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PARSIPPANY – Town halls are a big issue in the 11th Congressional district. That’s because then-Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen most recently refused to hold one, despite loud demands that he do just that.
Now Frelinghuysen is gone.
And his replacement, Democrat Mikie Sherrill, held her first town hall meeting Sunday in the local PAL building. The district certainly appreciated it. About 500 showed up for a wide-ranging discussion of issues.
Congressional town halls can be combative affairs.
But not this one. Surprisingly, few local Republicans attended, by-passing an apparent opportunity to put the new congresswoman on the spot. There was a competing Republican event Sunday – a birthday celebration for Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi – but you get the impression some Republicans are just pretending that it (a Democrat winning election to Congress in Morris) never happened.
One of the few provocative questions came from Barbara Eames, whose conservative credentials are well-known in county political circles.
She noted Sherrill’s support for campaign finance reform, but also pointed out that she had widely outspent her GOP opponent Jay Webber.
So, how does the congresswoman square the circle?
Sherrill acknowledged the premise of the question, but said she began her campaign running against Frelinghuysen, who was both an entrenched incumbent and a very wealthy man. So, Sherrill said she had no choice but to raise as much money as she could. (Frelinghuysen bowed out of the race last January).
But she also said reform is needed because the bar to running for Congress has gotten so high. Sherrill lamented that the first – and many times the second and third – question many people ask of a congressional candidate is, how much money can they raise?
Many began by complimenting Sherrill for her victory before getting around to a question. One admirer, clearly getting a bit carried away, said she sleeps better at night knowing that Sherrill is in Congress.
Fielding a question on impeaching the president, Sherrill said she wants to wait for the Mueller report before making a decision. She said basically the same thing during the campaign.
Probably the loudest applause from the crowd came when a questioner urged Sherrill to support “Medicare for all.”
Sherrill said the Congressional Budget Office is studying the issue and will soon come up with its findings. She cautioned that this is a complicated matter that will produce “winners and losers.”
This often is bad for New Jersey, which sends more tax money to Washington than it gets back. Sherrill said she’s determined not to allow that problem to get worse.
One of the benefits of public meetings is that representatives often hear things they don’t hear in the so-called bubble of Washington.
That was the case when Willie Walker, an African-American woman from Montclair, asked Sherrill about police shootings, especially of African-American youth.
Sherrill, who is also from Montclair, talked about criminal justice reform, but made a more powerful point when she related a story in which she introduced her children to a local police officer during a routine encounter around town. As she told the story, she said there was no reason for her kids to fear the police.
But she acknowledged that many African-American mothers don’t have that same comfort level when it comes to their kids and police.
Afterwards, Sherrill said her first public meeting produced a lot of respectful and worthwhile questions that she said were symbolic of the district.
When it comes to public issues, she said, “A lot of people are trying to make smart decisions.”
One constituent offered the new congresswoman, who strives to be polite to everyone, some intriguing advice.
“I urge you to be snarky,” he said.