Final GOP Primary Debate Highlights Contrasts Between Guadagno, Ciattarelli

By David Cruz

Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron guided the two Republican candidates for governor through a substantive, feisty and often revealing debate that covered some State House esoterica and meat and potatoes policy.

“Neither you, nor Ms. Guadagno, supported Donald Trump for president,” he began, asking Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, “if you win the primary would you welcome him into the state to campaign for you in the general election?”

“He’s the president of the United States,” responded Ciattarelli. “I’m a citizen first and I root for our president and if I think he can be of assistance and if he thinks he can be of assistance, yes.”

“I don’t think we should argue on that,” added Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. “I think we can agree on something there. I think he is the president of the United States. He’s the duly elected president of the United States and we should be lucky to have him come into our state.”

And that’s pretty much the last thing they agreed on. On property taxes?

“We have another revenue shortfall in Trenton, and this is what I think makes the lieutenant governor’s plan so irresponsible,” said Ciattarelli. “It’s based on false savings and phantom revenues. I also think, quite frankly, there’s a bit of a lie in it.”

“It’s not just revenue growth,” countered Guadagno. “We talked about the audit. We talked about the revenue growth. We talked about the $2.5 billion we could save just by changing the health care benefits that went to public sector unions. We talked about the $2 billion we could find by simply not doing sick leave payouts. Those are just four possible buckets, and then revenue growth.”

On a so-called millionaire’s tax, something generally reserved for Democratic debates, space between these two supposedly fiscal conservatives. He’s for it; she’s not.

“Let’s go back a couple of minutes,” said the lieutenant governor. “First of all, the last time we saw the income tax was when Jon Corzine was governor. In that last year he was governor, it was 9.8 percent unemployment and 117,000 people left the state of New Jersey. If Jack’s proposal is to raise those taxes, so that the people who can afford to leave New Jersey, leave, that only increases the taxes on the rest of us by definition, and we know it because it happened in 2009.”

“We’ve had 11 credit downgrades in this state because of revenue shortfalls, after revenue shortfall, after revenue shortfall because our economy is fragile and one reason it’s fragile is because our tax code is an abomination,” suggested the assemblyman. “Now, under my plan, if you have a million dollars in taxable income, you will pay a thousand dollars more in income taxes, but that will be more than offset by all the cuts in my plan. All the cuts in my plan.”

On mass transit, perhaps the most vexing everyday problem facing millions of Jersey commuters, the candidates agreed that things need to improve, but didn’t necessarily agree on how to fix it. She says audit NJ Transit; he says merge it with the DOT and the MVC. They both agree the state’s gun laws are a little too strict and both say the decisions on TTF-funded projects should be more transparent. But the most animated exchange was over the funding of Planned Parenthood which led to a discussion over public health priorities.

“As a woman, I am not in favor of abortions, but I am pro-choice,” said Guadagno. “But when it comes to Planned Parenthood, look, private entities should not be funded with taxpayer money. Abortions should not be funded with taxpayer money.”

“I will tell you that since Planned Parenthood arrived on the scene there have been a number of other very urgent matters that have arisen in the community,” replied Ciattarelli, in perhaps the most pointed exchange of the night. “When I think about homeless veterans, beds for drug addicts, the lack of mental health services in the community, we are at peak demand for mental health services. We can’t meet it.”

It was a reply Guadagno pounced on.

“I would never put a women’s health behind — my son is in the Air Force so I’m a military mom and I know how important it is to provide services for veterans — but I would never go back and rank the health of a woman. I wouldn’t do that, as Jack has suggested. I just think that’s completely inappropriate,” she said.

“Everyone’s health is equally important, so for her to suggest that what I was doing was ranking, she’s not facing facts,” responded Ciattarelli. “We’ve got a number of crises in the community. It’s not just women’s health.”

Afterward? Divergent views on the same event.

“I think it was a spirited debate that truly showed the difference between a tax and spend Republican and a Republican who understands the world that people in New Jersey live in and that’s me,” said a smiling Guadagno.

Asked about his somewhat hard-driving performance and whether he was attacking, Ciattarelli responded, “I don’t know if I was attacking. I think I was being quite honest. A number of her answers were unacceptable to me.”

This was the final shot for these two candidates to be face to face in front of a statewide audience. Our own decidedly unscientific poll found Ciattarelli won, but, as the assemblyman himself said, it’s up to the people to decide. In less than three weeks, they will.