When Republicans across the state Friday were calling for Bob Menendez’ scalp after he was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee, Rep. Leonard Lance was singing a different tune.
No, Lance said after holding a town hall meeting Friday evening at Phillipsburg High School; Menendez should not resign as many of his fellow New Jersey Republicans are demanding. Instead, Lance, who represents the Seventh District, said Menendez should face the voters this fall and let them decide.
Lance’s endorsement of democracy above all was refreshing. As a veteran politician, Lance is also likely aware that if Menendez departs, he would be replaced by another Democrat who presumably would not have the senator’s baggage. So, wouldn’t Republicans be better off running against an ethically-challenged Menendez as opposed to a less-controversial Democrat? Clearly, those Republicans reflexively calling on Menendez to quit don’t seem to be thinking too far ahead.
It’s not uncommon for Lance to step away from Republican group-think. He said during the town hall that Dwight Eisenhower was the first president he remembers. That’s fitting, because in some ways, Lance is a throwback to the era when Republicans and Democrats were actually friends and socialized together.
Lance said afterwards that government best serves the people when the “center-left and the center-tight’ are able to work together and reach a consensus. That seldom happens today.
As he did at a previous town hall, Lance said, “President Trump tweets too much.” He also criticized the president for seeking to score political points by poking fun at the physical appearance of others. But Lance said that trait is hardly unique to Trump, noting that former FBI Director James Comey in his new book refers to the size of Trump’s hands and his “orange hair.”
The uber-partisanship of today’s Congress, notwithstanding, Lance said he strives to listen to those on the far right and far left. But listening at times is just that – listening.
Asked about a new House Speaker now that Paul Ryan is departing, Lance ruled out supporting one potential candidate, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, saying he’s too conservative for his tastes.
It seems difficult to get Lance angry, at least in public.
The majority of the 100 or so people gathered in the high school auditorium were clearly anti-Republican. One questioner asked Lance to define what a Republican was. But before he could answer, the speaker defined the party for him, saying Republicans stood for “corruption, chaos and cruelty.”
You can probably imagine how someone like Chris Christie would react to such an observation, Lance took it in stride, cleverly pointing out that he is against “corruption, chaos and cruelty.”
He said to him, the Republican Party means individual liberty, fiscal responsibility and a belief in the free market.
Town halls offer a fascinating glimpse into human behavior and this one was no exception. One fellow complained Lance was taking too long to answer questions, saying that limited the number of questions that could be asked. He then launched into a 10-minute speech before getting around to a question. So much for brevity.
The question was whether we needed a constitutional amendment to force presidential candidates to release their tax records. Everyone knew from where he was coming politically. Lance said a constitutional amendment would be virtually impossible to bring about, but that he would be open to legislation on the topic.
There is, of course, another side here. Lance’s moderate and anti-Trump views on some issues are not popular among many Republicans on the right. He is often characterized as a “RINO,” an insulting moniker that means Republican In Name Only. .
Lance has faced challenges from the right in the last three GOP primaries. He was never in danger of actually losing, but primaries cost money and time. This year, Craig Heard of Roxbury considered running against Lance, but opted against it.
Now that he’s free from a foe popping up on his right flank, Lance can concentrate on the general election where the likely Democratic candidate is Tom Malinowski, a former State Department official in the Obama Administration.
Democrats will work hard to label Lance as too pro-Trump, no matter what he says about the president’s tweets. One of the questioners at the town hall tried to tie Lance to what she said was Speaker Ryan’s goal of cutting aid to the poor. Lance avoided a direct answer, saying only that Ryan is “a man of his word.”
These types of comments will become tougher to ignore as we get into the fall campaign. Clearly, Lance’s mettle, not to mention his penchant for civility, is about to be tested.
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