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Frelinghuysen Challenged by Underfinanced Democrat in 11th

Lawyer Joe Wenzel says he was inspired to run by Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in 2012

Rodney Frelinghuysen
U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th)

Stretching from the misty Ramapo Mountains to lush Morris County estates, from Ogdensburg to West Orange, the 11th Congressional District offers a layer of polish over a bit of grit.

Yes, garden parties are frequent, but the 11th also showcases military might at Picatinny Arsenal and throbbing commerce in regional malls and long-established downtowns.

People who live here tend to be better educated and better off than the average New Jerseyan, though some of that has changed through redistricting. While the district was almost 87 percent white in the 2000 Census, the figure is now closer to 73 percent with more towns in Passaic County added to the Morris County core.

The 11th still covers a bit of Essex County, its base for much of the 20th century, and a few towns in Sussex County. That multi-county conglomeration brings together towns with different populations and priorities, but in the aggregate its voters are faithfully Republican.

No one captures the old-time, old-money GOP vibe better than 11-term incumbent Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, 70, scion of one of New Jersey's oldest political dynasties and largest fortunes. His mother was a Procter & Gamble heir, while his father served 22 years in the House of Representatives, a record Frelinghuysen stands poised to surpass.

Joe Wenzel
Joe Wenzel, Democratic challenger for Congress in District 11

Joe Wenzel, the Democratic candidate, is a West Orange lawyer who previously served a stint on the school board in Clifton. Wenzel said he was energized to run by Congress's failure to address gun violence after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Libertarian Jeff Hetrick and Thomas DePasquale, running under the tag of the “Financial Independence Party,” widen the options for voters dissatisfied with the status quo. But Frelinghuysen and Wenzel, who had the backing of three of the district's four Democratic county organizations, both easily won contested primaries.

Frelinghuysen has more tangible support. In this election cycle. His campaign has reported more than $1.8 million in contributions and had $658,953 on hand at the end of September, according to the Federal Elections Commission. His political action committee, Liberty & Prosperity, reported $270,449 in receipts. None of the other candidates reported any fundraising.

Well positioned as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chair of its defense appropriations subcommittee, Frelinghuysen draws significant contributions from the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries.

Libertarian Jeff Hetrick
Jeff Hetrick, Libertarian candidate for Congressional seat in District 11

Hetrick, 38, of Chatham Township, has made two unsuccessful runs for state Assembly. He works in quality assurance, which he says has brought him into contact with businesses in a range of major industries.

He promises to vote against "any legislation that I believe would increase the size and scope of government." As "a strong advocate of term limits," Hetrick said it is time for Frelinghuysen to retire.

Neither major party candidate attended a recent debate, DePasquale said, because "the Democrat knows he can't win and the Republican knows he's a shoo-in." Districts have been drawn to protect incumbents, meaning "voters don't have a real choice," said DePasquale, 57, of Wayne.

Thomas DePasquale
Thomas DePasquale is running for Congress in the 11th District on the Financial Independence Party ticket.

The owner of a tax preparation business, DePasquale wants to curb the federal deficit and stop job-killing trade deals. He acknowledged third-party candidates face long odds.

"I'm trying to bring awareness to what's wrong with the system," he said.

To Wenzel, it is time for new leadership in Washington. The Sandy Hook slaughter of school children seemed to demand mature discussion but produced "resounding silence" in the Congress, he said — "Not one bill was passed, not one committee hearing called, no one thing changed."

Gun control does not strike Frelinghuysen as a pressing matter.  He has said civilians probably do not need assault weapons but added many of his colleagues are uncomfortable with stricter gun laws. In 2002, the National Rifle Association gave Frelinghuysen's positions the lowest score among New Jersey congressional Republicans, 23 percent favorable. But in recent years he has received a solid "B" rating from the group.

The Vietnam veteran is worried about the effects of "America's retreat from the world stage" under President Barack Obama. For a member of Congress "there is no greater responsibility" than providing a strong national defense and homeland security, Frelinghuysen said. At the district level, that has meant continued funding for Picatinny Arsenal, the headquarters of the U.S. Army's armament research, development, and engineering.

Wenzel said Congress has ignored the threat posed to the world, the country, and New Jersey by rising sea levels and the other effects of climate change caused by overuse of fossil fuels and man-made chemicals. He recalled learning about the problems as a student at Rutgers University more than two decades ago. But he argued there is still an opportunity to start fixing the problem. Trade agreements with fast developing countries like India and China could include steps to limit hazardous emissions, according to Wenzel.

Wenzel and Frelinghuysen agree that securing a better economic future should be a major priority. Wenzel argues that embracing technological change is part of the solution. He points to the many successful entrepreneurs in the tech sector as models for other businesses. If elected, he would propose funding for small-business incubators across the country, as well as small loans and grants to help startups get off the ground.

Frelinghuysen said Congress and the administration should work together toward “economic freedom." Higher taxes and regulations and the "threat of increased government mandates" hamper growth, he said. He called for reversing President Obama's "policies that drive up gas prices." Frelinghuysen favors "unlocking American energy production" to provide jobs and reduce dependence of foreign oil.

Frelinghuysen also contends the Obamacare health insurance system is damaging the economy and should be reworked. He supports retaining the provisions that prevent insurers from citing "pre-existing conditions" to deny coverage but would also limit lawsuits.

Wenzel would move toward a single-payer health insurance system, such as Canada's comprehensive Medicare or Taiwan's national health insurance. Some American proponents describe it as "Medicare for all," with a national program that would pay for coverage while private professionals would continue to provide care.

Read more in Politics, Elections 2016
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