The Faces in Shadow at the Bar: A Contest Endures in Central Jersey’s CD7

Bartop

BRIDGEWATER – The Elks Club bar looked like two horseshoes jammed together, with television screens suspended in shock jock monotony and positioned to face the people slumped on the stools, who barely looked up, as they walled themselves into separate sections of bar top to talk strategy – their own, not some professional sports team’s.

They were political candidates and their retainers, spilling into the tavern section of the Elks after a debate sponsored by the Somerset County Federation of Democratic Women, and occupying their own spheres of influence.

In the back corner of the room, near a roaring fire, Berkeley Heights banker Linda Weber commanded a cadre of backers, including campaign staff and others who see her as the natural counterpoint to U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7).  Then there was Summit attorney Goutam Jois, who had another good night of seamless sentence formation onstage, happily hobnobbing with his campaign handler Joey Novick and others. Roving in a small crowd that later told InsiderNJ they like him because of his commitment to the environment, longtime Trenton insider Dave Pringle proved an easygoing Elks presence. And then across the bar, in shadowy trench-coated mystery, sat Tom Malinowski.

The contest fascinates in part because it exists. If Navy helicopter pilot/prosecutor Mikie Sherrill forced the likes of Passaic County Freeholder John Bartlett to tap out in anguish early to solidify the 11th District in her quest to topple U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11), Democrats in the 7th have to date failed to summon a transcendent figure. Each candidate persists and insists on those individual virtues apparently lacking in the other six.

Each has something the other wants.

A former State Department bigshot, Malinowski has a foreign policy portfolio. But he’s not a woman, and when you talk to insiders, they invariably return to the gender card Dems can play against Lance as President Donald J. Trump, from their perspective, presents the very picture of Megyn Kelly-fallout misogyny. “Women,” a drunken human form blithered at InsiderNJ last night. “Women, women.” That apparently was the extent of the point. It needed no other reinforcing logic or explanation. So there’s that. But the resume. It’s daunting.  Weber, a woman (big plus already), has the added benefit of being a businessperson – a banker, who still has a day job, incidentally – who can, or so the argument goes – force feed a sense of Main Street reality on the district by drawing a contrast between herself and the government-molded Lance.

Jois and Pringle?

Well, they’re family men. Kids. Bills. Real world problems.

But they’re (there’s that concept again) men.

Can they swim against the trending mood of the times?

Jois has arguably won some (or all) of the debates, if you listen to the assessments of those 7th District types that have dragged from forum to forum. “He’s a courtroom attorney, he’s supposed to win,” an opposing camp member, frustrated with Jois’ capacity to hang around and build himself over the course of the past few weeks into more than simply nice-guy-with-no-shot status, blurted in agony in the vicinity of the bar.

Pringle got tougher last night at the debate, and later at the bar admitted maybe he got too tough.

He’s been hip deep in New Jersey politics his whole life – going back to his father’s earliest mayoral campaigns in Cranford (which he mentioned at the dais last night), that his admission that he got a biology degree from Princeton University back in 1988 is almost an uncomfortable extraction.

He’s educated.

It’s an afterthought, almost, in a New Jersey culture that prizes the animal collisions of transaction only.

Ivy League book smarts – like combat – once made a man like the late Brendan Byrne unbeatable in politics. Now 20th Century assets like that are hindrances, or could be, in a culture dumbed down enough to believe that Trump’s incessant bragging about a Wharton education must mean that school wherever it is, sucks, dude. “I mean, look at Trump.”

But Pringle proves relaxed, and yet also eager to unload a life’s worth of political lessons into his effort. People have seen him for years at podiums and in hearing rooms in Trenton, the chief of Clean Water Action. Campaigns are his life blood. Weber ran and lost a bid for local council. Scott Salmon, another candidate, advised Josh Gottheimer and a handful of other victors. Jois? Young. Untested. Malinowski never ran for public office and thinks he can move into the district with his Berkeley and Oxford education and knock over the stiffs stuck at the bar distrustful of academia but maybe dimly aware that it matters. But Pringle – Pringle knows this world. The ugly side and the educated side of it, and – a cross country track star in high school – will go the distance.

“Why is Dave running? Doesn’t he know it’s the Year of the Woman?” a source at close range, tugging hard, asked InsiderNJ. “Why? Why?”

And yet a few more bodies down the bar, someone else said, completely straight-faced and sober, “I like Pringle. I’m an environmentalist.”

There was a lone person InsiderNJ hadn’t talked to yet, who shoveled macaroni and Chicken Francese out of two steaming bins onto a plate, who said, “Scott Salmon,” when asked who he favors in the contest, referring to the Scotch Plains attorney who came to the debate last night with sleeves rolled up a la RFK. “I just think he’s a regular guy.”

A regular guy.

It might, if one accepts the woman argument that favors Weber or community activist Lisa Mandelblatt of Westfield, be the worst indictment of a candidate yet spoken in the contest.

But the fact that the field remains muddy makes anything possible, it seems; or, as one source put it gloomily, makes money inevitably the deciding factor.

“If the chairs [in Union, Somerset, Hunterdon and Essex] can’t agree on a single candidate, they will go with the candidate with the most money,” a source said. “Throw everything else out the window, they’ll make the case that you need cash to beat Lance, and the one who demonstrates, kind of like [Phil] Murphy, that they [sic] can do that will win. The rest of what’s going on here is noise.”

And yet, Salmon, and most certainly the Bernie Sanders-backing Peter Jacob, have already made the argument that in a progressive-galvanized environment, lack of corporate-tentacle resources can be a virtue for Democrats intent on taking down Lance and sticking it to Trump, especially when the machine, as it were, hardly projects a Hudson County Democratic Organization-in-its-heyday shadow.

It’s Somerset, after all, and Hunterdon.

It remained an in-progress game.

 

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