Democrats Square Off in Gubernatorial Primary Debate

By Michael Hill

Barely two minutes in to the NJTV/NJ Spotlight gubernatorial debate and a rival mentioned Phil Murphy by name.

“I want to ask Phil, you do know that the closing corporate tax loophole bill is my legislation, correct?” asked Sen. Ray Lesniak.

“I’m honored by that, senator. I think we should get ahead. I’ll be the governor who will sign it,” Murphy said.

Murphy — who stood smiling — would be mentioned the most throughout the night.

Murphy is a former ambassador to Germany, as an executive of Goldman Sachs. He’s doubled the spending of all the other candidates combined. ELEC says $15 million from his own pocket to his campaign. Assemblyman John Wisniewski accused Murphy of buying support across the state to capture the coveted county party line on the June 6 primary ballot.

“How would you change the system to diminish the power of county chairman?” asked debate moderator Michael Aron.

“Well let’s talk about the problem we have right now. We have a candidate who’s made the system a wash in money. It’s an obscene amount of money. One and a half million dollars alone to county chairs. And mysteriously every single one of them have given the nomination, given the line in that county to Phil Murphy. It’s pay-to-play at its worst,” Wisniewski said.

“I haven’t bought any county chairs, with all due respect. I am proud of the endorsements we have,” Murphy said.

“You have made donations both before the endorsements and after them. And if you look at the scheduled endorsements, it’s really pretty clear that there were clean-up payments,” said Jim Johnson.

“People were threatened. These people were told who they were going to vote for. This was a rigged system from the day it started,” Wisniewski said.

Murphy could have responded that Wisniewski played by those same rules when Wisniewski chaired the state Democratic Party. Instead, Murphy — as he did throughout the debate — sought to stay above the fray.

“The people who showed up at these conventions are good Democrats. They’re good progressives. They want a better New Jersey,” he said.

The format allowed the candidates to ask another candidate a question.

Wisniewski said Murphy’s investment portfolio contradicts his campaign platform.

“You’re invested in companies that produce the fracking fluid that contaminates water. How can you really expect the people of New Jersey to believe your environmental credentials when your financial portfolio takes a different position than you’ve taken publicly here in the campaign,” Wisniewski said.

“There’s probably no good answer in terms of those investments. I will say this, that I started, I helped bring together one of the premiere sustainable investment firms in the world,” Murphy said.

“What is it in your time at Goldman Sachs that should give anyone any assurance that the progressive values you’re talking about today are progressive values that you’ve acted on at Goldman Sachs, particularly when it relates to foreclosure,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, I left Goldman Sachs in 2003, but I want to put that aside for a minute. I don’t need to be… I appreciate it Jim. I don’t want anybody lecturing me about progressive values,” Murphy responded.

Murphy lobbed a question on the ExxonMobil cleanup fight to Lesniak.

“By the way, now I can’t ask you a difficult question because you gave me a softball,” Lesniak said to laughter.

But Lesniak hammered away — saying while at Goldman Sachs, Murphy took part in drafting the mortgage lending practices that led to millions of Americans losing their homes.

“The question is, how can you run for governor with a record like that?” Lesniak asked.

“Right. Well with all due respect again, it’s a pesky little detail. I was long gone from Goldman when this crisis either built up or fell apart,” Murphy said.

The candidates offered to fix public pensions largely through revenue generation with proposals that included words like rescinding, re-directing and raising taxes.

“There are other taxes we have to do, Mike, too. We have to look at the disastrous estate tax cut that took $600 million out of the budget, the one-eighth cent sales tax cut that took another $600 million out of the budget, as well as the millionaires tax. And let’s not forget legalizing marijuana and closing corporate loopholes. We can raise $2.7 billion,” Wisniewski said.

“We’ll give you a chance to reply but Sen. Lesniak, you’ve proposed doubling the millionaires tax to bring in $1 billion. Doesn’t that just drive people out of New Jersey?” Aron asked.

“First of all, it would still be lower than New York and California, which have booming economies,” Lesniak said.

“I would gradually increase the quarterly payments. I would also raise the estate tax. Also, we have to look at the millionaires tax because right now our funding plans don’t work,” Johnson said.

“If you look at the so-called Murphy report recommendation number one — no more pension holidays,” Murphy said.

The four Democrats who qualified for matching funds to enter the debate agreed to end PARCC testing, offered ideas on properly funding schools, and pooh-poohed Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to divert lottery proceeds to the pension system.

After the debate, there was still plenty of chatter — mostly about performance and perception to NJTV News’ Brenda Flanagan.

“Did you make a big enough impact in this debate?” she asked Lesniak.

“I didn’t see having to make a big enough impact in the debate as the key to my success,” he answered.

“I have experience that money cannot buy. And we saw that today. I think it’s going to change voters’ perceptions of who they should be thinking about for the next governor,” Johnson said.

“Phil Murphy’s not ready for prime time. We saw on a couple of critical issues that when confronted in public, he really didn’t have a good explanation for his positions, whether it was on fracking or just about anything else,” Wisniewski said.

“Do you feel that any of the attack about your being the man who’s bought the election or bought the votes resonates with voters?” Flanagan asked Murphy.

“I don’t know but it hasn’t, it doesn’t come up ever with me with voters. It only comes up when I’m hearing it from these guys. When I’m on the streets, in town halls, knocking on doors, people aren’t asking me about my personal circumstances. They’re asking me what can I do to help them?” he replied.

Each candidate claimed victory in some big or small way. Next Thursday, the two Republicans who qualified for matching funds will have their turn under the bright lights to sway voters.