N.J. Republican gubernatorial debate called off after candidate refuses COVID test

Posted May 24, 2021

The second of two Republican primary gubernatorial debates scheduled for this week has been called off after one of the participants refused to comply with COVID-19 testing requirements, the debate’s sponsor said Monday evening.

Hirsh Singh, who declared last week he wouldn’t take part in the debate because it was going to be virtual instead of in-person, said no to NJ PBS’s rules about providing a negative COVID-19 test prior to Wednesday’s debate, according to a statement from the public television station.

The first — and now only — debate between Singh and former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is expected to go on as scheduled Tuesday night. It will be hosted by radio station New Jersey 101.5.

The debates are part of a state law that provides matching public funds for candidates who raise a certain amount of money and agree to limit their campaign spending. The law says they must participate in two debates, overseen by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Singh and Ciattarelli both raised the at least $490,000 needed to qualify for the program. Ciattarelli is taking matching funds, but Singh is not, which means the key benefit of the program to him is being allowed to debate.

“We were pleased when both campaigns agreed to the virtual arrangement in late April and provided them the debate criteria in early May,” NJ PBS said. “Since then, the Singh campaign did not re-confirm its participation in our event by the deadline set by ELEC today and has refused to comply with the COVID testing requirement that is part of NJ PBS production protocols. For these reasons, we must, unfortunately, cancel the debate.”

Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director, said “the action taken by Mr. Singh regarding the NJ PBS Spotlight debate is very disappointing and regrettable.”

“Mr. Singh’s reneging on his commitment to participate in two interactive debates is a first in the history of the program,” Brindle added in a statement. “On behalf of the commission, I would like to express my appreciation to the people at NJ PBS Spotlight for their support of the gubernatorial public financing program and for their strong efforts to bring this debate to the public only to be canceled as a result of Mr. Singh’s withdrawal.”

Singh, meanwhile, claimed in a statement on social media that NJ PBS canceled the event because he refused to their terms that he both “get vaccinated and take a COVID test to participate in the debate.”

The station denied debate participants would be forced to be vaccinated. Rather, they were required to test for the coronavirus within 72 hours of the event because production crews would have been sent to each candidate, according to rules the station sent to both campaigns that were shared with NJ Advance Media.

“A COVID-19 test was required of both candidates to assure the safety of our crew who would be working with them on the production,” NJ PBS spokeswoman Debra Falk said. “There was never a mandate to be vaccinated.”

Singh and Ciattarelli are two of four candidates running in the June 8 primary for the Republican nomination to face Gov. Phil Murphy in November’s general election.

The two other candidates, pastor Phil Rizzo and former Franklin Mayor Brian Levine, did not meet the fundraising requirements to qualify for the debates.

Murphy is running unopposed for the Democratic nod as he vies for a second term.

A spokeswoman for Ciattarelli’s campaign, Stami Williams, said there was no requirement for Ciattarelli to be vaccinated to participate in the event.

“Hirsh Singh’s weak decision to back out of this debate — despite previously agreeing to it and knowing all of the rules well in advance — has nothing to do with medical freedom, vaccines, or masks. Hirsh made up these phony excuses,” Williams said in a statement. “To defeat Phil Murphy, Republicans need a candidate with real world experience and a backbone like Jack Ciattarelli.”

Singh told NJ Advance Media that NJ PBS said he needed to be vaccinated and take a COVID-19 test ahead of the debate during a conference call with him and members of his team on May 13.

“They backtracked on the vaccine today and said they previously did not request a COVID vaccine, but they did,” he said. “You can write the story however you would like. I’ve given you the facts.”

Singh has run multiple failed races for office, including a U.S. Senate bid and a 2017 gubernatorial campaign. During that race, he raised $1 million — $950,000 of which was a loan from his father.

He raised more than $515,000 for his current bid. The largest donation to his campaign came in the form of a $418,000 loan from himself.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-05-25 02:18:08 -0700