OGDENSBURG – It’s way the hell out here or up here, so far north you feel like you’ve gone south, where the hills and pines and remnants of picket fences and barn husks darken and wrap around the little local firehouse packed with the rural residents of CD-11, and the pro and con arguments of Mikie Sherrill and Jay Webber filling up the room like corn in a silo.
You look at the faces and you half expect someone to come forward and announce himself as a millwright or a blacksmith, present to fulfill that portion of a portrait commissioned by Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood of American solidity and grim comfort with those same unforgiving elements that peel paint off buildings, harden arteries and ruin crops.
But in fact it’s a contemporary standing-room-only crowd, warmed up for the congressional debate by four pushed-together red, white and blue tables crammed with countywide candidates. “I understand when you’re challenging a candidate you have to come up with something but I never said we have satellite offices,” said Republican Surrogate Gary Chiusano, a former assemblyman, slapping at William Hart, his Democratic opponent. Hart also objected to Chiusano not being a lawyer, which drew some gentle push back from the crowd.
Red t-shirted troops occupied the entranceway, a lone embroidered name unmistakable and uniform: Webber. Webber. Webber. Webber; and soon the down-ballot segment of the event ended.
A roar went up.
Webber had arrived.
A sea of red signs undulated.
Then a second roar.
There was Sherrill.
Blue signs inundated the room.
The Democrat made her way up through the center aisle and occupied a chair on the dais.
Webber made his way u there a few minutes later, from the side.
Now they sat side by side at the front of the room for their first formal face-off of the general election season.
At the invitation of the moderator, Webber jumped out of his chair first and immediately attached himself to the federal agenda of President Donald J. Trump, who endorsed him last month. “We’re seeing an America that has been as strong as it’s been in decades. With the economy going so well, why would we want to change course? When we’re freer and more prosperous than we have been in decades.
“Mikie’s running with Bob Menendez, a man who was indicted,” the Republican added, by way of contrast. “For all her talk about being a former federal prosecutor she hasn’t said one word. It’s incomprehensible.”
Then Sherrill stood for her six-minute introduction.
Not only was she a Navy helicopter pilot, her grandfather was a pilot, who was shot down in WWII.
“Service is incredibly important to me and to my family,” said the Democrat.
Sherrill stuck with a Navy metaphor when making her case for congress.
Bad ship mates “put their own self interest ahead of the ship and the crew,” she noted.
“We have too many members of Congress putting their own interests ahead of the country,” Sherrill added, promising to get back the state and local property tax deduction.
“This is not a good tax plan for the citizens of New Jersey,” she said, addressing Trump’s budget priorities.
“My opponent doesn’t want to talk about the issues,” she added. “I’ve never said I want to abolish ICE. If you want to know about the company I keep, they’re ICE agents. He says I support Nancy Pelosi. I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”
They weren’t the only congressional candidates. Independent Robert Crook and Libertarian Ryan Martinez also participated.
“I am not a crook,” said Crook.
Webber rose moments later.
“She says she doesn’t want to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker, she also praised her for being the most effective speaker we have seen in decades,” the Republican said. “I think Nancy Pelosi was a horrible speaker. I think she did a terrible job. I said Mikie runs with people who want to abolish ICE.”
He also criticized her again for running with Menendez.
Sherrill then occupied the podium.
“I think what’s very interesting is to know who Assemblyman Webber is going to support [for speaker],” the Democrat said.
She has always worked with others to accomplish the mission.
“And Jay Webber hasn’t,” Sherrill said.
Crook later identified himself as an openly married gay man.
“I’d like to thank [Mikie] Sherrill for standing up for gay rights,” said the independent.