WEST LONG BRANCH – The combatants in the LD11 contest this evening scrapped in sharp elbowed but civilized fashion at Monmouth University, defining themselves on critical issues, with fragments from the gubernatorial drama spraying into the fray here, as Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) tries to fend off Democratic challenger Vin Gopal.
Piercing moments between the two of them in a two-hour debate somewhat bogged down by the presence of the assembly candidates occurred on the subjects of marijuana legalization, municipal consolidation, 401(k) plans for public workers and Gov. Chris Christie.
Gopal hadn’t been in the subterranean Monmouth University room but five minutes when a familiar figure in high heels appeared on the grand staircase and gingerly descended. It was Beck, Gopal’s target in this intriguing battleground race. Impeccable, the senator shook some outstretched hands, and then made her way to the dais, and the extended hand of Gopal. The grinning rivals chattered amiably and elegantly as the basement crowd swelled, among them Gopal’s running mates, Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, and Beck’s running mates, Rob Acerra and Mike Whelan and assorted Monmouth insiders.
Above the crowd like a hatless cowboy in front of massive saloon doors stood Beck backer Assemblyman (and state senate candidate) Declan O’Scanlon (R-13). Down front in the front row, a repeatedly acknowledged U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6) sat in Gopal’s corner. Monmouth University Pollster and Political Scientist Patrick Murray roamed the crowd. Then the grins thinned in the dimly lit carmine and turquoise-colored room and the League of Women Voters debate began.
Originally billed as a marquee matchup, the LD11 contest has arguably not concentrated as much attention as insiders envisioned, the consequence of some combination of Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno narrowing the gap with her rival, Democrat Phil Murphy, a flat statewide political atmosphere, the ongoing lunacy of President Donald J. Trump, and Democrats cannibalizing one another, intent on caging majority caucus overlord Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in his home district. And yet, Beck and Gopal still manage to impose insider interest as a result of the energy they have both personally managed to consistently project statewide. A pony-tailed newcomer in 2007, Beck rode the Republican upsurge of 2009 when Jon Corzine tumbled out of office, sustained the ravages of running mate roadkill in 2015, and now hopes to weather the twin perils of a weirded-out national GOP brand and dreadful Christie drag. A scintillating personality, businessman (and former Monmouth Democratic Chairman) Gopal has excelled as a master builder of statewide relationships, but now must overcome the encumbrances of an establishment Democratic Party that scares some Monmouth homeowners – and what Republicans here confidently spin as a Northern-centric top-of-the-ticket message.
Gopal locked horns early with Whelan when he objected to the firefighter’s son introducing 401(k) plans as an opposition for public sector workers. The Democratic challenger slapped at Beck’s GOP underling, saying he is devoted to keeping good faith with pension payments for public workers and favors focusing on towns consolidation and a bloated budget work out. Beck fired back, noting a$49 billion underfunded pension system, which Christie and the legislature have addressed by increasing pension payments by a tenth in the course of the past few years – better than recent past governors and legislatures. She added – icily – that she thought she had heard Gopal voice his support for 401(K) explorations in an Asbury Park Press editorial meeting. It was a cornerstone of her argument against Gopal, who clarified that he was referring to boards and commissions, secretarial and new employees, not police officers, teachers and firefighters.
He gave his answer under the watchful eye of Monmouth County GOP Chairman (and County Sheriff) Shaun Golden, a Beck backer.
Gopal later shot back at Beck, developing a theme he rounded out in his own closer, when he pointed out that she had been in the legislature for 18 years and never tried to advance the issue of municipal consolidation, which is killing the state.
Republicans felt they scored a point when Houghtaling bungled a question about an issue Guadagno continues to cudgel Murphy with at the top of the ticket: his support for a sanctuary state. The incumbent Democratic assemblyman said he didn’t have an answer, and – amid GOP gasps and giggles – Acerra pounced on him, scorning him for “punting again,” just before the Republican stoutly expressed his own opposition to the idea of a sanctuary state advocated by Murphy in last week’s gubernatorial debate. Beck noted her own opposition to a sanctuary state, then put her own little twist into sticking her landing when she distanced herself from Guadagno by expressing her opposition to 287(g). The federal deputizing of local law enforcement to bag undocumented workers, that was the issue that somewhat ensnared Guadagno (a former Monmouth County sheriff) with Hispanic groups when she first ran for LG in 2009. Gopal – himself opposed to sanctuary states – later rushed to Houghtaling’s defense.
So did Downey.
Gopal hounded Beck on her vote against pay equity, “even her colleagues voted by the bill,” which Beck swatted aside as political shenanigans by Democrats.
“Of course as a woman and a women business owner there are no circumstances where I think Vin Gopal should make more money than me,” said the senator.
Later, Acerra said he supports medical marijuana but feels the drug has gateway implications and opposes full-blown legalization. Beck agreed. “Legalizing marijuana right now does not make sense,” she said. Gopal disagreed. “I might be in the minority position,” said the senate challenger. “We have a lot of problems and we’re spending billions of dollars locking up non-violent criminals. I am in favor of moving forward on legalizing marijuana.” He wants to do it rationally, and to “take our time.”
“Without a doubt, I support medical marijuana,” he added.
Whelan parted company with his running mates, taking a more nuanced view of the issue.
“I’m in favor of talking about what home recreational use would look like,” said the Republican candidate for the assembly.
Beck voted against the bear hunt, and said so – proudly. Gopal, for his part, said he “strongly opposes” the hunt.
They came up on the closer.
“I’m dying to know what the Yankees score is,” Gopal cracked. “Zero to 0. Great. I actually don’t know Senator Beck personally, but she’s respectful, courteous, and has always been warm.” But his biggest beef with her – despite her arguments about independence – is she didn’t sufficiently buck Christie over the years. “If Phil Murphy becomes governor and does something I disagree with, I will fight him,” the Democrat promised. “Even after tens of millions in Bridgegate legal fees, she still served as co-chair of his [Christie’s] presidential campaign. The 11th needs independent representatives and freshness we haven’t seen in a while.”
Beck talked about her accomplishments.
Shark River dredged.
More aid for schools.
“I have stood up to the governor, when he tried to close Monmouth Park in 2010, on women’s health, on the book deal bill, Horizon bill, gas tax – time and again,” she said.
Then she went for the tail and horns.
“I don’t know him personally,” she said of her challenger, “but I have some concerns about Vin Gopal.” She referred to his public declarations opposing the gas tax, which he later walked back, Beck said, after special interest labor money got a hold of him.
“He suddenly backed away from that position,” the senator said.
They went for each other’s hands at the end. No one was pouting or walking rapidly out of the room, which slowly disgorged the big and mostly quiet crowd.
- Chris Christie
- Donald Trump
- Eric Houghtaling
- Jen Beck
- Joann Downey
- Jon Corzine
- Kim Guadagno
- League of Women Voters
- Mike Whelan
- Monmouth County Democrats
- Monmouth County Republicans
- Patrick Murray
- Paul Dement
- Rob Accerra
- Shaun Golden
- Vin Gopal
- West Long Branch
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