BASKING RIDGE – Here are some notes scribbled in reaction to the debate among the six candidates vying to be the 2018 Democratic nominee for Congress in the 7th District.
First, the candidates: Linda Weber, a banker from Berkeley Heights.
Lisa Mandelblatt, a community activist from Westfield.
Tom Malinowski, a diplomat from Rocky Hill.
Goutam Jois, a lawyer from Summit.
Peter Jacob, a social worker from Springfield.
Scott Salmon, a lawyer from Scotch Plains.
8. There’s definitely some progressive passion at work in the district. Six candidates stood at the front of the room in a front of a packed St. Mark’s Church. Progressives? In church? Under the soaring organ pipes behind the altar, Blue Wave maestro Marcia Marley looked like she was in Blue Wave heaven. Familiar faces dotted the crowd. Bullhorn cowboy Joey Novick wore a bemused grin foretelling GOP doom, his money down on fellow attorney Goutam Jois of Summit (Joey’s the campaign manager, in fact). Barry Brendel – he of the Bernie Sanders rebellion (and the Gary Hart debacle in 1984) – held court in the crowd, horn-rimmed millennial elves gathered round him in hopes of parceled political stocking stuffers. Former Edison Mayor Jun Choi – one of the early backers of Barack Obama in New Jersey – prowled the floorboards. There was some energy among these people who think they can take down incumbent U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7).
7. Millburn might be the only Essex town in CD7, but this contest has the attention of powerful Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, who slipped in almost unnoticed just as the debate got underway, occupied a seat in the back, then slipped out almost unnoticed just before the two-hour event ended. Throughout, Jones observed the debate like a sphinx. If he favored anyone up there, no one knew about it, his face an emotionless mask. A half hour in, the Essex County Democratic Chairman reached for his phone. Had the affair failed to capture his imagination? No, he merely checked his messages and then was once more mysteriously riveted.
6. Peter Jacob is the only one among the seven candidates who last year backed Bernie Sanders in the Primary against Hillary Clinton. Talk to some establishment people and they will tell you that Jacob’s support for Bernie ensured that he will never get a line in the 7th. Neither does he appear eager to go away. He had his moments in the debate, the social worker by trade who lost to Lance last year 43-55%. In the event that he loses the primary next year, he was asked, would he campaign for the winner in at least 20 of the district’s 75 towns. He was the first person given the chance to answer that question and he immediately said he would campaign for the Democratic winner in “all 75 towns.” The answer left the other six vainly trying to summon the same zeal for party, as a grinning Jacob won the round. He also had at least one misstep. He was the only person on stage who dared to invoke Roy Moore – and not in a bad way – when he noted how the reviled Alabama Republican beat Luther Strange in the primary with no money, offering his own nearly penniless grassroots campaign effort by way of positive comparison. But the money factor will be a significant factor for Jacob – and not in a good way – someone in a rival camp noted to InsiderNJ, gesturing to the updated 2018 sticker plastered over a 2016 Jacob mail piece in a pile of fresher-looking rival pieces. “He won’t be able to keep up,” the person said dismissively.
5. The Tao of Malinow. People raised in New Jersey with all the sedate good breeding of the best schools and finest customs at one point decided they needed to behave like characters in The Sopranos to be hip and cool – and to fit in with what television and people like Chris Christie have convinced them are the social norms of the state. It’s made for a weird and completely anti-social environment, with guys wearing scarves in Princeton suddenly – without warning – morphing into Robert DeNiro from Taxi Driver. In short, unless you’re threatening to rip someone’s head off, you’re not living in the reality of New Jersey. So within that context, it’s fascinating to observe an alien being like Tom Malinowski, who appears onstage with all the sedate bearing and counter intuitive repose of a Vulcan dignitary augmented by what can only be described as the parlor room gentility of a 19th Century prince. Indeed, Malinowski – it is safe to say – is probably the only person in New Jersey politics who could convincingly play the role of Prince Bolkonsky in a stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In a barbaric era helmed by Donald Trump, he’s socially advanced. The question is will that simply melt the brains of suburban New Jerseyans eager to send a signal that they too, God dammit, are capable of swinging bats in fits of unexpected rage, just like DeNiro in The Untouchables. A former assistant secretary of state under John Kerry, Malinowski has returned to his home state (“He just moved into the district” seethes someone in a rival camp) like one who has ventured to the Chankly Bore and back. In a state defined by cul de sac prejudices and disjointed burghs and hamlets that pride themselves on knowing nothing of Henry Bergson and less of Hamlet, people have quickly seized on Malinowski’s voyages as evidence of lack of fitness for office. This happened once before, when Carl Lewis came back to Burlington County seeking an 8th District Senate seat after a lifetime of gold medals and adventuring and was promptly – literally – ordered to leave. His achievements, it is possible to conclude, had rendered him too weird to give voice to the mildewed mediocrities of those loathsome lugs otherwise known as the good taxpayers of New Jersey. So, Malinowski has that on his plate. And it’s not even the toughest challenge he has, for most people in the party establishment have already decided that 2018 will be a woman’s year. Trump has so drained whatever life was left in the notion of “white male” in this country (or so runs the argument) that nothing less than a fierce, revenge-seeking female charioteer can impale the dusty likes of Leonard Lance. Based strictly on gender, Malinowski could very well turn into the CD7 version of Martin O’Malley. But here’s the rub – and this is why Malinowski has caught people’s attention – he’s prepared. When he talks about foreign policy, he’s not only done his homework, but he’s been to the country in question. If you favor cool jazz, memoirs written in the 1860s, 1960s Star Trek reruns, and, in short, substance, the diplomat turned politician gave nearly a pitch perfect performance at the debate last night. When moderator Jonathan Alter painted a portrait of doom, alluding to North Korea, Trump and nukes all in a single rhetorical flourish, and then asked a question about how Malinowski, as congressman, would avoid war, a gallows roar enveloped the crowd. Rising calmly, Malinowski cracked, “I’ve got this,” as if his specialty is twirling the globe itself on his index finger while drinking espresso. Prodded by a question to take a shot at “Lenny Lance,” Malinowski said his intention is not “to vilify” Lance, but to make the case for why this Congress is not serving the district. It might have been the first time in this century anyone has used the word “vilify” in a sentence in New Jersey politics. Later, he rose to a question about how he intends to build a grassroots case against Lance. “It’s a little bit arrogant in terms of a candidate building an organization,” he said. “The grassroots is already being built – and not by us.” One could picture his rivals’ stomachs somersaulting. Of course, the candidate who’s just moved into the district can barely lay claim to an address let alone knowledge of the undercurrents of his neighbors’ political views. But Malinowski was a presence. One cannot have traveled the world as a diplomat for Obama without internalizing something – some essence – of excellence connected to something more than the bland egos of our myriad New Jersey parochialisms.
4. Peg Schaffer‘s keyed in. Down front, right in the front row, in fact, the chair of the Somerset County Democratic Committee hovered like a hawk on every word, facial tic and gesture of the seven people competing for the party nod. Somerset contains 17 CD7 towns. That’s Schaffer country. Earlier in the day, Linda Weber and Malinowski had gone in and sat down in HQ as the chair and her entourage – including Vice Chair Zenon Christodoulou (who also later showed up at the debate) peppered them with questions. Schaffer is said to prefer a woman for the job but if so, she wouldn’t say.
3. Goutam Jois has spent time in the courtroom. There’s a reason why so many trial lawyers do well in politics. When you have to speak in front of a room, guys like Jois already have a world of experience. He had a good night.
2. Do not underestimate the narrative of women in this race. There’s a low boil of irritation around these
parts when someone mentions the name Mikie Sherrill. You see Mikie (and if you use her first name in CD7 you will trigger the exchange of nervous looks and squirming fits) is coalescing her district CD11, in a way that no one here is – at least right now. To northward, Sherrill looks like she’s in cruise control, even as CD7 looks like a bar brawl. They’re trying to avoid that. Behind the scenes, most people in the establishment boil the contest down to the two women from Union (13 towns in the district): Lisa Mandelblatt of Westfield and Linda Weber of Berkeley Heights. “I love Goutam,” is a typical line to set up the pivot. Mandelblatt and Weber are already so well positioned that every statement or movement by one must be considered against the other. Weber favors Phil
Murphy‘s millionaire’s tax. Mandelblatt isn’t sure yet. Weber has 30 years of experience as a banker specializing in pioneering new technology. Mandelblatt is a community activist who improved services at a local synagogue. “Eighty-percent of the people in New Jersey support Planned Parenthood,” Weber said. “Leonard Lance has a 3% Planned Parenthood score.” Then Mandelblatt: “We’re going to stick his record to him like glue. He had on his website that he voted 67 times to repeal the ACA (Affordable Care Act), and then he took it down because of all of you.” Mandelblatt may be a touch more personable – this from sources who have spent time with both women. Weber is commanding and confident. “She’s hungry,” someone in the crowd observed to InsiderNJ last night as the event ended. Will the contest indeed come down to the two of them, with Emily’s List the referee to end all referees? Or will they get entangled in each other, enabling Malinowski to get through, or Jois, or the Sanders-ratified Jacob? For now, they’re carefully avoiding a two-woman fight. Weber at one point cracked about how the two of them were able to share the same microphone without any prickly infighting.
- In case you disbelieved the weirdness of New Jersey, Basking Ridge is one of the most beautiful towns in New Jersey, and yet, as if unable to shake free of the root associative culture of this state, it literally sits in the middle of a swamp, the Great Swamp, to be precise. Even the elites of NJ cannot escape the underlying murkiness of it all.