From abortion to climate change and taxes, GOP gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli staked out positions Thursday in their last debate before the New Jersey primary that served as a reminder of the relative moderation of the Republican Party in the state.
Ciattarelli, a businessman from Somerset County and the underdog in the race, challenged Guadagno on one of those fronts, attacking her support for rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Putting New Jersey back in the cap-and-trade program – which Gov. Christie abandoned – would raise electricity rates and give the state a competitive disadvantage, Ciattarelli said.
"We are having climate change," Guadagno said. "We have to do something to respond to what's going on in this world."
Guadagno, a former prosecutor and Monmouth County sheriff, continued to hammer Ciattarelli over his tax plan, which would establish two new income-tax brackets for the state's highest earners at $750,000 and $1 million.
"The last time we saw that income tax was when [Democrat] Jon Corzine was the governor of the state of New Jersey," Guadagno said. Ciattarelli maintained the new brackets would be accompanied by cuts as part of a restructuring that "lowers everyone's overall tax bill."
The final matchup between the candidates came less than three weeks before the June 6 primary. Guadagno and Ciattarelli qualified for the debate, held at NJTV's studio in Newark, based on fund-raising and election rules.
They continued to criticize each other's tax plans, with Ciattarelli blasting Guadagno's pledge to deliver $1.5 billion in property-tax relief as an "irresponsible promise" and calling her disingenuous for not first targeting inequity in the state's school-funding system.
Both were pressed by moderator Michael Aron on their plans. Ciattarelli said property taxes wouldn't skyrocket in cities like Camden and Newark despite his plan to require them to pay a larger share of their school costs. And Guadagno said she would be able to fund property-tax relief -- including with savings found through an audit of state government -- despite the state's chronic underfunding of its public worker pension system and its school-funding formula.
On the topic of Planned Parenthood, Guadagno said that she was "not in favor of abortions, but I am pro-choice."
"I don't believe government has a place in my home, what I do with my body," Guadagno said, though neither she nor Ciattarelli supported restoring Christie's funding cuts to Planned Parenthood.
Both Ciattarelli and Guadagno said they supported decriminalizing marijuana, but not legalizing it. Guadagno said the state should "streamline" its existing medical marijuana program.
Guadagno has led Ciattarelli in polling, fund-raising, and county party support. But Ciattarelli has been trying to capitalize on a different advantage: his distance from the unpopular Christie.
He attacked Guadagno with the Christie administration's record Thursday, noting the 11 downgrades of the state's credit by the three major ratings agencies amid "revenue shortfall after revenue shortfall after revenue shortfall," and the recent 23-cent hike in the state's gas tax.
"We need to move beyond the Christie-Guadagno era," Ciattarelli said, arguing that he was the only Republican who could win in November.
Guadagno – who promoted her "record as a job creator" during her 7½ years in Christie's administration – maintained that she had "fundamental differences" with the governor but had to play an appropriate role as his lieutenant. "I have never walked down the hall and taken a piece of legislation off the governor's desk," Guadagno said.
"I'm running for governor. The governor's not," she said.