Jammed into corners of Northeastern New Jersey's "gold coast," the 8th Congressional District presents a vivid snapshot of America's potential future.
About 43.9 percent of its residents are foreign-born, representing a United Nations of homelands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just over 60 percent of all its people identify as Hispanic or Latino, the fourth highest concentration in any congressional district east of the Mississippi.
Like much of the country, the 8th displays a clear economic divide. According to census data, four sectors account for more than half its employment: finance and insurance, transportation and warehousing, healthcare and social assurance, and retail trade. Those in finance and insurance are paid more than the other groups combined, the census found.
Few people could be more reflective of their hard-working, fast-moving communities than the candidates. Incumbent Democrat Albio Sires, 65, is a former teacher who emigrated from Cuba with his family as a child. He is a former Assemblyman and mayor of West New York. Republican Agha Afzal Khan, 71, is a real estate developer and manager. The Jersey City resident was a planning officer in Pakistan before coming here as a young man.
Two third-party candidates also are on the ballot. Pablo Olivera, 58, making another run under the slogan, "Wake Up America," was also was born in Cuba. He is a teacher who lives in Newark. Libertarian Dan Delaney, 26, of Hoboken is a Harrington Park native who works as a web developer.
But for all its diversity, there is one way in which the 8th District remains homogenous: it elects Democrats.
"Unaffiliated" is the default setting for New Jersey voter registrations. But the 8th has become just the state's second congressional district – after the neighboring 10th –where a majority of voters have declared their preference for one party, the Democrats. They outnumber Republicans by more than 6 to1, according to the state division of elections.
The resources available to the candidates reflect that math. Through the end of September, Sires had raised $470,285 in contributions, according to campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission. Khan's most recent filing, in July, listed only a $5,000 loan. Neither Delaney nor Olivera have reported any contributions.
According to Sires, rebuilding America's manufacturing sector is the key to improving the economy. He calls for the creation of a national manufacturing strategy with the goals of bringing jobs back to the United States and increasing exports to reduce the nation's chronic trade deficit. He has been skeptical about the impacts of so-called "free trade" deals on American jobs.
Khan also favors keeping jobs in the country, and believes that controlling government spending would help the economy. "Frivolous" expenditures worsen the national debt, he said. The government should focus on helping small businesses, he said. He sees room for government bailouts of banks and other businesses, but said they should be temporary because the free market can create jobs.
Along those lines, Khan said he favors a free-market health system, one where competition drives down costs while still encouraging medical research. Such a system should have "flexibility and efficiency," he said.
Sires voted for the Affordable Health Care Act, the insurance reforms known as "Obamacare." The law contains important protections not previously available to consumers, such as eliminating lifetime limits on coverage and preventing insurers from discriminating against customers for "preexisting conditions," he said.
When it comes to homeland security, America must prepare for manmade attacks and natural disasters, Sires said. In terms of vulnerability, the 8th District contains "the most dangerous two-mile stretch in the country due to our critical transportation and industrial infrastructure," he said. The country and district need proper levels of funding for infrastructure, port security and emergency responders, Sires said.
Khan favors a strong military with up-to-date equipment. But he said that too much funding has been "wasted on aimless missions." Policymakers should carefully determine which ones are necessary, and allocate funding accordingly, he said. The candidates agree that veterans deserve proper care.
America should not overlook the importance of energy-sector jobs to our future prosperity, according to Khan. "By becoming an energy-independent nation, we will create more jobs," he said. Khan believes in a "more assertive push" for development of renewable energy, but also in maintaining our current energy industry. Domestic fossil fuels will bridge the gap while the country moves toward zero harmful emissions, he said.
Sires sees hopeful signs for international action to slow climate change. By early this month, countries responsible for a majority of greenhouse-gas emissions had ratified December's Paris Climate Change Agreement. That includes agreements for research and investment in wind, solar, geothermal, and hydrogen energy, he noted. Sires believes scientific research and development is necessary to maintain America's economic competitiveness.
for an interactive overview of District 8.