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COVID, systemic racism among top issues at final debate between Murphy, Ciattarelli

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Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Republican, and Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy debate on NJ PBS.

Another debate, another clear contrast between Democratic incumbent New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.

Tuesday night’s event at Rowan University’s Pfleeger Concert Hall in Glassboro, Gloucester County, was the final verbal contest between the two before the state’s first early, in-person voting period begins on Oct. 23. It could have been seen as home turf for Ciattarelli, who was running neck-to-neck with Murphy in South Jersey, according to the latest Monmouth Poll.

The debate was sponsored by NJ PBS before an at times raucous audience. Moderators and even the candidates asked audience members to “limit” their response so more questions could be asked and the two men could make their statements.

Similar to the first debate, moderators asked the candidates about the COVID-19 pandemic, including deaths in the state’s nursing homes, as well as education, abortion rights, and race.

Ciattarelli, who has been outspoken against Murphy’s executive orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including his mask mandate for school buildings and vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, was asked what science backed his position that people should have a choice over whether or not to either get vaccinated or wear a mask.

“I just believe that my role as governor when elected is to provide all the information people need to make an informed decision,” Ciattarelli said, adding he would “promote, preserve, and protect” public health and safety. “I think the best way to get as much cooperation as you possibly can is to find policy that works for a majority of people as opposed to a very heavy handed or one size fits all approach.”

Murphy said there is a “playbook” in fighting the pandemic and that vaccines and masking work to stop the spread of the virus.

“For folks to ignore that, disregard that playbook, is putting lives needlessly at risk,” the governor said. “It feels like an answer you'd see in a debate in Texas or Florida.”

Murphy was asked about when his administration would conduct a review of COVID-19-related deaths in the state’s nursing homes, which make up about one-third of the more than 27,000 virus-related fatalities in New Jersey. He promised “a full accounting” independent of his office.

Despite the high number of nursing home deaths, 62% of people surveyed in the latest Monmouth Poll said Murphy is doing a good job managing the state through the pandemic. In an August poll, more voters trusted Murphy more when it comes to handling the pandemic.

When asked how he would ensure the safety of people in school buildings without a mandate, Ciattarelli did not give any specific measures. He pointed to examples of schools that were able to operate last year with in-person instruction. He specifically named the Holmdel School District as “a perfect example of a community that (dedicated) itself to there being no learning loss.” Holmdel was one of the school districts that reopened to full-time instruction last December, according to TapInto Holmdel & Colts Neck.

It was also the first time Ciattarelli gave his definition of white privilege, after avoiding the question in a recent WNYC interview and saying in the first debate at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark last month that he opposed teaching children about systemic racism.

“Have whites had access to things that people have not,” Ciattarelli said Tuesday night. “Yes, that’s a sad fact. Has the Black race been disadvantaged and marginalized? Yes, that’s a sad fact. We need to address it.”

Ciattarelli referred to his campaign website, where he said he had a specific plan that would bring economic development to Black communities. He also took an opportunity to slam the governor for his record concerning the Black community, including a lawsuit filed in June 2020 against the state by a Black-owned asset management firm and the low number of Black people who are vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Tuesday, 8% of the 5.7 million people who were fully vaccinated in New Jersey are Black.

Murphy shot back. He said the school funding formula Ciattarelli is suggesting “is not standing up for Black and brown communities. Period.” Murphy also said 31% of money from the State Investment Council has gone to “minority-owned businesses” since he’s been governor and that “white privilege is real.”

“The legacy of slavery is not a historical element,” Murphy added. “Let's not debate whether it exists. Let's accept it, sadly, and let's do something about it.”