Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Merkt, who is not allowed to participate in the two televised debates sanctioned by the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) because he did not raise or spend enough money to qualify, is considering a legal challenge to force his inclusion.
"I understood you had to debate if you accepted money, but I never realized the statute was drawn in such a way as to preclude anyone else from participating, which I find as a good metaphor for how the closed the system is," said Merkt, who is also an Assemblyman from Mendham. "If you think about this, what it means is the chosen candidates — those who accept taxpayer dollars – basically get a huge unreported in-kind contribution from the networks involved."
Since ELEC started sanctioning debates for public-financed candidates in 1989, its statute has limited participation to those who have qualified for matching funds by raising at least $340,000, or those who have opted not to take matching funds but have raised and spent at least the same amount.
Merkt is considering challenging the statute in court, though he has not yet decided whether it's worth the trouble.
Former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie and former Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan, who are the only two candidates of either party to qualify for and accept matching funds, are required to participate in the two debates, scheduled for May 12 and 17.
The law is intended to prevent the debates from being crowded with minor candidates. While the cash threshold may not be a perfect measure, ELEC Executive Director Frederick Herrmann said that it's based "not a question of viability, but a question of probability."
But with the three other minor Republican primary candidates having been thrown off the ballot for lack of proper signatures last week after challenges from the Lonegan campaign, Merkt, the only Republican left standing aside from Christie and Lonegan, is the odd man out.
"We're talking three candidates. We're not talking fifteen candidates in this race," said Merkt. "What's really amazing is that here you have a three-way contest for governor, but in effect only two viewpoints are going to be presented. I find this all problematic, which is why we're examining all our legal options."
As an Assemblyman since 1998 and a former Deputy Attorney General in the Kean administration, Merkt said he is the only candidate of the three with any experience in state government, making his exclusion all the more inappropriate.
"I think it's ironic that they're going to exclude the only candidate who has lots of state experience here, and frankly the most knowledgeable candidate on state issues," he said.
Although the Lonegan campaign said yesterday that he would engage Merkt in several additional debates – as long as Christie signed on as well – they want to keep the two ELEC debates between Christie and Lonegan.
"We've got to get at least two with [just Christie]," said Lonegan strategist Rick Shaftan. "He does not want a one-on-one confrontation. He just can't handle Steve Lonegan."
Christie has said several times he wants all candidates to be able to participate in the ELEC debates, but his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said he was at a loss as to how Christie could assist Merkt any further.
"I'm not sure what else Chris could do. He's offered his verbal support and is the only candidate running who's done that," said Stepien.