Candidates Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Republican, and Phil Murphy, Democrat, made pointed critiques of their opponent while undermining each other's main line of attack at the first gubernatorial debate hosted at New Jersey's Performing Arts Center Tuesday night.
The themes of the evening emerged quickly.
Murphy’s opening statement painted New Jersey as a state “ravaged by the Christie and Guadagno administration,” and laid the problems of underfunded schools, ignored infrastructure and high property taxes at the feet of his opponent.
In turn, Guadagno criticized Murphy for promising solutions without specifics and made clear her focus was lowering property taxes and making New Jersey affordable. Guadagno would go on to reference the high cost of living in New Jersey for most of her answers in the debate.
The exchange covered the candidates’ views on the 2 percent arbitration cap, the state’s pension crisis, what each candidate would ask of President Trump, employment opportunities in New Jersey, infrastructure, a $15 minimum wage and social issues such as gun control.
Despite the array of topics, the candidates managed to redirect many of their answers back to their core issues.
At one point, Guadagno referenced lowering property taxes in response to a question about consolidating school districts, which led to a jesting remark from her opponent. “I’m shocked that you worked property taxes in there,” Murphy said, who at several points criticized Guadagno for “changing the subject” on various issues.
Murphy’s repeated his main line of attack against Guadagno several times in the debate, suggesting that her election would be a “third term” for the current administration.
“You’ve been alongside Governor Christie every step of the way for 2,821 days. If it’s such a good idea, where have you been?” Murphy said, with repeated support from the audience.
Guadagno managed a defense against this criticism late in the debate.
“The inconvenient truth for Phil is Chris Christie is not on the ballot in November, I am,” Guadagno said in response to Murphy connecting the Christie administration’s raising of transportation fares to Guadagno. The comment drew applause from the crowd.
Both candidates managed to undermine their opponents’ strengths as well.
Guadagno attempted to reframe her attachment to the Christie administration by boasting the state’s unemployment rate went from 9.8 percent to 4.5 percent, a task she was specifically assigned to as lieutenant governor.
“The reason why our unemployment is so low, everybody’s is lower, is because we’re at a 10 year low of labor market participation,” Murphy said.
Guadagno frequently depicted Murphy’s plans to fund projects as unrealistic, but the most compelling critique came from the moderator Jim Gardner when he asked Murphy plainly for specifics on how he would fund the pension program. Murphy responded by saying his plan was “very, very credible,” but Gardner was not impressed.
“Forgive me, but I still haven’t heard how,” Gardner said.
Guadagno and Murphy will meet for a second debate at William Paterson University in Wayne on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. Be sure to read NJBIZ’s recap of the second debate.