Against a New Jersey farm backdrop that included the barn where she learned to milk cows as a kid, Diane Allen decried high taxes, shuttered businesses, and long lines at the motor vehicle commission. She touted her history as a state senator who championed women’s rights. And she reminisced about her first run for public office — a campaign she lost.
“They told me I didn’t know how to play the game,” Allen, 73, told supporters at a Burlington County farm earlier this month during her introduction as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. “I still don’t know how to do that, and I don’t want to know.”
As GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli seeks to unseat Gov. Phil Murphy in November — in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by one million — adding Allen to the ticket could be a way to attract centrist voters more inclined to vote Republican now that Donald Trump has left the White House. She represented a Democratic-leaning district for two decades, was known for working across the aisle, and has never expressed wholehearted support for Trump.
“The way people decide to vote for you is on a personal level,” Allen, who retired from Trenton in 2018, said in an interview early this month. “Not just the words you say, but how you back them up. ... I’ve always believed party politics shouldn’t be the most important thing.”
But days after joining the ticket, she said in a radio interview that she voted for Trump because she was worried Joe Biden would “tear this country apart,” mentioning undocumented immigrants spreading COVID-19 as something she feared.
“Right now I look at all these people with COVID who are coming across the border, and it scares me,” Allen said on the New Jersey Globe Power Hour on Talk Radio 77 WABC. “They’re put on buses. I suspect some of them are coming up to New Jersey — not a good idea. That the people who are pulled over from the border who are carrying illegal guns, or drugs, or whatever. So there’s a lot of things going on that I didn’t want to see go on, and that was the reason that I voted for Trump.”
Democrats and Latino groups condemned her comments as racist, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) used them in a fund-raising email, saying Allen “seeks to demonize Hispanics and stoke fear.” Murphy, who has previously praised Allen’s political career, called the comments “tinfoil-hat stuff.”
Public health experts say there is no evidence undocumented immigrants are significantly driving the spread of the coronavirus.
In the same radio interview, Allen said she wants to look at the state’s concealed-weapons laws, adding that when public shootings happen in states like Texas, “there’s generally somebody there that has a gun that can take them out.”
Speaking again to The Inquirer last week, Allen said it’s wrong to interpret her comments as a signal to the far right, and said she did not blame immigrants for the ongoing pandemic. She said the virus is only part of her broader concern about border security.
“Our government is doing a poor job dealing with this,” she said. “I was concerned that [Biden] was not going to be able to run the country. And that’s what’s happening.”
She added that while she finds Trump “disgusting on a personal level,” she believes the border would be under control if he were in office.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Democratic majority leader who worked with Allen for years, described her as “accomplished, intelligent, and sophisticated,” a key ally in passing legislation. She was surprised by Allen’s comments, because she couldn’t remember them ever discussing guns or immigration.
“To come out of the gate on concealed-carry weapons was bewildering,” Weinberg said. “To talk about COVID being spread by immigrants was also bewildering. I almost had that feeling of, ‘What did you do with Diane Allen?’”
Bill Palatucci, a top New Jersey Republican and longtime adviser to former Gov. Chris Christie, called Allen “the victim of modern media and reporting.”
“She has 1,000 positions and accomplishments throughout her distinguished career and you want to focus on two or three instances where her views now more closely match the party’s nominee,” he said in an email. “Voters will concentrate on and will be interested in her full experience and complete record of public service.”
If Murphy wins a second term, he would be New Jersey’s first Democratic governor in decades to be reelected. He’s widely seen as the favorite, buoyed by voters’ approval of his pandemic response and a growing Democratic registration advantage. A poll last week found him ahead by 16 percentage points, with Ciattarelli and Allen still largely unknown to voters.
Ciattarelli, a former assemblyman who also had a reputation as a moderate in Trenton, prevailed over two more vocally pro-Trump candidates in the June primary. Like Allen, he’s been accused of making inflammatory comments to appeal to Trump’s most fervent supporters.
He vowed in June to roll back LGBTQ curriculum in schools, according to footage obtained by Gothamist and WNYC radio, saying that under his leadership, “we’re not teaching gender ID and sexual orientation to kindergartners. We’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade.”
When advocates called the comments offensive and antigay, Ciattarelli said he only meant that parents, not schools, should decide when their children learn about “mature content.” Allen, one of two senators to cross party lines to support same-sex marriage in 2012, agrees.
Allen, who also worked as a Philadelphia TV journalist, is perhaps best known for her work on a law that protects women from discrimination in pay. Murphy signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act in 2018. The bill was born of Allen’s own experience being paid less than male counterparts as a journalist.
Allen said she came out of retirement because she was troubled by what she sees as crumbling state services and an unsustainable cost of living. She’d been working with Ciattarelli for more than a year as a campaign consultant before he asked her to become a candidate, and they share the same policy goals. Both have focused on high taxes, a perennial New Jersey campaign issue, and on criticizing Murphy’s handling of the pandemic — specifically business shutdowns and the high rate of deaths in nursing homes.
“I still think I have something left to give,” she said. “I think I can still help make this state better.”