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Revamped 7th District Appears to Favor GOP Incumbent

Rep. Leonard Lance

Most political observers agree that redistricting made the 7th Congressional District even friendlier to Republican incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance.

That would seem to make it even tougher for his three challengers: Democrat Upendra Chivukula, Libertarian Patrick McKnight and independent Dennis Breen.

Nonetheless, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put the 7th District on its list of 20 “emerging races” across the country, meaning the DCCC believes the contest has the potential to become competitive.

Lance’s staff contends that’s merely a political ploy.

“The emerging races are a way for the national Democrats to show donors and political pundits that enough seats are in play to retake the House majority,” said Lance’s chief of staff, Todd Mitchell.

Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee.

But Chivukula, a state assemblyman from Middlesex County, contends that while the new district may be more “red,” “issue-wise, it’s more liberal.”

At the same time, both McKnight and Breen said that they have a good chance at winning, particularly in this election season more than others. Both candidates cite an electorate they say is fed up with the two major parties as well as the greater role that money is playing.

Still, the numbers do not side with the challengers’ views.

As of May 22, about 3 in 10 registered voters in the 7th District were Republican, outnumbering Democrats by 30,000. Independents comprised 46 percent of the electorate.

In 2008, the municipalities within the then-7th District supported President Obama by a narrow margin, although they also chose Lance for the first time, over the relatively well-known Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Union. Had the district lines been drawn in 2008 as they are now, the 7th would have gone into U.S. Sen. John McCain’s column, with the Republican getting 52.4 percent of the vote, according to Mitchell.

So the race appears to be Lance’s to lose.

The two-term congressman was born in Easton, Pa., but only because that was the location of the closest hospital in 1952 before Hunterdon Medical Center was built. His parents lived in Hunterdon County and raised him there.

His family is one of the few New Jersey political dynasties. His father, Wesley Lance, served both as a state assemblyman and state senator. His great uncle, H. Kiefer Lance, served as a state assemblyman.

Like his father, Leonard Lance served in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, with 11 years in the Assembly and seven in the Senate, where he rose to the position of minority leader.

Lance received a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University, a J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School and an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. He served as a law clerk in the Warren County Superior Court in 1977 and 1978 and was assistant counsel for county and municipal matters to former Gov. Thomas H. Kean from 1983 to 1990.

Although he was known as a gentleman in the state Legislature, his 2008 congressional campaign picked up on the negative ads that had proven successful two years earlier for then-Rep. Mike Ferguson and proclaimed “Linda Stender is a spender.”

Ferguson’s retirement after four terms had left the seat open. Lance’s 24,000-vote margin over Stender in 2008 was significantly more than Ferguson’s 2,900-vote victory two years earlier.

Lance now serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a broad legislative jurisdiction, including national energy and environmental policy, health and health facilities, interstate and foreign commerce, consumer affairs and consumer protection, and travel and tourism.

He is married to Heidi A. Rohrbach and they live in Clinton Township. They have a son, Peter Frank.

Lance’s Democratic opponent, Chivukula, does not live in the 7th District, which the U.S. Constitution allows. He resides in Franklin Township in Somerset County with his wife Dayci, his son Suraj, and his daughter Damianty.

Where he lives should hurt Chivukula in November, said Lance’s spokesman, Mitchell.

“Our opponent doesn’t live in the district,” he said. “None of these towns are in his Assembly district (the 17th). The voters don’t know him.”

Chivukula disagreed.

“I’ve been living in Somerset County for almost 30 years,” he said. “If I throw a stone, I’ll be in the 7th District.”

Franklin borders several communities that are in the district.

Chivukula was not born anywhere near the 7th Congressional District — he was born in India in 1950 but has spent the last 30 years living in Somerset County. He came to the United States at age 24 and became a citizen before his 30th birthday.

Chivukula calls his background “humble.” His campaign website states that after his father moved the family from Nellore to Chennai in search of work, he lived with “his parents, grandmother, and five siblings in a hut.”

Chivukula received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Guindy’s Engineering College of Anna University in Chennai, India, and then a master’s degree in electrical engineering from City College of the City University of New York. He speaks six languages. Chivukula worked at Bell Labs for 18 years and has since retired.

He was elected to the New Jersey Legislature in 2002, representing the 17th District, which covers parts of Somerset and Middlesex counties. The district is heavily Democratic but does not overlap the current 7th Congressional District. He currently serves as a deputy speaker in the Assembly.

Dennis Breen, 61, is running as an independent. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has been a resident of Summit.

Breen attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, then transferred to the State University of New York at Brockport, graduating with a degree in political science. During college, he spent a semester in Washington, D.C., interning at the offices of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Indiana).

He has a master's degree in teaching and a certificate as a social studies teacher from SUNY Binghamton. He also earned a law degree from University of Dayton School of Law. Breen works at Lurie, Ilchert, MacDonnell & Ryan in Manhattan representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. He is married with two children.

This is not Breen’s first time running for elected office. He also ran as an independent for U.S. Senate 12 years ago, challenging Jon Corzine, the Democrat who won, as well as Republican Bob Franks and eight others. Breen came in sixth, garnering 6,061 votes.

Libertarian Patrick McKnight, 27, is also on the ballot. He is running for public office for the first time. McKnight said he decided to run after questioning Lance about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at a meeting in January and being dissatisfied with Lance’s response.

McKnight grew up in Montgomery in Somerset County. According to his website, he graduated from Rutgers University in 2007 with degrees in philosophy and sociology. He now lives in Hillsborough.

After leaving Rutgers, McKnight spent a year teaching high school social studies classes at Camden Academy Charter High School in Camden. He has since been working as a landscaper and a farmer.

McKnight says his “10 Step Plan to Fix America” has the approval of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who, despite his Republican Party membership, is widely known for his libertarian views.

In his spare time, McKnight plays guitar for the band Dinosaur Eyelids. He is single.

All of the candidates are running in a larger and somewhat different district. Previously, the 7th was comprised of 54 municipalities in four counties: Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset and Union. Now, it is made up of 75 municipalities in six counties, losing all of Middlesex and gaining portions of Essex, Morris and Warren.

The 7th District gained eight more towns in the staunchly Republican Hunterdon County: Delaware Township, East Amwell, Franklin Township, Frenchtown, Kingwood Township, Lamberton, Stockton and West Amwell Township.

In Warren, it added Alpha, Franklin, Greenwich, Harmony, Lopatcong, Phillipsburg and Pohatcong.

It also now includes 11 Morris County communities: Chester Borough and Township, Dover, Long Hill, Mine Hill, Mount Arlington, Mount Olive, Netcong, Roxbury, Washington and Wharton. Most of these lean Republican.

At the same time, the district lost some more ”blue”-leaning towns, including Roselle Park, Linden, Bound Brook, Manville and South Bound Brook in Union County and Somerset counties.

Millburn, the one Essex County community that moved into the 7th, has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Aside from the demographics, Lance’s camp feels confident of victory because of his reputation throughout the region. “These brand new towns — Lance has a relationship with them,” Mitchell said, noting that Lance represented many of the towns during his 18 years in the state Assembly and state Senate representing the 23rd Legislative District.

Chivukula said he is well-known in Somerset, having served for years on the Somerset County Affordable Housing Board of Trustees and the Somerset County Cultural Commission.

Editor's note: This story has been edited since it was originally posted.

Mary Barr Mann is a freelance writer and reporter living in New Jersey. Recently, she worked as the Associate Regional Editor for Patch.com in Union County.

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