Jack Ciattarelli, GOP nominee, attacks N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy on crime, COVID-19 aftershocks


PARAMUS, New Jersey — The farewell line at The Fireplace Restaurant — another COVID-19 victim in a state hit harder than most — started at the cash register and snaked through the dining room, out the door and around the grassy edges of the parking lot.

General manager Frank Wierzbicki said the iconic Route 17 eatery was losing money so it was time to close after 65 years, prompting a flood of well-wishers seeking one last burger or pickle.

“There’s no profit margin. Trying to find people to work is almost impossible,” he said. “Our skirt steak that we use for our sliced-steak sandwich, five months ago it was only $6 a pound — it’s $19 a pound. You can only mark stuff up so high, and so there’s no point in being in business when you’re losing money.”

Mr. Wierzbicki didn’t cast blame for their plight, but a man shaking hands outside, Jack Ciattarelli, had no such qualms. He’s the GOP nominee trying to knock Democrat Phil Murphy out of the governor’s mansion in November.

“The impact of last year’s COVID pandemic and the governor’s shutdown orders, and now with what’s going on with the labor markets, where nobody wants to work, is making it very, very hard for small businesses and particularly the hospitality industry,” Mr. Ciattrelli, a 59-year-old former state assemblyman, told The Washington Times. “We’re seeing this across New Jersey, you can see how heartbreaking it is for a community.”

Mr. Murphy is the only governor facing reelection in the U.S. this year — Virginia has a race, but Gov. Ralph Northam is term-limited — and Garden State Democrats have been unable to get one of their governors reelected since 1977.

His bid is also the first big test of Democrats’ agenda and staying power after winning the White House and narrow control of Congress in November.

Yet Mr. Ciattarelli appears to be the one under pressure.

Mr. Murphy has a double-digit lead in polling and the advantage of greater name recognition than Mr. Ciattarelli. Fifty-two percent of registered voters said they’d back the governor compared to 26% for Mr. Ciattarelli in a Rutgers-Eagleton poll from June, and two-thirds of Republicans said they backed their nominee compared to 83% of Democrats who supported Mr. Murphy.

“Incumbency gives everyone a leg up but it gives challengers ammunition to go through. I just have yet to see the case against Phil Murphy made in an organized way that’s going to move the type of voters [Mr. Ciattarelli] needs,” said Colin Reed, a GOP strategist who worked for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a spokesman.

Mr. Ciattarelli is sharpening his attacks, pointing to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on small businesses. Property taxes remain high, and residents are still waiting for Democrats in Washington to restore a state-and-local taxes deduction that benefits residents of high-tax states but was capped in the 2017 GOP tax overhaul.

Mr. Ciattarelli said he has the time and energy to put together the message and coalition he needs in a state that’s considered deep-blue but includes solidly Republican areas and is willing to give GOP governors a shot.

“I’ve always believed hard work and energy pays off. And I do believe we’re gonna win this race,” he said. “Those that say that Republicans can’t win the governor’s race don’t know history — Republicans have won six of the last 10 gubernatorial elections in this state.”

He said the business community views Mr. Murphy as “tone-deaf to the needs of Main Street,” and he plans to hammer away at Mr. Murphy’s “tax, spend and borrow” policies and hold the governor accountable for a lack of results from his Washington allies.

“Two-thirds of New Jerseyans want to leave, and we lead the nation in out-migration,” he said.

Mr. Murphy, he added, “told us that when Joe Biden was the president he’d get us back the SALT deduction on our federal tax returns, you don’t see that happening.”

“We’re a donor state, we’ve been subsidizing the other 49 states for decades,” he said. “What we send to Washington, D.C., each year from the paychecks of hardworking everyday New Jerseyans is way in excess of what we get in return. We want our SALT deduction back.”

Mr. Ciattarelli lost a 2017 primary bid for governor but seized the GOP mantle after a thorny 2021 primary in which he navigated Republican divides by backing former President Donald Trump’s policies while declaring that President Biden was the legitimate winner in November.

His primary foes attacked him as disloyal to Mr. Trump, though Mr. Ciattarelli beat them and is trying to unite the wings of his party. He recently told a conservative Hunterdon County crowd that he’s “never gonna disrespect the base, but you guys got to give me a little wiggle room,” according to a video obtained by Politico.

“If you talk to [people about] what you’re going to do to solve people’s problems, they’ll put everything else behind them, close the curtain behind them and they’ll vote for you,” Mr. Ciattarelli said. “I talk to citizens of all stripes and political persuasions and share with them very, very bluntly what we have to do to win this race.”

It could be an uphill battle.

“The GOP primary was a bloodbath, and Jack emerged bruised. He was the more mainstream hopeful but there are strong pockets of ultra-conservative voters in Warren and Sussex counties and along the shore from Monmouth all the way down to Cape May who may just sit out the general election,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University. “He’ll have to get his votes from the GOP pockets in Somerset and Hunterdon but the former is turning blue and the latter doesn’t have that big a population. It’s Phil’s to lose.”

Some Republicans say Mr. Ciattarelli is up for the fight.

“I think he will bring the GOP together, without a doubt,” said Pam Coles, of Fair Lawn. “I believe he’s going to win. I think it’s going to be through grassroots and being out there in the public, doing what he does best and really connecting with people.”

Those connections will be key in building name recognition, something the GOP nominee appeared to lack with some of the patrons at The Fireplace.

“Never heard of him. What’s his last name?” Julie Mueller, who described her voting record as down-the-middle, said when she heard the GOP nominee was campaigning at the restaurant.

Mr. Reed, the strategist, said Mr. Ciattarelli will have to gather clout and elevate the contest to draw investments from donors and the Republican Governors Association.

In the meantime, Mr. Murphy is using his platform to highlight legislative efforts in Trenton while painting Mr. Ciattarelli as beholden to the Trump wing of the party.

The Murphy campaign slammed former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as a “Trump lackey” after she endorsed Mr. Ciattarelli.

“Under Gov. Murphy’s leadership, we have made so much progress on the big issues like gun safety, climate change, infrastructure, and investing in public education,” said a Murphy fundraising pitch late Thursday. “Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli wants to drag New Jersey backward. He’s spent the last few weeks reeling in endorsements and campaign cash from Trump allies while spouting radical right-wing talking points.”

While Mr. Trump continues to loom over the GOP, he also is animating Democrats who remain upset about his presidency and post-election actions.

Laura Morris and her husband, Bob, said that’s part of the reason they’re ready to reelect Mr. Murphy.

“He didn’t like Trump. Anybody who doesn’t like Trump, I like,” Mrs. Morris said.

On the issues, Mr. Murphy recently attacked Mr. Ciattarelli for proposing an expansion of exemptions for parents who object to mandatory vaccinations of their school children.

“My wife and I vaccinate all four of our children — we’d do so again — but I respect parental rights,” Mr. Ciattarelli said.

On the coronavirus shots, Mr. Ciattarelli said: “I’m vaccinated, and I suggest that people get vaccinated. If they don’t want to get vaccinated, I respect that choice.”

Mr. Reed, the strategist, said he’s not sure why Mr. Murphy hasn’t taken a bigger hit for his handling of the pandemic — New Jersey saw the highest number of deaths per capita in the nation — though he knows there will “no appetite” for lockdowns moving forward.

Some potential voters see Mr. Murphy’s management of the crisis as a strength. The governor put a human face on the crisis, pausing during his COVID-19 briefings to memorialize individual New Jerseyans who died from the disease.

“You know, I liked Murphy, especially during the pandemic, I think he handled the pandemic the best he could. Of course I’m ready for it to be over like everybody else,” said Amy Hofmann, 58, of Ramsey.  She said she planned to vote in November but will “wait and see” who her final choice is.

Others drew a straight line between the closure of The Fireplace and the administration.

“This place is closing because of the pandemic and what Gov. Murphy imposed on our folks here in New Jersey,” Ms. Coles said. “New Jersey is unrecognizable because of that. We’re just starting to get back into the swing of things, and we need to support our small businesses.”

Much like national Republicans, Mr. Ciattarelli is painting his Democratic opponent as soft on crime. He pointed to a December directive from Mr. Murphy that relies on curbside warnings and station-house resolutions, rather than detention, when juveniles break the law.

Jersey shore towns say the directive makes it hard for them to thwart impromptu and unruly drinking parties that have dominated the headlines.

“This governor and this attorney general have disarmed our police with all these directives,” Mr. Ciatterelli said. “For the first time ever in the history of New Jersey, we have curfews along the Jersey Shore. When have we ever had to shut down our beaches and boardwalks at a certain hour because of unruly crowds that police now can’t disperse because of a juvenile justice reform measure? That’s not New Jersey.”

In the months ahead, Mr. Ciattarelli said he will focus on all 21 counties in New Jersey, including its 2.4 million independents, “soft Democrats” who aren’t pleased with the Murphy administration and Republicans who are “charged up” this cycle.

Sandi Goldzweig, who lives in Paramus, said she didn’t really know Mr. Ciattarelli, but she’s sold.

“Any GOP nominee, anyone, I don’t care who. We need to get rid of the guy who’s in there now,” she said. “They don’t listen to anything that we have to say, that’s my frustration. How about taxes? And how about let’s have a little rationale when it comes to COVID-19?” 

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