Rivals hammer Murphy (and his money) in N.J. Democratic debate for governor

By Matt Arco | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on May 11, 2017

(front to back) John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jim Johnson and Raymond Lesniak wait to enter the studio during the Democratic debate in Newark

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NEWARK -- Two days after a relatively calm and cordial first debate, three Democratic hopefuls vying for their party's nomination to succeed Chris Christie as New Jersey's governor unleashed fury on front-runner Phil Murphy, whom they accused of trying to buy the nod from party bosses.

Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and ex-Goldman Sachs executive who has spent more than $15 million so far on his campaign, was assailed by rivals Jim JohnsonRaymond Lesniak, and John Wisniewski on Thursday night during the second and final Democratic primary debate before voters cast ballots June 6. 

"We have a candidate who has made the system awash in money," Wisniewski, a longtime member of the state Assembly, said during the debate at NJTV's studios in Newark. "It's an obscene amount of money. It's pay-to-play at its worst."

Wisniewski likened Murphy's willingness to donate millions of dollars to his campaign to former Gov. Jon Corzine, another former Goldman Sachs exec who spent tens of millions of dollars when he first ran for governor.

He decried Murphy for donating "$1.5 million alone to county" Democratic leaders and then, "mysteriously, every single one of them" gave Murphy the coveted county line. 

Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury official under then-President Bill Clinton, and Lesniak, a longtime member of the state Senate, lobbed similar attacks.

Murphy took the attacks like a punching bag, refusing to counter. Instead, he argued that he and his campaign have knocked on 400,000 doors and canvassed the state to receive their support.

"I haven't bought any county chairs," Murphy said. "I am proud of our endorsements. We've worked very hard to earn those endorsements. ... This is a state that's screaming for leadership."

Wisniewski was unconvinced and warned if New Jerseyans that electing Murphy would be repeating history, referring to former Corzine's unpopularity paving the way for Christie, a Republican.

"He did so well in that first term, we elected Chris Christie because of Jon Corzine," Wisniewski said. "We can't repeat that movie."

The Democratic hopefuls were able to find common ground, especially when it comes to taxes.

They support raising taxes on New Jersey's millionaires and agree the state should bring back an estate tax that's in the process of being phased out, as well as restore a recent cut to the state's sales tax.

Murphy said he would institute a millionaires tax and close corporate loopholes to pay for his plans to fully fund the pension system, school funding, and more. Then, he attacked Christie.

"We're used to Chris Christie's New Jersey of being stuck in the mud," Murphy said. "We need someone who understands how to grow the economy."

Johnson, however, called out Murphy for his plans.

"Your list of promises is breathtaking and unachievable," he said. "Insider play the game for themselves. You're in bed with the insiders. It's a serious matter, Phil."

All also agreed they would fully fund the state's ailing pension system if elected.

"We have to live up to the obligations we made," Wisniewski said. "This is one of the fundamental hypocrisies."

Murphy agreed.

"The state must step up and meet its obligations," he said.

All gubernatorial hopefuls also said they would scrap the controversial PARCC testing in schools across the state.

There are two other Democratic candidates who did not qualify for the debates: former Teaneck firefighter Bill Brennan and Tenafly Council President Mark Zinna. Both took part in an "outcast debate" Tuesday with two Republican contenders outside the arena.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Murphy leading the Democratic race with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Johnson a 7 percent, Wisniewski at 5, Lesniak at 4, Brennan at 3, and Zinna at 1. But the survey also showed 52 percent of Democratic voters haven't made up their minds yet on whom to support.

The two leading Republican primary candidates -- Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno -- will face off next Thursday in Newark for their second and final debate.

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