New Jersey Gubernatorial Debate

The gubernatorial candidates for New Jersey -- Republican Bret Schundler and Democrat Jim McGreevey -- faced off last night in their first debate of the campaign, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The two immediately defined their differences in a lively and contentious exchange. WNYC's Amy Eddings has this report.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th may have changed New York City's mayoral election, but they appear to have had little effect on the gubernatorial race in New Jersey. Bret Schundler, the former Mayor of Jersey City, talked about the attacks in his opening remarks, and said he'd improve regional intelligence-gathering efforts….but he quickly moved on to more familiar themes.

Bret Schundler: My opponent and I have different philosophies. Almost all of his campaign proposals are for increased spending. All of my proposals are for reforming the way we spend the money we already have.

Mr. McGreevey, a former state assemblyman and mayor of Woodbridge, also stuck to perennial issues, such as high property taxes and high auto insurance rates…themes he campaigned on when he ran for governor in 1997.

Jim McGreevey: For me, this race is fundamentally about middle class New Jersey. People who work hard and play by the rules.

Asked what he would do to balance New Jersey's books in a likely recession, Mr. McGreevey said he'd cap the state's property tax relief program, consolidate state agencies, and refinance debt. But Mr. Schundler suggested Mr. McGreevey would seek other ways to close a deficit.

Schundler: Now he's been asked whether he' would promise not to raise taxes, and I have made that pledge, and I said I will get more done by spending less money, and lower taxes, but he's been unwilling to even promise not to increase taxes.Moderator: Your rebuttal, Mr. McGreevey.McGreevey: Well, you know, after what happened on September 11th, I think it's irresponsible for a government official to say under any circumstances, to make that kind of a commitment.

Mr. McGreevey later characterized himself as a governor who would tell the truth. He used Mr. Schundler's pledge to tear down the Garden State Parkway tolls in nine months as an example: he said it couldn't be done.

On the issue of education, the top concern of New Jersey voters, Mr. McGreevey criticized Mr. Schundler's plan to use a tax credit program to move students out of failing schools and into private ones, saying it would gut public education.

McGreevey: I wanna say to every parent in the state of New Jersey in those failing school districts, meet your new best friend. I'm gonna make sure public schools work in every classroom in the state of New Jersey.

But Mr. Schundler said twelve years of state control and increased funding for Jersey City schools did not turn around its graduation rate, which still stands at forty percent.

2Schundler: More spending is not going to solve the problem. What we have to do is use the money better. We have to have accountability we have to have tenure reform, we have to have money spent on the right priorities, not on bureacracy. He's fighting the right reforms, because he wants to keep the NJEA, the teachers' union happy.

That later paved the way for Jim McGreevey to talk about what he said was Bret Schundler's special interest groups: the gun lobby and the Christian right.

McGreevey: Mr. Schundler, during the Republican Primary, made a deal with the gun lobby. He said if a bill came to his desk, permitting individuals to carry concealed weapons, he'd sign it. In his Christian Coalition questionnaire, he said he'd only appoint justices to the Supreme Court that were right to life. He'd ban abortion in cases of rape and incest… Moderator: Time's up.

Mr. Schundler's next question was on whether he'd ban hand held cell phone use while driving. He said he'd wait to see if New York's new law reduced accidents….and then quickly returned to the issue of carrying concealed weapons.

Schundler: I was asked during a television program whether I supported certain exemptions. I said I do. Those exemptions exist in the current law. Jim McGreevey voted for them in 1990, so what a hypocrite. McGreevey: Bret, you can run but you cannot hide. These are the quotes, we'll make them available.

On the issue of abortion, Mr. Schundler told debate panelists it was Mr. McGreevey who would use abortion as a litmus test for judicial candidates, not him…and he said he, not Jim McGreevey, would follow the will of the people and ban so-called partial birth abortions. For his part, Mr. McGreevey said he'd ban concealed weapons…AND hand held cell phones while driving. Neither candidate claimed victory. Jim McGreevey said it was a good, straightforward debate. Bret Schundler said people got important information on the two candidates. The next debate sponsored by the state's Election Law Enforcement Committee is on October 25th. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings, in Newark, New Jersey.