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Hate Crime Heightens Tensions in Already Divisive 7th District

Republican Rep. Lance decries as ‘abhorrent’ swastikas spray-painted on challenger Jacob’s house, but Democrat links act to ‘casual racism’ of Trump campaign


The congressional race in New Jersey’s 7th District may not be as close — or expensive — as the one in the 5th just to the north, but it’s been garnering its own attention as a divisive November 8 election approaches.

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, a four-term Republican incumbent, is facing off against Democratic upstart Peter Jacob, a social worker from Union. Lance is a self-labeled moderate who Jacob and others have accused of moving too far right in recent years. Jacob, meanwhile, is a progressive in the mold of Democratic presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), a political stance Lance argues doesn’t represent voters in the conservative-leaning district.

The candidates are scheduled to meet face to face for the first time at two debates in the coming weeks. Issues that factor heavily among voters in the 700,000-plus person district include veterans affairs, senior citizens, and the environment.

The 7th Congressional District, which includes Hunterdon County and portions of Essex, Somerset, Morris, Union, and Warren, is one of the sites of a proposed natural-gas pipeline called the Pilgrim Pipeline, a project that both candidates oppose.

But the contest has gotten ugly in recent days. On two different occasions over the past week vandals spray-painted swastikas on Jacob’s property, convincing the Democrat to hold a press conference with local officials yesterday and prompting a police investigation into the apparent hate crimes. 

peter jacob
Democratic challenger Peter Jacob, a social worker from Union

The incidents have become a political point of conflict in the race, as Jacob, an Indian-American, called them the result of “rhetoric that we are hearing nationally.”

“This type of behavior does not represent the 7th District, it does not represent Union County, and it certainly does not represent Union Township,” Jacob said in a statement yesterday. “My family and I are okay, and have installed a state-of-the-art security system. Let there be no mistake, the people who committed this crime did so because they feel comfortable and confident to commit hateful acts due to an ever increasing atmosphere of accepted racism.”

Incumbent versus outsider

Like the hotly contested congressional race in neighboring District 5, where conservative standard-bearer U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett finds himself fending off one of his toughest challenges yet in Democratic hopeful and Microsoft executive Josh Gottheimer, the race in the 7th also features a fight between an established incumbent and political newcomer.

Lance has represented the 7th district since 2009, when he won a seven-way Republican primary to replace retiring U.S. Congressman Mike Ferguson. Before that he spent over two decades in the New Jersey Legislature, first as an Assemblyman and then as Senator, where he built a reputation as a bipartisan lawmaker with politically moderate stances on issues like environmental sustainability and social values.

He’s hewed more closely to the national GOP line in Washington, voting with his party to oppose the high-profile bills such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Omnibus Appropriations Act in 2009. He is also a ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which he says has the “most jurisdictional responsibility” of any in congress, and is a strong supporter of the agenda set by Speaker Paul Ryan, who he said has done a “terrific job.”

In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Lance said that “regardless of who is elected president, I hope that the policy statements that Ryan has put out might form the basis of legislation next year when the new Congress convenes.” Ryan released an election season agenda in June that lists six main policy focuses: poverty, tax reform, national security, healthcare, cutting regulations, and restoring constitutional authority.

That close party allegiance, however, has also drawn the ire of political challengers in the district, who argue Lance is either not conservative enough or too entrenched in Washington’s bureaucracy, or both. He’s become a main target for Tea Party loyalists in the state, such as David Larsen, a construction and home improvement businessman who has gone after the more centrist incumbent in four consecutive GOP primaries.

Two years ago, Larsen came within nine percentage points of an upset, but Lance easily trounced the candidate this year, taking 54 percent to Laren’s 33 percent of the vote. The American Conservative Union in 2015 gave Lance a 71 percent score, the second-highest — next to Garrett, who received 100 — of New Jersey’s six Republican members of Congress.

Jacob too has homed in on Lance’s voting record in Congress, casting him as a Washington insider who’s lost touch with the needs of District 7 constituents. At the same time he’s criticized the Republican for tacking too far right in recent years on policy positions, noting a corresponding tendency in the national GOP, which he says has also grown more extreme.

A former community organizer at the Elizabeth Coalition To House The Homeless, Jacob won an uncontested primary for the Democratic nomination in June and was a vocal supporter of Sanders, a self-labeled socialist who put up a strong showing against the more establishment Hillary Clinton in the party’s national primary.

“When I go out onto the streets and knock on doors, and go to streets fairs, I always hear that he is not the same man he was when he served in the Assembly,” Jacob said of Lance in an interview with NJ Spotlight last week. “He was pro-choice, pro-environment, pro the people of his constituency. Now he's toeing the party line as it becomes more partisan and more extreme.”

Lance, though, disagrees, maintaining that the district — with nearly 157,000 registered Republicans to 139,000 registered Democrats and almost 215,000 unaffiliated — is represented most accurately by a Republican. While voters there did go with President Barack Obama by a slim 3 percent margin in 2008, presidential elections both before and after went to Republicans, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report ranks the district “R+6”, indicating a GOP advantage.

“My opponent has different views on public policy, he's a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders, Lance said. “I do not criticize Bernie Sanders as a person, but I do criticize Bernie Sanders’ political views. They are not my views, and I don't believe they are the views of the people in this Congressional district.”

Swastikas and ‘casual racism’

The impact of presidential politics on the down-ballot 7th District race have been most obvious over the past several days, as the Democrat’s campaign, following two vandalism incidents, has sought to make the contest a referendum on Donald Trump.

Early Monday morning, Jacob said he awoke to find two bright orange swastikas spray-painted near the basement door of his home in Union. It was the second time the property had been vandalized since Friday night, when similar markings had turned up on his sidewalk.

The incidents have since become one of the most dramatic plot points of the race. Jacob, in a press conference yesterday, said that the crimes were a product of the intensely partisan and often racially charged presidential election, in which the Republican nominee has made derogatory comments about minorities and women.

Republican leaders in general have fretted over the effect the GOP nominee’s recent actions — which have seen growing condemnation from leaders within his own party, including Speaker Paul Ryan — might have on state and local races across the country. And Democrats have employed the opposing party’s insecurity to their political advantage, making use of every opportunity to tie their opponents to Trump.

In the 5th, Gottheimer has slammed Garrett’s continued support of Trump, using support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to release expensive media advertisements drawing parallels between the conservative politicians.

Jacob, who was joined at the press conference yesterday by Union County Freeholder President Bruce Bergen, Union County Sheriff Joe Cryan, and other local leaders, blamed the incidents on an atmosphere of “casual racism” that Trump has helped cultivate. And he criticized Lance, whom he’s previously attacked for the incumbent’s support of Trump, for enabling that racism.

Union is one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the district, with 54 percent of its population identifying as white, 29 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian, according to recent U.S. Census data.

“I believe we have a smart district,” Jacob, who was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was six months old, told NJ Spotlight. “People here are generally moderate, they see that their kids are coming home without the same opportunities that they had. And people in this district, while it's Republican leaning, they're not overwhelming fans of Donald Trump. And so I think we will get a lot of republicans who will be voting for Clinton.”

Lance last week joined the rest of the state's Republican Congressional caucus in condemning Trump over his latest scandal, which centers on a series of 2005 recordings on which the former reality television host can be heard making lewd comments about a female coworker. He reiterated those concerns yesterday, telling NJ Spotlight that he disagrees with what he called the candidate’s “disparaging of women,” and said he has been disappointed by the overall direction of the campaign.

“I vowed to support the Republican nominee for president but I've indicated where I disagree with Mr. Trump, whether it be the disparaging of women, of John McCain, or of the federal judge of Mexican ancestry,” Lance said. “And I've also indicated that I think it's terrible that Hillary Clinton said that one-half of Donald Trump’s supporters, and that would be by my calculation 25 or 30 million people, are deplorable.

“I think the tenor of the campaign has not been good and I’ve been critical of both candidates in that regard,” he added. “But it's a binary choice, and I support the Republican nominee.”

Lance also said that he roundly condemns the acts of vandalism that his opponent found himself at the receiving end of this week, calling them the “product of someone with a sick mind.” He said he had extended a hand to the Democrat in hopes that they might stand together in solidarity against the perpetrators, but that Jacob’s campaign declined, saying he would not be invited to the press conference “due to his support of Donald Trump."

Lance, who is a stronger supporter of Israel and is one of four co-chairs on the Republican Israel Caucus in the House, called the acts “anti-Semitic” and “abhorrent.”

An uneven funding battle

Unlike neighboring race in the 5th, whose competitors on both sides have seen their bids aided by millions of dollars from wealthy donors and national political action committees, the race in District 7 has been defined by significant inequalities in funding for the two candidates.

On the incumbent’s side, Lance, who was aided in part by a more than $300,000 war chest carried over from his last race, has raised $832,988 toward his reelection bid as of the latest Federal Election Commission filings. More than half of that came from contributions from political action committees, including those of AT&T, the pharmaceutical giant Merck, and the Laborer’s International Union of America.

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Lance has also received endorsements over the course of the race from the New Jersey Firefighters Association, the New Jersey Policemen's Benevolent Association, and a host of Republican lawmakers and local officials in the state.

Jacob, however, has been less successful. The district hasn’t been picked up by any national committees, leaving the party hopeful to rely mostly on individual contributions. He’s raised just $35,367 since the start of the race, with only one committee contribution — from fellow Democratic hopeful Richard MacFarlane in District 11 — for $348.

Jacob, for his part, has received endorsements from organizations like the Communications Workers of America, the AFL-CIO, Progressive Democrats of America, and Our Revolution, the nonprofit organization founded by Sanders after the party’s primary in an effort to continue his progressive movement at the grassroots level.

As of June, Lance’s ending cash-on-hand was $365,698, while Jacob’s was $25,526 after disbursements.

But that inequity underscores one of the other issues Jacob says convinced him to get into politics. Echoing the anti-Wall Street policies of Sanders, Jacob said moneyed special interests have corrupted the country’s political system, and pointed the finger at Lance, who he said has been a beneficiary of it.

“We have tsunami of money that's flooding the pockets of politicians and it's drowning out voters voices,” Jacob said. “The lobbyists write the laws, they funnel money into the campaigns, and then congressmen like Leonard Lance write the bills to then favor those special interests. We can't address climate change, or gun violence, or the ridiculous amount of loans that student have to take out to afford college, any of these issues cannot be addressed without addressing money in politics.”

“The fact of the matter is we have a broken campaign finance system, and the government is not responding to the people,” he said.

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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