One reason the usually very-Republican 11th congressional district is seen as competitive this year is because of Democratic enthusiasm. Party campaign forums are drawing large crowds and weekly protests outside the Morristown office of now-retiring Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen are in their second year.
But when you ask Assemblyman Jay Webber, who is so far the only committed Republican candidate in the race to replace Frelinghuysen, about the other side’s excitement, he deftly turns things around.
“In the last two weeks, I’ve seen the Republican party get energized,” Webber said in a recent interview in his Whippany law office. “It’s a bellwether district. They (Republicans) have never had to fight for this district before. It’s going to be a tremendous election with energy on both sides.”
Webber, whose 26th Legislative District overlaps with part of the larger congressional district in northern New Jersey, says it was important to move quickly.
He said he was in an Assembly committee meeting two weeks ago when news reverberated in political circles that Frelinghuysen was bowing out. Webber said he quickly talked it over with his family and political associates and made the decision to run.
“There’s no reason to sit around and think about it,” he said.
Thinking about it, of course, is what some other possible GOP candidates are doing, most notably perhaps Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, who represents the neighboring 25th District.
Webber’s views always have tilted right on the passionate social issues of the day. He is strongly pro-life and a supporter of Second Amendment rights. Given we’re in suburban New Jersey and not rural Kentucky, Democrats likely will argue that Webber is too “far right” for the district.
The assemblyman seems unconcerned.
“I get elected and reelected overwhelmingly in my legislative district and the congressional district is not that different,” he said.
That’s true, but Webber has not faced well-funded Democratic candidates in his reelection bids. Mikie Sherrill, the leading Democratic candidate for Congress, had raised about $744,000 by the end of last year, according to campaign filings.
Webber does part with some of the more conservative Republicans now serving in the House when it comes to immigration. While he backs border security, ending the visa lottery system and taking a look at “chain migration,” or if you prefer, family unification, Webber also supports DACA, which protects individuals brought here illegally by their parents as children.
Noting that the child immigrants arrived in the most “compassionate” country on earth, Webber said he would back finding a pathway for them to legally remain in the United States.
His position is roughly similar to the plan advanced by President Trump. The president, of course, is all but guaranteed to be part of the 11th district campaign, but don’t expect Webber to bring him up. Much of the Democrats’ perceived energy is attributed to anti-Trump sentiment.
As for the president, Webber says, “I like a lot of what he does, but not much of what he says – and tweets.”
Webber is quick to remind people that Trump will not be on the ballot this fall and that when he was on the ballot in 2016, he carried the 11th district, albeit slightly.
And giving hints of his playbook if he becomes the nominee, Webber said Democrats may have to answer a few Phil Murphy questions such as why isn’t he reducing property taxes.
Property taxes are not a federal issue, but here is Webber’s explanation.
Many in New Jersey. including all but one GOP congressman representing the state, opposed recently-passed tax reform because it limited the deduction for state and local taxes to $10,000. Webber said he would want to fix that problem if he got to Congress, but he argued attention also has to be paid to why property taxes in New Jersey are so high.
There is nothing new about this issue, but practical solutions have proven just about impossible. Webber says Murphy should back a bipartisan bill that would give many school districts more state aid through redistributing the current pot of money. Here’s the catch. The bill would mandate that districts use the additional aid to reduce taxes, not to expand programs, hire more teachers or buy new lights for the football field.
His overall point is that limiting the so-called SALT deduction on the federal level should focus attention on New Jersey’s high property taxes. It’s a valid point, but whether it will gain traction in a congressional race is open to debate.
Webber says he likes other parts of the tax plan such as reducing the corporate tax and increasing the standard deduction. He also gives credit to the president for easing regulations and says Trump’s approach is why the economy is doing well.
Webber says he’s convinced he’s got more name recognition than any other candidate who is either in the race or considering a run.
He seems to grasp that most people would have trouble picking a state legislator out of a lineup, but still thinks he’s ahead of the game.
“Do people know who Mikie Sherrill is?” Webber asks.
We’re probably going to find out.