The 9th Legislative District forum Wednesday evening was too polite, too restrained and maybe even too civil to live up to its billing as a debate.
After all, the state senate incumbent, Republican Chris Connors, embraced, hugged and chastely kissed his opponent, Democrat Dorothy Ryan at the end of their 45 minutes of answering questions posed by representatives of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and The Press of Atlantic City. The Hughes Center and the Press co-sponsored the evening.
The debate took place at the Campus Center Theater at Stockton, where college officials hope to host a presidential or vice presidential debate in 2012—they are awaiting word from the presidential debate commission.
The audience Wednesday numbered just over 40, with another eight people from the newspaper and the Hughes Center either in the small crowd or at work.
The audience responded, albeit politely, with slightly more applause to more answers for Connors and fellow Republican, incumbent Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove, than to the responses made by Ryan and her fellow Democratic challengers, Carla Kearney and Bradley Billhimer.
Incumbent Republican Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, who is recovering from complications after recently falling off the roof of his home, did not attend the debate, sending regrets via Gove.
Recent polling by the Hughes Center showed the traditionally Republican 9th District is almost sure to return incumbents to office in November, with the Democrats trailing badly, losing by a 2-1 margin.
Ryan seemed tentative as the debate opened, passing up the chance to rebutt Connors when he said stimulating the economy, cutting taxes and spending were the most important issues in the election.
Connors answered a question about how budget priorities differ between the parties by by saying "by $2 billion" in reference to line-item vetoes made by Republican Gov. Chris Chistie and by lessening taxes.
Ryan attempted to rebutt Connors by directly posing a question to him, but she was informed that was not the format of the debate and she did not follow through with her own comments.
Ryan was asked what must be done in Atlantic City to revive its fortunes due to Galloway's ties to the casino resort. "Making it safe," is the most important issue, she said, cutting down on "muggings and prostitutes." She talked about making the city "family-friendly," but did not specify what that means.
Connors responded by saying Christie has already made moves to bolster the city's fortunes, adding he'd like to see Atlantic City International Airport expanded. He mentioned a proposal to sell the facility to the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey as one means of expanding flights.
One of the few areas where the two seemed most to disagree was on the issue of reviving the Barnegat Bay. While both said Christie's veto of plans to tax Ocean County residents—but not the rest of the state—to pay for the bay's oversight, Ryan said the governor's other actions, such as limiting fertilizer applications, "are not nearly enough. The bay is dying."
Ryan approved of changes made by the governor to pensions and healthcare for public employees, not a typical position for a Democrat. Connors applauded her position and said the state system would have "been bust" in eight years without reforms.
In the assembly debate, which came last, Billhimer staked out the more traditional position for a Democrat, say the changes "imposed" by Christie should have been negotiated, not ordered.
Gove said it was an "emotional issue," but she supported reforms made by Christie.
Much of the assembly debate mirrored both the the questions—and the answers—made during the senate debate.
The one area where Gove, a former teacher, broke with state Republican leadership was on the issue raised by Christie to eliminate tenure for teachers. She said that should have been negotiated, a point made by her challenger, Kearney.