2018 Kickoff: 11th Congressional District Candidates Joust for a Shot at Frelinghuysen

When a debate takes place about six months before an election, there are usually two possibilities – political junkies have time on their hands or there’s unprecedented interest in the race.

Democrats in the 11th Congressional District certainly hope it’s the latter.

“2018 is going to be a transformative year,”  was Wednesday’s bold prediction by John Bartlett, a Passaic County freeholder seeking to oust Republican incumbent  Rodney P. Frelinghuysen in the 11th District

Bartlett joined four other Democrats and one Republican in a Morristown campaign forum sponsored by NJ 11th for Change and BlueWaveNJ. The debate was held at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, but was also live-streamed and about 75 to 100 people turned out to watch at Drew University in Madison.

There have been times when Democrats did not even have a candidate at this time to challenge Frelinghuysen in a district that covers a large chunk of Morris and parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties; now they have at least five.

One of the candidates, Tamara Harris of Verona, succinctly sized up the current landscape.

“If Hillary would have won, I would not be here,” she said.

Anti-Donald Trump and pro-Democratic activism in New Jersey and across the nation may have been late in coming – it surfaced after Trump won the presidency – but its staying power may be genuine. Protest marches in January led to Democratic wins this fall in New Jersey and Virginia and now to unusual early interest in next year’s midterm elections. Despite the primary being six months away and the general election being almost a year away, a respectable group of people turned out to watch a forum on a cold, November night.

Frelinghuysen was invited, but did not show up. That was no surprise. Even in good times, Frelinghuysen, who was first elected in 1994, is not a good debater. He’s much more at home working behind the scenes in Washington or speaking at GOP functions where criticism would be unthinkable.

Unlike many of his GOP colleagues, Frelinghuysen has refused to hold town hall meetings to discuss such issues as health care and the president’s tax plan. Parts of the tax plan would hurt New Jersey by eliminating or reducing deductions for state and local taxes. Frelinghuysen backed a version of the bill on a procedural vote, but later voted against it. He likely will have to vote again soon on a final version.

The congressman’s general uncertainty and other blunders – writing a bank official to complain that a bank employee was protesting against him – have been noticed.

The Washington-based Cook Political Report has changed its rating on the 11th District from “leans Republican” to “toss-up,” noting that Frelinghuysen “looks unprepared for his first real race in decades.” That assessment is tough to argue with.

With the incumbent elsewhere, Wednesday’s forum was a sedate affair, as all candidates were in general agreement on the issues.

That included the lone Republican on stage, Martin Hewitt, who described himself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. That label used to be applied to Frelinghuysen, but no longer. Hewitt, in fact, suggested  that he’d be willing to support whoever wins the Democratic primary against Frelinghuysen. .

Besides Bartlett and Harris, the other Democrats at the forum were Mikie Sherrill, Mark Washburne and Mitchell Cobert.

Sherrill, who is a former Navy helicopter pilot, is considered the front-runner, having been endorsed by Emily’s List, a key Democratic interest group. She also got in the race early and is so far raising more money than her competitors. .

Answering questions from moderator Herb Jackson, Washington correspondent for The Record, the candidates took turns calling for more stringent gun laws and especially for ways to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. They decried the GOP tax plan making its way through Congress and said the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare needs to be fixed, not repealed as Republicans have tried to do.

And they took turns labeling Frelinghuysen, who won the district with 58 percent of the vote in 2016, unresponsive and ineffective. Sherrill used her Navy background to suggest that Trump was running the country aground and that Frelinghuysen was doing nothing to stop him.

Still, there were some specific questions candidates either ignored or stumbled over.

All were asked if they would vote to impeach President Trump. Only Washburne said he would definitely vote yes.

Asked how he felt about a boycott movement aimed at Israel, Washburne spoke only in general terms about the Middle East.

Queried about campaign financing, Cobert gave a rambling answer that failed to mention the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which set the stage for the super Political Action Committees we are now seeing.

One of the few politically ticklish questions of the night came Sherrill’s way. Assuming Democrats win the House (no sure bet), Sherrill was asked if she would support a younger leader for Speaker instead of current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She dodged the question, saying she has more pressing election concerns.

That may be, but Democrats still have to be dreaming about electing the next Speaker, no matter who it is.

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