FLEMINGTON – It was packed, and not just with aging dead heads who looked like Santa Claus mall bait. The Sunday CD7 forum earlier today sponsored by Hunterdon Democrats framed a, yes, mostly Vermont-like Sierra Club counter culture, but one over-layered with cold weather-bundled NJ insiders intent on newfound western frontiers, all hunkered in fold-out chairs, grimly alert – by the tone and mood of it all – to Donald Trump flushing the country as they know it out of existence.
Wearing what vaguely represented a Last Jedi star destroyer deck officer outfit, an impeccable Hunterdon County Democratic Committee Chair Arlene Quinones Perez – 17 years a veteran of party politics, the hip central figure in the Sunday Flemington political drama – assured people that she wouldn’t be imposing any surprise choke holds on committee members. “I’m not a party boss,” she said, just before supplying her personal cellphone number so people could call her and casually give their opinions about their preferred candidates.
“We haven’t decided,” she said, referring to herself and her executive committee, and noting the choice before Democrats in the 7th this year. Who will run against ten-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7), or, in Quinones Perez’s words, who would be the one “to kick Leonard Lance the hell out office?”
There was an emerging, inter-county back story.
For weeks, Berkeley Heights banker Linda Weber held the most obvious edge, but less than robust year end fundraising totals ($325K) sent a shiver of foul feeling through the party establishment in those counties comprising the district. Suddenly Weber looked vulnerable to incursions by either her longtime rival Lisa Mandleblatt or former state department stand-out Tom Malinowski – or even – the youngish – attorney Goutham Jois of Summit.
“There’s no Mikie Sherrill in the 7th,” an operative whispered in InsiderNJ’s ear, acknowledging the still-unsettled field in comparison to CD11, where Sherrill, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, appears to have suffocated the rest of the field in her Democratic bid to do to incumbent U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) what Weber, Mandelblatt, Malinowski, Jois, social worker Peter Jacob, attorney Scott Salmon, and now environmental activist David Pringle – the newest entrant to the contest – all want from a general election crack at Lance.
By the reckoning of insiders roving the room and texting in their backchannel observations, no one has cleared the field. If Weber struggles (relatively) on the financial front, and Mandelblatt fails to convince observers of deep professional chops, Malinowski continues to worry members of the Democratic establishment that he’s only newly unpacked in CD7 after years of away time.
But if Pringle tried to supply the room at the Stangl Factory with reasons for why he is precisely that guy the field has lacked to this point, and Weber and Mandelblatt fought a cold war with each other to be that standout female in the race, for, after all, 2018 was supposed to be a good year for women, in politics, Jois and Malinowski tried to out-polish each other over the course of the two-hour forum.
Malinowski worked for Secretary of State John Kerry, which he mentioned – in the administration of Barack Obama, which he also mentioned. He again seemed to have the most obvious transferable skills for the job of congress. And now there was – as promised – money. He was raising more than everyone else and – oh, there was this just in – “I won’t take PAC money,” he vowed in his best Eagle Scout voice. “He’s the Josh Gottheimer of the 7th District,’ Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach told InsiderNJ.
While others struggled to project more than parochial connections, Malinowski blithely said at another point, “My friend Tim Kaine.” He was dropping names that must have made the other candidates squirm with discomfort or even real irritation. His larger canvas played into a national narrative, too, about the Democratic quest for 24 seats in order to take back Congress and impair the Trump presidency.
The 2016 nominee in the district, Jacob was right away at a disadvantage in the forum.
He was, in fact, absent, visiting his sick grandmother in India. An adviser named Mark Eric Lane filled in for him. Pringle tried to take advantage early, and he sounded what would prove to be the afternoon’s most consistent theme. “The energy this year is palpable,” said the environmental leader. “I’m running for Congress because Trump is a menace. Our congressman is unable to do anything about it.”
When he rose in lawyerly fashion to give his opening statement on the heels of Pringle’s sedate seated opener, Jois immediately deflated the new entrant. He sprinkled his presentation with humor, too, which found a willing audience. His name, he said, is actually an ancient Indian Sanskrit that translated means “congressman from the 7th district.” “If you shut your eyes, Jois would be declared the winner of the debates,” declared an insider unaffiliated with Jois.
Salmon of Scotch Plains continued to try to make the case for why his having little money can actually be a virtue.
When the candidates received a question about the country’s most pressing national security challenge, Weber said climate change.
She also mentioned Trump.
Mandelblatt doubled down.
“One of the things that terrorizes me is the difference with this president is his dismantling of systems that safeguard our democracy,” said the Westfield resident. “It’s affecting us around the world; making us less safe here at home. We must make sure we hold this president accountable.”
The Trump pile-on lasted all afternoon.
“I have very little faith in the very stable genius in the white house now,” reveled Lane.
Malinowski managed to sneak in the fact that 150 of his former employees at the state department right now occupied that up close and personal unstable realm of Trump tweet world.
His biggest national security worry?
“It comes back to the tax bill,” Malinowski said. “We are only strong abroad if we are strong at home. We’re squandering our resources and embarrassing ourselves on the world stage.”
He added, “I am worried about North Korea [and] a president who may tweet our way into a war with North Korea.
Coming to the question after the others, Pringle grabbed hold again of the most obvious target.
“The greatest national security threat to our country is Donald Trump,” he said. “He defies reality. Just when you think he can’t go lower he goes lower. North Korea – that keeps me up at night. He is tearing apart the very fabric of what made our country great.”
Everyone pummeled Lance for seeming to be helpless in the face of Trump, the Republican’s political willpower all but determined by the directives of Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Malinowski is the most polished,” an insider told InsiderNJ as he threw on his hat and prepared to walk out again into the cold. “Everyone else…” and his voice trailed off as he made a Charles Bowyer face.
But the party wants a woman, he was told.
The operative shrugged helplessly and left.
But now Jois was really fighting through the Malinowski maelstrom, reminding the crowd that he too had A level contacts.
“My law school professor Elizabeth Warren,” he said.
It was the only time anyone tried to go toe to toe with Malinowski on the name-dropping front.
Then Jois did it again.
“I spoke recently with Howard Dean about my 75-town strategy,” the attorney said. “He said that’s the only way to run a campaign.”
On the other side of the dais, Malinowski was the picture of unflinching restraint.
Then Malinowski – fighting the impression that he is a Johnny Come Lately to CD7 – served up this dangerous opportunity to his rivals – “When people around the country ask me about our district.” There he was, momentarily treading at the edge of being a self-identified outsider again. Who would be the one to make him look like the guy with his nose pressed up against the window of the 7th District?
But Pringle’s and Jois’ and Salmon’s attempts to be local guys with invocations, respectively, of a Cranford childhood, kids in the Summit school system, and shopping at the Flemington outlets in youth, appeared to hardly dent Malinowski’s foreign policy comfort zone through the course of the exercise.
Then Austin Ritter, a member of the Hunterdon County Young Democrats, rising in the crowd and going to a microphone, poked at the state department veteran’s soft underbelly.
What was each candidate’s connection to CD7?
How long had they lived in CD7?
“I live in Rocky Hill, in Somerset,” said Malinowski. “I grew up in Princeton. I live a few blocks from where I had my first kiss, and I wasn’t thinking about which congressional district I was in.”
Ultimately, after the uniform disparagements of Trump, the common assertion of Lance’s acquiescence, the opposition to climate change challengers and concealed carry permits and a vociferous dynamiting of the tax bill, the party members came away from the afternoon reinvigorated by a display of cold weather attendance but, perhaps, no clearer sense of a true frontrunner.