For the first time in 22 years, Republicans in the 11th Congressional District are facing a primary race without an incumbent. A diverse group of candidates are on the ballot, including traditional conservatives, social moderates, and one who wants to reengineer the entire congressional voting structure.
With 12-term incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen retiring, Republicans have an opportunity to fill the spot with one of five candidates: Patrick Allocco, a former concert promoter trying to change the democratic process; Peter De Neufville, a technologies expert with an eye on the national debt; Antony Ghee, an African-American investment banker running on the Republican values of individual freedom and small government; Jay Webber, a long-time Assemblyman running on his Republican voting record in the State House; and Martin Hewitt, an attorney with a platform of fiscal responsibility and social equity.
Webber and Ghee are leading the pack in terms of fundraising and party-line endorsements, but the other candidates are banking on a surprise in June.
The 11th District, which includes parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties, was traditionally viewed as staunchly Republican but is being targeted by Democrats as a potential seat flip in the general election. The population is generally fairly wealthy and well-educated and claims a Republican registered voting advantage of 10,000. However, that number has shrunk from a 24,000 Republican registration advantage in 2012. President Donald Trump won the district by less than 1 point in 2016 making the race a tossup.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, 46, of Morris Plains, is one of the favorites to win by traditional party standards. Webber has the most cash on hand of the candidates — $225,771 — and the support of the Morris County Republican Committee, but his opponents say his refusal to take part in debates will hurt his chances.
In an email to NJ Spotlight Webber, who refused several requests for an interview, said he hopes to “continue the progress we’ve made in the last year toward strengthening our economy, creating more and better paying jobs, upholding the rule of law, and restoring America’s security and standing in the world.”
Webber was first elected to the Legislature in 2007 and acted as state GOP chairman from 2009 to 2011. He has degrees from Harvard Law School and Johns Hopkins University and served as a law clerk for Justice Peter Verniero of the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2000. Webber is the only candidate with a voting record in this district primary race.
During his time in Trenton, Webber upheld traditional GOP talking points, including voting against gay marriage in 2012, against funding Planned Parenthood, and against several gun-control bills that passed through the Legislature over the years. He’s been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and received a 0 percent approval rating on the most recent ACLU-NJ legislative scorecard. His fiscal conservatism has also won him the taxpayer Champion award from the New Jersey Taxpayers Alliance.
Webber’s campaign website lists several platform issues, including national security with an emphasis on eradicating ISIS and other terrorist cells and a foreign policy that tracks with the Trump administration’s “America First” mentality. “Weakness attracts aggression so peace through strength should remain the firm basis for our foreign policy,” Webber’s campaign website reads.
He is also against designating cities and towns as sanctuaries for immigrants, because as he writes on his website, “such lawlessness involves local officials’ sabotaging federal law enforcement and shielding recidivist criminals from capture, adjudication, and justice.”
Webber, rather than provide an interview, wrote in an email that if elected, he would “pursue and support legislation and committees that best serve the interests and values of the constituents of this congressional district.” He wrote that his intention is to improve his constituents “quality of life,” rather than increase “the quantity of bills coming out of a government capital.”
Ghee is a member of the Army reserves and holds the rank of major and previously served as general officer on the support team at the Pentagon. He said he was inspired to run by his grandmother.
“My grandmother said to me ‘if not you, who?’ I looked at where we've been as a country and watched the divisiveness that used to be healthy discourse turn into petty politics. I thought enough is enough.”
Ghee said for most of his life, he’s been an unaffiliated voter but has “evolved to the point where I wanted to vote for the best candidate.” Ghee said he set about studying the history of the parties and felt his ideologies matched up with the Republican Party as they were “the party that freed the slaves and championed civil rights.”
As a person of color, Ghee said he faced some backlash for his decision to support the Republican party, but he found he supported the “Republican founding beliefs in inclusiveness, diversity, tolerance, and optimism” as well as their support of smaller government, strong military, lower taxes, and more individual freedoms. “I made the decision that being in the Republican party is the right choice for me,” Ghee said.
His platform includes making tax cuts permanent for individuals the same way they are for corporations, and removing the cap on SALT (state and local-tax) deductions. He also intends to fight for veterans’ healthcare. Vets are now required to go to the Department of Veterans Affairs. but Ghee said he “wants to open it up to all qualified healthcare institutions to remedy the inequality of care.” Ghee also set his sights on addressing the issue of veteran homelessness and vowed to protect Picatinny Arsenal from any base closures.
As an African-American, Ghee said fighting racial inequality in drug arrests is also a big priority.
“We need more education, we need criminal justice reform, we need to take a look at Morris County Hope One (a program offering support and education for recovering drug addicts and healthcare professionals), which is changing lives. We need to find programs like that that are proven across the country and put resources behind those.”
Ghee said being a person of color gives him an extraordinary advantage but also serves as a challenge.
“On the one hand African-Americans and Democrats can say ‘I don't believe he's a Republican’ and others will say I’m not Republican enough. But, I know who I am and where I stand on the issues and what I believe is right for this country.”
While Ghee and Webber court the party line endorsements, Denville resident Patrick Allocco, 57, is running to as he said, completely change the political discourse.
Allocco, a former concert promoter, was inspired to run after being held captive with his son in Angola in 2012. Allocco had scheduled the rapper Nas to appear in concert, but when the performer failed to show, the Angolan promoter demanded compensation and the two Americans were detained in a hotel. During this time, Allocco said he grew frustrated with the way the government was handling his case and felt his voice was ignored during such a crucial time. In the years since, he’s worked extensively with the New Jersey lottery and with controversial Republican operative Roger Stone — a new focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Allocco’s candidacy is unique to the primary races across the state, as he is running not on a platform but on the idea of constituent-engagement as a form of governance.
Allocco is running in conjunction with an app called Hear Our Vote, which he intends to use to allow residents of the 11th District to drive his voting record. He’s taken a pledge to vote with the majority of app users regardless of his personal beliefs. It would work like this: Each voter would register with the application and pay a $1 fee, which would allow the system to check user information against a bank account thus validating that the user is a human and not a spambot. Then, the user would receive a notification of every bill coming up for a vote in Congress, along with an easy-to-read explanation of the bill, some of the pros and cons, and what the congressman advises. The user would then indicate how they would like their congressman to vote on that bill. The data would be tallied, and Allocco would vote according to the majority.
“It’s truly a process that includes everyone,” Allocco said. “The parties hate it because the parties would become less important. Special interests hate it because their money wouldn’t do any good anymore,” Allocco said, adding that he sees the app as the future of the democratic process. If he’s not elected, he said he will throw all of his energy into getting the app rolled out to every member of Congress anyway.
“Let’s take the Republican worst-case scenario,” Allocco said “If Mikie [Sherrill] gets elected that’s 50 percent of the voters who are disenfranchised and feel that their congressperson doesn’t represent them. My proposal says nobody gets disenfranchised because everybody gets to have their voice heard.”
In terms of his political ideologies, Allocco said he supports the GOP’s tax cuts and is personally pro-life. He is also in favor of stricter federal gun laws and reworking an omnibus spending bill to fix the adverse effects of the GOP tax bill on New Jersey.
Even with his unconventional campaign strategy, Allocco said he’s very much a contender for the seat.
“If I can get Trump voters, those fed up with the establishment, and millennials, that’s my path to victory.” “People are fed up with the party telling them ‘this is how you’re going to vote.’ I’m offering something radically different.”
De Neufville said he’s been politically active for most of his life, sitting on the board of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation for eight years and as a reserve officer in the U.S. Naval intelligence program for 10 years. He said his extensive resume includes expertise in solar and global silicon markets, as well as security policy. He led the Trump transition team review of the Afghanistan conflict and advocated a “conditions-based approach to the war,” which he said the administration has articulated in their public statements.
De Neufville said he is particularly focused on the “fiscal crisis that the federal government is facing,” citing the national debt of $21 trillion as a national security issue.
“This (debt) explicitly is going to impact the strength of our currency and our ability to pay for security and of course it’s going to impact jobs here in New Jersey. If we inflate the currency because we borrowed so much money, we will be in a world of hurt.”
He said another one of his priorities is addressing deficit spending. “We need to give the president a so-called legislative line-item veto which would allow him to break up the monolithic spending bills and send pieces of them back for individual authorization,” he commented, something similar to the New Jersey method.
He also proposed scaling back some defense spending. “We're spending $45 billion a year in Afghanistan over 10 years. I think that’s an area where spending can be reduced,” he said.
His immigration policy proposals also follow the current Republican party line. He supports “closing gaps in current immigration law,” improving border security, and finding a way to end “chain migration” — a process by which a U.S. citizen or a green-card holder petitions for a relative to join them in the country.
De Neufville also has detailed plans for international relations. He advocates for strengthening the US’s alliance system as a way to shore up national security specifically with NATO and republic of Korea and Japan as well as forging relationships with countries like India which he said will be crucial partners in the future.
Above all, De Neufville said he is “keen on restoring the health of the federal government” and dialing back what he called dangerous spending habits.
“I want to restore our commitment to the future generations and make sure that the strength of this country isn't harmed by this period of excessive public spending that has occurred.”
Martin Hewitt, 58, of Morristown is a fiscal conservative and social liberal running, as he said, “as a real and true Republican who cares about people as well as fiscal responsibility.”
“People accuse me of tilting at windmills, but I say they’re a sustainable source of energy,” Hewitt said of his critics. “There are so many answers to our political problems, but we're all stuck on stupid.” Hewitt said he was born a Democrat and considered running as such but was put off by the power of the party. “The Democratic party seems rigged eight ways to Sunday. All they want is a career politician on that side. The Republicans, however, are welcoming a robust primary.”
Hewitt is a lawyer specializing in small businesses and state securities law. He has Washington experience advising members of Congress during the drafting of the Dodd-Frank Act and acting as a liaison to the Commission on Law and Aging of the American Bar Association.
His platform involves auditing every agency in the government to find areas of waste. He said he would submit a bill that would require Congress to find priorities and then revisit the tax plan with an emphasis on helping small business capital formation growing local economies.
He also advocates for a universal healthcare plan, legalizing marijuana, revamping the unemployment system to include job training, and writing “sensible immigration policy” addressing DACA recipients.
“We need to take five minutes to write the damn law so those kids can go back to their lives,” Hewitt said.”
Hewitt said if elected, he intends to use his fiscal conservatism to allocate money to those in the country that are in dire need.
“At the end of the day we need to figure out what our priorities are as a country. To me, it made not a lot of sense to spend money on bombing Syria … as opposed to cleaning the water in Flint or turning on the lights in Puerto Rico.” Hewitt said.
Though he’s facing a tough primary and has committed to running without taking money from big donors, Hewitt said he’s had success in meeting voters and feels the seat is within grasp. He said his strongest asset is his ability and willingness to spend time at rallies, marches, and protests and take in what the people are saying.
“Sometimes you have to let other people speak and you need to listen.” Hewitt said. “The most important thing you can do as a congressman is to shut up and listen.”