• The San Juan Daily Star

New Jersey governor’s race puts mask and vaccines mandates to a political test

Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican running for governor, participates in a New Jersey gubernatorial debate in Newark, N.J., on Sept. 28, 2021.

By Tracey Tully

Six weeks after announcing that grade-school students in New Jersey would need to wear masks in class, Gov. Philip Murphy, a Democrat, issued a new executive order, his 264th: Children 2 and older in day care centers would also have to wear face coverings.

The howls of opposition were quick and fierce, and it became an immediate talking point for Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican challenging Murphy’s bid for reelection.

“This is unconstitutional, un-American and has no scientific backing,” a fundraising email from Ciattarelli and his running mate, Diane Allen, said of the practice, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Jersey’s contest, which along with Virginia’s is one of just two governor’s races in the country before next year’s midterm elections, is seen by some as an early barometer of voter sentiment.

“The takeaway will be: Are we competitive or not?” said Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican and former congressman who lost his seat in the 2018 midterms as Democrats angered by President Donald Trump and his policies flipped control of the House.

Murphy has tried to lash Ciattarelli to Trump, who lost to President Joe Biden in New Jersey by 16 points — offering a likely preview of the kinds of attacks to come next year.

But New Jersey’s election on Nov. 2 also offers one of the first statewide tests of how voters feel about strict coronavirus-related mandates as the health crisis stretches into its 20th month and pandemic fatigue mounts.

Voters surveyed in polls continued to give Murphy some of his highest marks for the way he has responded to the pandemic, and he has said he believed it was the most defining issue separating him and Ciattarelli. Last week, Murphy refused to rule out a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students, a step taken only by California, where, as early as next fall, inoculation against the virus will be required to attend school.

Saily Avelenda, executive director of New Jersey’s Democratic State Committee, said she believed that mask wearing and vaccine mandates would be the most important factors driving voters to the polls.

“It’s the issue that’s most affecting everybody, and it’s affecting everybody in real time,” Avelenda said. “People are genuinely terrified of turning New Jersey backward to a Florida or a Texas in COVID response.”

Still, along the Jersey Shore in Ocean County, where Trump won by nearly 30 points, it remains easy to find anti-mask yard signs that read “Free the Smiles.” And across the state some local board of education meetings have grown tense with parents opposed to mask wearing in schools clashing with officials who are required to enforce the state mandate.

In northern New Jersey, state Sen. Holly Schepisi, a Republican, said her office was fielding calls from parents “on both sides of the aisle” expressing concern about the new mask requirement for 2-year-olds, who have gone maskless in day care throughout the pandemic.

The executive order, which was issued last month, is impractical, she said.

“It’s hard enough to keep their shoe or their diaper on,” said Schepisi, who is a member of the Senate’s health committee and represents part of Bergen and Passaic counties. “In addition to the question of ‘Why now?’ It was, ‘Where is this coming from?’”

Registered Democrats in New Jersey outnumber Republicans by nearly 1.1 million voters, giving Murphy a built-in advantage that several polls have shown Ciattarelli is struggling to overcome.

A report released Friday by the COVID States Project, a research and tracking effort by several universities, found that governors of states with prohibitions on vaccine mandates, including Arkansas, Arizona and Idaho, got the lowest approval ratings. Nationwide, support for governors’ pandemic policies has dipped since June, but Murphy’s initiatives remained popular with 60% of respondents, said David Lazer, a professor of political science at Northeastern University and one of the project researchers.

“In June, it was ‘Mission accomplished,’ and in September, it was, ‘We’re back to this nightmare,’” Lazer said. “The good news for incumbents right now is the virus seems to be retreating.”

In August, Ciattarelli appeared at a Board of Education meeting in Toms River to oppose the in-school mask mandate, claiming that masks inhibit learning and that parents — not the governor — should be able to choose.

Schepisi, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 before vaccines were readily available, encourages eligible residents to be inoculated against the virus and supports indoor masking of students 5 and older. But she said the lack of legislative involvement in the rule-making process had struck a nerve. Polls, she said, were missing “the undercurrent of people who really think that government is now overreaching.”

Lawrence Bathgate, a prominent New Jersey Republican fundraiser who has served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, agreed.

“It’s taking away the choices that people have,” Bathgate said. “Is that what you want for another four years?”

At the start of summer, Murphy, 64, became one of the last governors in the country to eliminate the state’s indoor mask mandate. Two months later, as cases tied to the highly contagious delta variant spiked, he “strongly recommended” that people again wear masks indoors.

He has required employees of schools, day care centers and many health care facilities to be fully vaccinated or submit to regular testing — an opt-out important to the state’s powerful teachers union, one of Murphy’s earliest and strongest allies.

Other locales have far stricter rules. In New York City, teachers and health care workers cannot opt out of the vaccine, and patrons of gyms and restaurants must offer proof of inoculation to enter.

After adding a tax on income over $1 million and borrowing $3.67 billion in anticipation of pandemic-related budget shortfalls that proved far less dire than predicted, Murphy has pledged not to raise taxes during a second term. He has also said that he would continue to focus on addressing the climate crisis.

Since beating two candidates loyal to Trump to win the Republican primary, Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman who had been known for moderate views, has hammered away at issues that galvanize the former president’s conservative base.

Striking a tough-on-crime theme, he has emphasized the state’s and the nation’s uptick in shootings and criticized the legalization of marijuana.

Ciattarelli, 59, has also reminded voters of the high death rate from the virus in New Jersey’s long-term care facilities and a sex-assault scandal involving a woman who volunteered for Murphy’s first campaign and reported being raped by a colleague.

He once called Trump a charlatan and has said that Biden won the election legitimately. But Ciattarelli has been repeatedly forced to defend his decision to appear at a “Stop the Steal” rally after the November election, including during the first debate last month.

The second and final debate is scheduled for Tuesday night.

“They’re trying to appeal to Trump’s base,” said former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican who on Monday urged her party to support Democrats in the midterm elections as a bulwark against “pro-Trump extremists.”

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said “underlying partisan tribalism” had chipped away at candidates’ ability to woo voters from the opposing party.

Voter turnout is seen as a vital part of Ciattarelli’s calculus. A Monmouth poll conducted in September found that Ciattarelli trailed Murphy by 13 percentage points.

Ciattarelli, Murray said, “needs his base to be energized and the other side to be complacent or disenchanted.”

“You’re not going to get them to vote for you,” he said of Murphy’s supporters. “What you’re trying to do is get them to stay home.”

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