In a sure sign that primary day in New Jersey is just a few weeks away, the Democrat and Republican candidates of this year’s gubernatorial race met at Stockton College this week for their first debate.
Only those six candidates who were able to meet the $430,000 fundraising threshold (for public matching funds) appeared on stage; the others were locked out of the debate. Republicans Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli debated first for one hour. They were followed in the second hour by Democrats, the former Assistant Treasury Secretary Jim Johnson, Senator Ray Lesniak, former Ambassador Phil Murphy, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
The format left each candidate only about 15 minutes each to respond to a limited number of topics, so many issues weren’t addressed. The issue of affordable housing was not raised at all, for example.
RPA’s New Jersey Committee has met with most of these candidates over the past year and expressed our positions that we consider to be of greatest import for the next governor to pursue in the areas of transportation, housing, community development, energy and environment. It was gratifying to hear several of those positions echoed and endorsed by many of the candidates in the debate.
The topic of climate change was a central theme, and it was unsurprising that all four Democrats agreed that there is no dispute that human action is a direct cause of the rising greenhouse gases warming the planet. In fact, Senator Lesniak referred to an unnamed study on sea level rise—possibly RPA’s Under Water: How Sea Level Rise Threatens the Tri-State Region–to make the case that New Jersey is at risk of serious impact. All four Democrats agreed that the state should commit to a policy of “renewable energy only” by 2050, including solar, 3,500 Mega Watts of offshore wind power and a program of energy conservation. All four opposed off-shore oil drilling and agreed that the state should re-join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).
Assemblyman Wisniewski added that investment in mass transit is also key to getting people out of their cars and fighting climate change. He said he would also ban fracking and put scientists in leadership at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. Murphy and Wisniewski both expressed the importance of defending the autonomy of the Highlands Council and Pinelands Commission as the best way to protect their critical water resources.
Republican Kim Guadagno also acknowledged the human role in causing climate change and urged that she would support renewable energy development, stimulate tourism by renewing support for clean air and clean water and rejoin RGGI. Her opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, opposes re-entry into RGGI, arguing that energy policy should be national. He supports the development of natural gas projects, although he opposes pipelines through the Highlands or Pinelands.
On transportation, there was no specific question regarding trans-Hudson connections; rather, just a question on what the candidate would do with regard to NJ Transit. All candidates, Republican and Democrat, argued for more investment in that agency, although Guadagno would fund this by auditing state government to ensure that dollars currently allocated for transit are spent there. Ciattarelli noted that although he opposed the bill to increase the gas tax to replenish the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, now that it has been passed, he would spend the $2 billion to fix NJ Transit first, then gather NJ Transit, the Department of Transportation, and the Division of Motor Vehicles under one roof, where their fees could be plowed back into transit projects rather than going into the “black hole” of the state’s general fund.
Democrats argued for the restoration of transit funding that had been cut during the Christie administration, and to expand investment in rail infrastructure. Only Assemblyman Wisniewski made mention of specific transit projects that he would support: he said that we need a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, and a new and better New York Penn Station. None of the candidates spoke specifically about the Gateway project.
Before the debates began, the four candidates that did not qualify to participate on stage debated outside the hall. Republicans Joseph Rullo, a businessman and Councilman Steve Rogers of Nutley Township debated Democrats Council President Mark Zinna from Tenafly and Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter and political activist. Zinna took some controversial stances, proposing to call out the National Guard to block construction of any pipelines across NJ. He also proposed to disband the Port Authority of NY & NJ, extend the #7 subway into New Jersey and run the “A” subway from its Harlem terminus across the George Washington Bridge and westward all the way to Paterson. Bill Brennan ridiculed current Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement plans, and argued that he would evict Madison Square Garden at the end of their lease in 2022, and build a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in their place, directly above the Penn Station.