Last night’s gubernatorial debate was a disgrace.

It was disrespectful to the candidates, but more importantly to New Jersey voters.

I’m not talking about what the candidates had to say. You can read all about that and make up your own mind.

I’m referring to the debate itself. It was another example of how New Jersey get ZERO respect from the media in New York and Philadelphia. Moderator Jim Gardner is a legend in Philadelphia. He should stay there. He clearly had no grasp of New Jersey issues and no familiarity with candidates Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno.

Gardner actually seemed to go out of his way to sound like a tough guy, and aggressively cut off the candidates just when they were starting to actually DEBATE real issues.

I’m not blaming the ABC affiliates for this farcical display. The blame falls squarely on the Election Law Enforcement Commission. In every statewide election, this group of political appointees is tasked with selecting who gets to organize and sponsor debates. Each year they put out a call for debate sponsors, then hold a public meeting where organizations present their proposal and the sponsors are selected.

This year, almost a dozen organizations (including New Jersey 101.5) made pitches to sponsor a debate. Every single New Jersey media group was rejected to sponsor the only two gubernatorial debates the candidates agreed to.

New Jersey has a diverse press corps that deeply and aggressively covers New Jersey issues every day. Radio, TV, print, online, and new media assets are bringing informed coverage to New Jersey voters every single day. This press corps grew out of a lack of substantial coverage from the major media markets just beyond our borders. We take pride in knowing our business, and doing it better than anyone else. Thank goodness some real New Jersey reporters at least got to ask a question at last night’s debate, though it only underscored how little the celebrity moderators knew about our state.

The only time the BIG media pay attention to New Jersey is when it suits them. How can you expect to provide depth of coverage when you only grudgingly cross the river?

Despite this, ELEC gleefully handed the debates to the New York and Philly interlopers who parachuted into Trenton and made quite a show of telling them how important it was that they were here. One TV news anchor from Philly tearfully told the ELEC commissioners she KNEW she could do a good job because she would be the FACE of the debate. Commissioners Eric Jaso, Stephen Holden, and Marguerite Simon looked like a group of people who were star struck. You could almost hear them thinking, “They like us! They REALLY like us!”

When the commission opened its debate meeting, members talked about the need for a “vigorous debate,” universal access for all New Jersey residents, in-depth exploration of the issues and public participation. On those points, this debate was a failure.

This election is too important to the future of New Jersey. The Election Law Enforcement Commission has failed in its mission. Members should be ashamed. New Jersey voters deserve better.

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