CLIFTON -- The morning after first televised governors debate Democratic nominee Phil Murphy declined to take questions from reporters as he received an endorsement from former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Appearing together at a VFW post in Clifton on Tuesday morning, Kerry -- a decorated Viet Nam combat veteran -- praised Murphy a former Goldman Sachs executive, as someone who would bring "a business mindset" to the state's handling of veterans affairs.
"You deserve what state after state has in this country," said Kerry, "a standalone Department of Veterans affairs to fight for you."
Currently, New Jersey's Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) is responsible for overseeing both the National Guard and veterans services, a dual mission that Kerry suggested pulls focus from the needs of vets.
Murphy, in turn, vowed to split apart the department and refocus its mission solely on veterans.
"The muddle is profound," said Murphy, promising to reshape it into two separate agencies.
Delaware, New York and Massachusetts have already done so.
As part of the restructuring, Murphy said the new department would help bring employment assistance to those transitioning to civilian life, and mental health counseling to those vets suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Taking a question from an audience member about whether he supported giving veterans additional help with a student loan program just for veterans, Murphy said, "the answer is a resounding yes."
He also promised to meet more frequently with the state's Congressional delegation far more than once a quarter, and to expand an already existing veterans diversionary court program.
Under Gov. Chris Christie, the state embarked on a three year pilot program to connect veterans arrested for minor offenses avoid the regular judicial system and instead get the counseling, healthcare and other referrals they need.
"I know this man," said Kerry, who worked with him in 2013 while Murphy was U.S. ambassador to Germany, "and he will not leave people behind."
But GOP nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno -- a military mom with a son who's a fighter pilot -- said she didn't trust Murphy not to simply create more bureaucracy.
"I have some skin in this game," said Guadagno, speaking to reporters at an event in Bergenfield on Tuesday afternoon. "I've had every opportunity to view what's going on in our Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. (And) to split it apart is simply a way for Phil Murphy to put one of his handpicked people into an office and to create additional bureacracy where it's not needed."
Matt Arco contributed reporting to this story.