Top gubernatorial candidates debate in Music Building

The Oct. 18 gubernatorial debate hosted by the College was the only one aired on network television in prime time. And, with only an hour to work with, the candidates – featuring two third-party contenders, Hector Castillo of the Education Not Corruption Party, and Jeffrey Pawlowski of the Libertarian Party – jockeyed for speaking time in what seemed, at points, to be a very cramped debate.

Considering the viciousness of the claims being hurled at one another in recent weeks by the Democrat and the Republican, both men seemed uncharacteristically tame. The heaviest blow of the night was levied by Castillo, criticizing Corzine’s property tax plan.

The plan calls for a 10 percent increase a year for four years on property tax rebates. Castillo said, with 10 percent on the average $800 rebate being $80, “That doesn’t even buy you a good bottle of wine.”

“With all due respect,” Corzine retorted, “I drink much cheaper wine.” He added that New Jersey’s property tax codes were created 300 years ago and needed to be revised for the modern age. He also added that, under his plan, rebates for seniors would increase by about $400.

Forrester, likewise, trumpeted his own property tax relief plan – the 30 percent -in-3 Guarantee – which would require the state, by constitutional amendment, to pay 30 percent of residential property taxes within a three-year period.

“The same crowd that’s saying it’s ‘pie-in-the-sky’ have been giving a pie in the face to New Jersey,” Forrester said, referring to the democratically controlled statehouse which has tried in the past, with marginal success, to fund rebate programs like the one endorsed by Corzine.

Much of the debate centered around the main contenders’ trading of diplomatically-couched barbs, as Corzine defended himself from Forrester’s latest attack ad – which premiered that morning – declaring the senator offered New Jersey “more taxes, more corruption, more of the same.”

“If you don’t respond (to attacks), people will think it’s the truth,” Corzine said, adding that he would like to engage in an honest and frank discussion of pertinent issues, but that his campaign has been continually diverted by charges of corruption.

The two also discussed their mutual decision to refuse public money for their campaigns, instead relying on their own amassed millions, with Forrester saying that he would have accepted public money if Corzine had as well.

During a section of the debate in which candidates were allowed to question one other candidate, Forrester and Corzine each chose to direct their questions to each other.

Forrester grilled Corzine about his remarks declaring his support for the scandal-plagued McGreevey administration during the Democratic National Convention in 2004, just weeks before the former governor resigned.

Corzine compared his allegiance to Forrester’s allegiance with the Bush administration. “Just like you stand with George Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and say you don’t agree with everything they do, but they’re still members of your party,” he said.

Corzine then asked Forrester about $3.4 million in no-bid contracts awarded to Forrester’s pharmaceutical company, BeneCard Services Inc., by a Burlington County agency after it contributed over $50,000 to county Republicans.

“We provide drugs for the people who need them,” Forrester said, calling the question a “distraction.” “We were the only company who provided a proposal that met the specs of the county.”

The partisan sniping over charges of corruption from both sides of the aisle prompted a response from Pawlowski: “It just goes to show you,” he said. “Everything in New Jersey is up for sale, including the governorship. And the price tag is clear, it’s between 20 and 30 million dollars.”

While, the debate gave the main contenders, Corzine and Forrester, the opportunity to further hammer home their agendas to the voters of New Jersey, it was an enormous opportunity for the relatively unknown candidates Castillo and Pawlowski.

Each of these candidates is required, by state law, to have amassed a war chest of more than $300,000 to participate in the debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters Education Fund along with ABC affiliates WPVI-6 from Philadelphia and WABC-7 from New York.

“The independent movement is alive in New Jersey,” Castillo said after the debate. Castillo immigrated to Paterson from Peru at the age of 11 before attending Seton Hall University as a medical student.

From there, he studied at the University of Guadalajara and the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry from which he received his doctorate. He also holds degrees in Internal Medicine, Ophthalmology and has a pending degree in Administrative Science.

“We need fresh ideas – this is what makes New Jersey and America great. If you get new ideas, you will make a better state. I know there are a lot of independent thinkers (at the College).”

“My campaign is a very easy campaign,” Pawlowski said, “a simple government. Don’t waste your opportunity here voting for business as usual.”

Pawlowski has been a member of the Libertarian Party since 2003 when he quit the Democratic Party after serving on the Sayreville town council and planning board.

Students had a chance to partake in the debate, offering two questions to the candidates. These two came from a panel of 10 students who, after participating in a workshop coordinated by Bill Ball, chair of the political science department, were given the opportunity to question the candidates.

“To obtain a spot on the panel was a process in itself,” Ravi Verma, sophomore biology major, who asked a question regarding stem cell research, said. Verma said that, after participating in a three-hour discussion of issues on the minds of New Jersey voters, 10 of the approximately 35 students who participated were offered spots on the panel.

“I’m a 7-year medical student at (the College),” Verma said. “The idea of medicine and embryonic stem cell research is very important to me as a result. With the world headquarters of Pfizer, Merck and Johnson & Johnson located right here in the Garden State . we have such a great opportunity . to be a world leader in embryonic stem cell research. However, the private industry is waiting for the public sector to start up with some funding.”

Corzine echoed some of Verma’s sentiments. “New Jersey is the medicine chest of the world,” he said, endorsing the use of state money for its research, adding that it was the “hope of mankind.”

“I was able to obtain a straight answer from all the candidates except Forrester,” Verma said. “He has been vehemently against embryonic stem cell research – taking a similar moral road like President George W. Bush – especially public funding for it. However, his response didn’t indicate that at all. He sounded like he was for it, yet never said the words ’embryonic’ or ‘public funding.’ He was playing the crowd, and I think the question tripped him up a little bit.”

Indeed, Forrester indicated support for research, citing a brain injury suffered by his daughter, Brianna. “These are exactly the type of injuries that be helped with stem cells,” he said, without explaining what type of research he would endorse.

The second student question, regarding homeland security, came from Kim Gray, junior journalism and professional writing major. In response, Corzine endorsed the creation of a homeland security czar for New Jersey. “We need to make sacrifices in order to protect people,” he added.

“I thought that Corzine did the best job at answering my question,” Gray said. “I felt like he was the only one that really showed me respect.” She added that she thought Pawlowski’s response was “pretty crazy.”

“The terrorists are winning this war,” Pawlowski said. “We all keep losing our freedoms one by one by one. The first role of government is not to protect its citizens, but to protect the liberties which we are granted.”

“Credit should go to . (Ball) and all the students who took the time to participate in his workshop before the debate,” Matt Golden, assistant director of Public Information, said. “They came across as intelligent and informed on camera.”

According Golden, the College was chosen as the site for this debate after it successfully held another gubernatorial debate in 2000. “WPVI and the League of Women Voters came back to us this year because things went well last time. I know they like the Music Building venue and think it works well for television,” he said.