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Elections 2014

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Assemblywoman Wants to Be NJ’s First African-American Congresswoman

Physician Alieta Eck also running to replace retiring Rush Holt in 12th District

bonnie watson coleman
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-15th)

One outcome is nearly certain in New Jersey’s 12th District race for Congress: A woman will win the election.

Both major-party candidates are women, and barring an upset from an independent, one of them will become the first to represent New Jersey in Washington, D.C., in more than a decade. The election also presents an opportunity for one candidate to break through a race and gender barrier: If Democratic frontrunner Bonnie Watson Coleman wins, she’ll be the state’s first female African-American in Congress.

Yet despite their shared gender, Watson Coleman, who serves Central Jersey’s 15th district in the General Assembly, and her Republican challenger, Dr. Alieta Eck, who practices medicine in Piscataway, strongly disagree on women’s issues and almost every other. Watson Coleman prides herself on her progressive credentials and outspokenness against Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, while Eck espouses strictly conservative ideals on issues like reproductive health, role of government, and viability of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“At the end of the day we’ve got one candidate who thinks the federal government has a responsibility to its citizens and one candidate who thinks the federal government is of little use,” said Watson Coleman.

If past equals prologue, Watson Coleman’s philosophies will prevail this election cycle. She’s running in a safely Democratic Central New Jersey district to replace popular Democratic Congressman Rush Holt, who endorsed her after announcing his retirement from an eight-term tenure in Congress.

“With Bonnie Watson Coleman you can be sure that my successor in the House will continue to work for justice and human welfare and will do so for many years to come,” said Holt after she handily beat three Democrats in a primary that had her running neck-and-neck against powerful state Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Cranbury).

dr.alieta eck
Dr. Alieta Eck

Eck ran unopposed in the primary and has only run for public office once before, when she lost the Republican primary for Senate last year. Currently, she and Watson Coleman face five independent male challengers: Hopewell Township Deputy Mayor Allen Cannon, New Jersey Green Party cofounder Steven Welzer, marijuana activist Don DeZarn, former congressional candidate Ken Cody and business executive Jack Freudenheim. Watson Coleman has raised $1.1 million to Eck’s $204,000 and the other candidates’ zero.

The District

The 12th District looks like a band around the middle of New Jersey, spreading across parts of Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties. Middlesex and Mercer County make up most of the district, with a small portion of Union County added during the most recent redistricting to replace the pieces of Monmouth County that were removed.

The redistricting boosted the Democratic population of the district, which climbed from 33 percent to 37 percent of registered voters. Only 14 percent of district voters have registered as Republicans, and the rest of the population remains independent, though they’ve voted for Democratic presidential candidates for the last two decades and almost always sent Holt back to Congress by double-digit margins.

Nearly 60 percent of the population is white, with Asians and Hispanics each counting for 15 percent and African-Americans rounding out the remaining 18 percent, giving the district the second-highest number of blacks in New Jersey. Highland Park, just outside New Brunswick, is home to one of the state’s largest Hassidic Jewish communities.

According to BiggestUSCities.com, the state’s 12th District ranks in the top 50 nationwide congressional districts for income per capita and household, as well as number of college graduates and Asians. The Route 1 corridor that traverses part of the district attracts many engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, thanks to its high concentration of pharmaceutical firms, tech startups, innovation-minded businesses, and academic institutions. Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton College, says Watson Coleman should have little trouble winning over voters in the district.

“It is based in Trenton and Princeton, where Bonnie Watson Coleman’s family is prominent and well respected,” he said. Watson Coleman’s father was a pioneering African-American in the General Assembly.

The Candidates

For the past eight terms, Watson Coleman has represented New Jersey’s 15th Assembly district, which includes Trenton, Ewing, Lambertville, East Amwell, Hopewell borough and township, Lawrence, Pennington, and West Windsor. The 69-year-old Ewing resident became the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly Majority Leader and holds the same distinction as chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. She serves as vice chair of the Education Committee and previously chaired the Appropriations Committee. She headed up Barbara Buono’s gubernatorial election campaign and is one of Christie’s most vocal critics.

PolitickerNJ calls her one of the state’s 50 most-powerful elected officials. Her endorsements come from labor, progressive national nonprofits, several members of Congress, the mayor of Trenton, and former governor Jim Florio, who said, “Bonnie has never shied away from the tough fights and has always stood on the front lines battling for her constituents.”

Eck, who is 63, lives in Somerset and first became known in political circles for testifying twice before Congress about health insurance funding more than a decade ago. She runs a private practice with her husband and c-founded a free medical clinic where she volunteers up to eight hours per week. She’s been endorsed by the self-described conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, for which she served as president, and members of the Republican establishment, from former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman to the current governor.

Eck has received donations from Tea Party organizations but she doesn’t label herself a party member. Despite the lopsided political predictions and voter rolls, she thinks her Republican message can prevail in an election that doesn’t have a big name at the top of the ticket to draw the district’s core Democratic voters.

“The Tea Party began because people were fed up with bloated government programs and overregulation, so I agree with their point of view,” she said.

“I don’t think there will be a great Democratic turnout,” she continued. “My opponent thinks she doesn’t even need to campaign. I think she might be surprised.”

The Issues

Eck is running in part to oppose the Affordable Care Act, which she promises to fight every day as a member of Congress. Threatening that the ACA will unduly burden the Medicaid system with new enrollees, she proposes an alternative called the "Voluntary Free Protection Act." Under the act, doctors would voluntarily pledge four hours a week of free care to indigent patients in exchange for protection from malpractice lawsuits. According to her plan, the state would pay these doctors’ legal bills, settlements, and payouts in a switch that she believes would reduce the number of malpractice cases and costs.

From her experience working at the church-funded clinic, where pharmaceutical companies and professionals donate products and services, she feels certain that uninsured, low-income patients would find the care they need. Or at least something close.

“We’re treating a young woman who was paying $900 per month for heavy psychological medications as a result of being raped and beaten for years by her father. We were lucky to have the medicine she needed,” she said.

When asked what would have happened if her Zarephath Health Center, located in Somerset and named for her church, hadn’t carried those particular drugs, she answered, “We would have found a substitute that would have been close enough.”

Watson Coleman, for her part, agrees that the ACA falls short of perfection, but chuckles when asked her opinion of Eck’s proposal. “Doctors volunteering their services is a good thing,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s the way you deliver a system of healthcare or education or justice. It’s not sustainable.”

In the state, Watson Coleman has fought for access to affordable birth control and healthcare and supports the right to choose an abortion. The pro-life Eck says that although she intends to focus on more pressing issues this election season, she disagrees with forcing companies to pay for their employees’ birth control.

“We should empower women to pay for their own birth control,” she said, expressing support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling to allow the Hobby Lobby retail chain to stop paying for insurance to cover female workers’ birth control.

On issues of equality and economic justice, Watson Coleman also favors equal pay for equal work and a higher minimum wage. She advocates for the preservation of Social Security, Medicare, gay rights, gun control, and public schools. With a nod toward the Princeton-area high-tech corridor located in her district, she says she wants to boosts tax credits and economic incentives for innovation, modern job training, and green energy. She also says that infrastructure improvements can pave the way toward job security and greater economic revitalization.

“We need to fix bridges and roads and make public transportation more efficient,” said the candidate who supported the cancelled “Access to the Region's Core" Hudson River tunnel project. “Smarter growth is good for jobs and good for the environment, especially in a densely populated region like ours. It’s win-win.”

If elected, Watson Coleman would voice a desire to sit on committees that deal with transportation, energy, commerce, education, healthcare and women’s issues.

Eck would rather see less investment in public projects paired with a reduction in taxes and bureaucratic regulation, which she blames for overseas outsourcing and investment. She’d like to put a stop to government earmarks and assign oversight of the education system to local, rather than federal, agencies. In an interview with NJ Spotlight, the candidate listed her potential constituents’ top concerns as “jobs and the economy, national security, terrorism and those beheadings, immigration reform, and the Affordable Care Act.”

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