no time in asking substantive questions.
Aron’s opening query to leading candidate Phil Murphy was hardly a softball: He questioned him on just how he would make good on his promises to fully fund the pension system, provide a more robust Homestead Rebate tax, fully fund the school funding formula, pay for pre-K, and provide a dedicated source of funding for the transit system.
Murphy has promised to legalize and tax marijuana, re-institute a millionaire’s tax and close big corporate loopholes in order to pay for a very ambitious agenda. Murphy continually referred to those tax increases as “investments.”
For this answer, Murphy was taken to task by Johnson, who referred to Murphy’s plan as “...promises (that) are breathtaking and unbelievable.”
The subjects likely to be of most interest in Hunterdon include the usual predictable issues – property taxes, funding pensions and the high cost of the school funding formula.
Additionally, all the candidates agreed that opioid addiction is a growing problem that is plaguing New Jersey.
Wisniewski noted that the school funding formula, which was established by court order in 2008, is woefully outdated for the needs of today’s schools, and needs to be updated given the current environment and technologies.
All agreed that they should be a moratorium on charter schools, although Murphy said that he had never been a “ ‘heck no charter schools’ guy...but we need to do it right.” As a member of the board of the NAACP, Murphy had voted “no” on that organization’s policy on a moratorium on charter schools because, “that would have thrown kids out of school the very next day, as those schools would have lost federal funding.”
Regarding the funding of New Jersey state pensions, all agreed that the promise to state employees must be kept, and that the pension must be “fully funded,” although there was very little substance to the “how” that would be achieved. With an almost $50 billion unfunded state pension liability, it will most assuredly be an important issue for the next governor.
Wisniewski took shots at Murphy for “buying the election” and the “corrupt” process of getting the endorsement of all 21 Democratic Party County chairs very early on.
Murphy countered by saying that all of those at the county conventions were “good Democrats”, and he is "very proud" that his supporters have worked hard by knocking on tens of thousands of doors. Murphy lent his campaign more than $15 million and is the only candidate not participating in the state matching elections funds program. That was the closest any candidate came to landing a knockout punch to Murphy, who has outspent and politically out-maneuvered his rivals.
However, even with all the money spent, Murphy still has not garnered any more than about 25 percent of Democratic voters, with more than 50 percent still undecided. Given those numbers, the other candidates – Wisniewski, Lesniak, and Johnson are all likely to think that this is still an open race where anyone can win.
One thing that every candidate did agree on 100 percent – Trump is bad for America and Christie was awful for the New Jersey.