WAYNE, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — In a debate Tuesday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie characterized opponent Barbara Buono as a supporter of high taxes and spending, while Buono accused Christie of being insensitive to the poor and middle class.
As CBS 2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, the candidates took jabs at each other Tuesday night on a range of issues from tax rates to same-sex marriage.
With the election less than a month away, the Republican Christie and Democrat Buono shared the stage at William Paterson University in Wayne, the first of two televised debates.
CBS 2’s Kristine Johnson moderated the debate. Also on the panel asking questions were Chris May of KYW-TV, CBS 3 Philadelphia; Alfred Doblin of The Record newspaper; and John Schoonejongen of the Asbury Park Press.
Johnson began by asking Buono why she has been trailing in the polls, despite being a Democrat running in a blue state.
She responded by criticizing Christie for going on late-night television and not paying attention to the unemployment rate in the state — with 400,000 people out of work.
“Politics is not supposed to be about entertainment. This is about you, your life and your children,” she said.
But when pressed about whether she would like help from national Democrats – including perhaps President Barack Obama – she said her focus was only on the voters.
“I’m focused on the people of New Jersey,” she said. “There’s only one person that’s running for governor here, and you’re looking at her.”
Meanwhile, Johnson asked Christie about some of the remarks he has made in which he has called people “idiots” and “jerks,” when he has endorsed anti-bullying campaigns. He said his use of such language has been justified.
“What the people of New Jersey want is someone who’s real, and will tell them the truth as he sees it, and that’s what I’ve done for four years,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve done – told them the truth.”
He said his blunt language was not disrespectful at all.
“Sometimes folks have to know that people who act in a certain way, that they’re going to be called out on it,” he said.
The candidates also faced off about same-sex marriage. Recently, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that the state must begin allowing same-sex marriage by Oct. 21, and the Christie administration has put forward plans to appeal the decision.
Christie said he respects that “people of good will” can have differences of opinion on the issue, but the people of New Jersey should decide by referendum.
“I believe that the institution of marriage for 2,000 years is between a man and a woman, and if they’re going to change that definition of marriage, I don’t think that should be decided by 121 politicians in Trenton or nine judges on the Supreme Court,” he said.
If the people of New Jersey vote in favor of gay marriage, Christie said he would support the ruling.
But Buono, who has an openly lesbian daughter, said Christie’s position was misguided.
“It’s a human right. I mean governor, have a profile in courage and do the right thing for our sons and daughters and our brothers and our sisters,” she said. “It is a human right, and this really should not be the one the ballot. We should not have the majority of people deciding the minority’s rights.”
On the issue of taxes — particularly property taxes — Buono accused Christie of shafting the poor and middle class by raising property tax rates, and raising taxes on the “working poor” by increasing bus and train fares.
Buono said she was committed to property tax relief, and accused Christie of balancing his budget on the backs of the poor. Christie had a snappy response, accusing Buono of being part of a fiscally irresponsible legislative body.
“I know Senator Buono would never have to balance the budget that way,” he said. “I had to balance her budget when I came in in 2010.”
He said if Buono is elected, “taxes will increase again and again and again,” while with his own fiscal policies, property taxes are down from a 7 percent annual increase to less than 2 percent.
Christie did not directly say whether he would be running for president in 2016, but he said if he does pursue other opportunities, it will not affect his performance as governor.
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I can do this job and deal with my future.”
The candidates were also asked to address figures issued by the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States. It showed the state had seen an increase in employment, personal income and tax revenue, but that the state ranked 44th in employment and tax revenue, and that personal income had seen the third smallest increase in any state.
Christie said given the state’s condition under the Democrats who preceded him – in which he implicated Buono – the state was in good shape. He said he inherited a $13 billion deficit from former Gov. Jon Corzine, and from Buono, who served as Senate Budget Committee chair at the time.
He said when he took office in 2010, the state ranked 50th in tax revenues in the country, and was at the “bottom of the barrel” for business friendliness.
“We have dug out of quite the hole in New Jersey,” he said. “Unemployment was over 10 percent when we became governor.”
Meanwhile, Buono was asked whether she felt she shared some responsibility for an increase in statewide unemployment from 4.6 percent to 9.7 percent in 2010, after she had served as the Senate Budget Committee.
Buono said people must remember that the economy was at its worst in those years.
The candidates were also offered an opportunity to ask each other a question. Christie noted that Buono has made 154 votes to raise taxes and fees, and asked whether she regretted one of them.
Buono responded that raising taxes is sometimes necessary – and Christie has done so too.
“Governor, you know any administration – including yourself – has to find revenues to support a budget. The difference is who pays and how they pay for it,” she said. “And you came into office and raised the cruelest tax of all – the property tax on average, middle class families.”
Buono later accused Christie repeatedly of supporting “Romney-style trickle-down economics” by giving tax breaks to big businesses.
During a lightning round, the candidates were asked to say something they liked about each other. Buono quipped that Christie was “good on late night television,” while Christie gave a long and serious answer saying Buono deserves credit for her service.
“While we have policy agreements, I would never denigrate her service,” he said.
The candidates also addressed the minimum wage, gambling expansion, the cost of higher education, and the fact that NJ TRANSIT lost a large amount of its fleet during Superstorm Sandy because it failed to move the trains, among numerous other issues. The candidates also addressed the idea of full legalization of marijuana, which they both oppose.
In his closing statement, Christie noted that growing up, he was always told by my mother to be himself.
“For four years, I’ve been myself for the people Of New Jersey. I’ve told them the truth of the problems we had –inheriting a $13 billion deficit and balancing it without raising taxes on anyone,” as well as supporting higher education and generally making New Jersey a better place for all, he said.
Buono noted that her father came to the U.S. without speaking any English, and now because of the American dream, the Italian immigrant’s daughter is now running for governor. But she said the American dream has not been going so well for some in New Jersey, with unemployment still extremely high.
“I will lift up the middle class,” she said. “I would put New Jersey back on the road to prosperity.”
A poll just out by Fairleigh Dickinson University showed Buono trailing Christie by 33 points. But when it comes to women, the margin is much less.
The election takes place on Nov. 5.
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