Reproductive Rights Emerge as Key Issue in 4th Congressional District
Republican incumbent seeks 17th term, Democratic and Independent challengers say his time in Congress has not helped New Jersey
Before Chris Smith was elected to Congress at age 27, he was executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee.
Smith's campaign is not emphasizing his anti-abortion advocacy. His biography on his campaign website, running more than two dozen paragraphs, includes only a brief mention. But both of his opponents, Democrat Brian Froelich and independent Leonard Marshall, say Smith is wrong on this issue.
Froelich, a business executive and consultant from Spring Lake, is putting it front and center, charging that Smith, a Catholic, is seeking to impose his "religious position" on a deeply divisive issue.
"I accept the Catholic Church's religious position. I don't condone abortion," said Froelich, 66, who like Smith is Catholic. "From my point of view, Chris Smith has a religious position about abortion, which he is entitled to. The problem is, about half the country accepts it, and half doesn't."
Froelich's campaign website prominently features a 28-second video of an encounter, purportedly between a Smith supporter and a female Rutgers University student, at the SeptemberFest in Hamilton. In the video, a woman walks up to a table, where a Smith campaign sign is visible, and asks when he will arrive because she and others with her want to discuss his "stance on reproductive rights."
A man replies, "You ever hear about keeping aspirin between your legs," adding, "It works every time it's tried."
Smith, who is seeking a 17th term November 6 has declined multiple requests from NJ Spotlight to discuss his record and perspective on the issues.
Marshall, 60, a former chairman of the state Conservative Party, said that while he agrees with Smith's opposition to using taxpayer funding for abortions, he opposes Smith's abortion stance.
"It should be legal, it should be safe, and it should be very, very rare," said Marshall, an insurance inspector and licensed public adjuster from Neptune who has opposed Smith before.
In 2010, Smith and the pro-life caucus' Democratic co-chair, Dan Lipinski of Illinois, introduced the "No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act." The legislation was criticized for referencing "forcible rape," a phrase some interpreted as redefining rape, in an early draft, though that language was not included in the version that passed the House last year. The bill would allow federal funds to be used only for abortions in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.
It drew increased scrutiny in August after Republican Rep. Todd Aiken, an abortion opponent and U.S. Senate nominee in Missouri, suggested in a television interview that women could not get pregnant from a "legitimate rape."
In a July 30, 2010 press release for his office announcing the bill's introduction, Smith offered some insight into his anti-abortion philosophy, stating, "Abortion is lethal violence against children and exploitation of women."
Smith for years also has been a co-sponsor of the so-called "personhood" bill. In its present form in this Congress, that measure "declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being beginning at the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual comes into being," according to its summary on the govtrack.us website. Abortion rights advocates say passage of a personhood measure could make all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape or incest, and could also lead to bans on birth control and stem cell research.
Abortion is the one issue that has defined Smith's career from before his 1980 election to Congress through the present. Since 1982, Smith has been the Republican co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-life Caucus, a role giving him prominent standing in the anti-abortion movement. He gets perfect scores from both groups opposing abortion (100 percent) and those supporting choice (0 percent).
Smith's pro-life stand is "the one immovable object in his issues portfolio," said Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker.
"On everything else, he has shown considerable flexibility," Baker said, referencing Smith's ouster several years ago as chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs after challenging the Republican leadership on funding issues.
The current executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, Marie Tasy, said Smith's anti-abortion advocacy is part of his broader interest in human rights worldwide.
"Chris Smith is a champion for women and children. His position on human rights is unparalleled. We are so proud of him. It is so wonderful we have such a strong, pro-life Congressman that represents New Jersey, who is the dean of the delegation. Everyone who knows Chris knows how hard he works," Tasy said.
Smith's official Congressional biography touts his sponsorships of a 2000 law combating human trafficking and, in 2011, reauthorizing an autism training and education program. In July, Smith convened what was described as the first Congressional hearing on diagnosing, treating, and managing Lyme disease.
During his nearly 32-year career in the House, Smith, now 59 and dean of the New Jersey delegation, has been a prolific advocate and author of legislation on a wide range of other issues, as well. The senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Smith lives in Robbinsville. Prior to winning his Congressional seat, Smith helped run his family's sporting goods business.
Smith's opponents are talking about other issues in the race, as well.
Referring to Smith, Froelich said, "We are in 100 percent agreement as to what the issues are. It's the economy and healthcare, adding, 'We're 100 percent in opposition on what the solutions are.'
"His solution is implement the Ryan plan. Mine is Simpson-Bowles," Froelich said, referring to a proposal from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- created by President Obama and co-chaired by Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles -- to reduce spending on entitlement programs and scale back tax deductions, among other initiatives
"He opposes Obamacare. I'm pledged to support it," added Froelich of the federal healthcare law.
Marshall, who opposes the healthcare law and voiced praise for the Simpson/Bowles plan, is seeking to use Smith's longevity against him.
"Chris Smith has been there 32 years and presided over this entire mess," Marshall said. He said both major parties have failed to adequately address "money and jobs and security."
Marshall said that Smith, as a senior member, should bear some responsibility for failing to stop the closure of Fort Monmouth, which he said "devastated central New Jersey," as well as the state's rising unemployment rate.
"There's no reason for New Jersey to be in this much of a hole. He's one of the reasons," Marshall said.
Froelich said he continues to seek an opportunity to debate Smith. As of October 12, he said he had gone to three candidate forums to which Smith was invited, but which he did not attend.