A vacancy seems to occur only once in a generation in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District and this is that rare year.
Since 1915, the district has had just four different representatives. The longest serving was Democrat Peter Rodino, who was in office for 40 years and gained national prominence during the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. After he retired, Donald Payne, another Democrat and New Jersey’s first and only African-American congressman, held it for 23 years until his death in February.
It’s little wonder that, beholding an elusive vacancy in this wondrously safe seat, a half-dozen Democrats are pursuing the nomination.
With little lead-time, four candidates have the advantage of already being known to some voters from other elected offices, but even they have to define themselves quickly.
For steely state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) of Montclair, that means pointing out that there are no women in New Jersey’s congressional delegation. Even more frequently, though, Gill cites her nearly two decades in the Legislature as preparation for whatever happens in Washington. She won the party line on the Hudson County ballot.
If there’s anyone who seems happy to be in the race, it’s upbeat Newark Councilman Ron Rice, who calls himself the “most progressive” contender in a liberal district. He has convinced many labor unions to line up behind him, along with such groups as former presidential candidate Howard Dean’s Democracy for America.
Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith presents himself as the campaign’s “ordinary guy.” He is a former shop steward, albeit one who now has a consulting firm and a résumé filed with government posts and high-level positions in such groups as the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey/New York, New Jersey Citizen Action and other civic organizations.
“No one knows the legacy of Donald Payne better than I” is the serious message of his son, Newark Council President Donald Payne Jr. Over the years, the younger Payne says, he has already built up relationships in Washington that the other contenders cannot match. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, and the Essex County party organization are in his corner.
Although the Newark-centered district is solidly Democratic, the two other candidates in the race raise the specter of an enthusiasm deficit the party may face in November. At another time, both might have been Democratic foot soldiers, but they contend the party’s hierarchy has failed to deliver for average citizens.
Dennis Flynn of Glen Ridge is an Air Force veteran who returned from Iraq with a jaundiced view of the nation’s economic priorities and foreign entanglements. He offers a left-libertarian critique not just of Republicans, but of the Obama administration for eroding civil liberties while prosecuting counter-productive wars.
For two decades, Cathy Wright of Newark had a well-paid job at AT&T, but she has gone through the 21st century nightmare of the American workforce.
“I am you,” Wright tells voters. “I’ve been downsized. I’ve been outsourced. I’ve worked one, two, three jobs. All the things the other candidates just talk about, that’s been my life.”
Wright is a passionate believer in “green jobs,” particularly in the energy sector. New Jersey has been a leader in solar power, but is seeing its market lose traction, and recently pulled out of a successful regional program that provides incentives to switch from energy sources that provide more pollution.
“Green energy will not only give us new jobs, but they will be jobs across all different levels of skills,” a particular attraction in the district’s cities, where blue-collar workers have lost ground in many industries, Wright said. Port facilities must be maintained at high levels to provide the necessary global transportation links, she said.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs” is Payne’s mantra as well. He called employment growth “the key to any success and upward mobility we’re going to have” in the district. At a time when representatives of all stripes are couching their bills as job creators, he said this is an area where his relationship building could help the district share in federal funding.
Both Payne and Wright praised the dogged approach of the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-NY), who, while representing Harlem in 1950s and 1960s, repeatedly attached anti-segregation riders to appropriations bills. That tactic regularly failed, but helped establish Powell as a force to be dealt with on spending issues.
But in that era, Rice noted, Powell had Republicans who would cross party lines to support compromises. “There aren’t those kind of Republicans anymore,” he said, adding Democrats who favor increasing economic opportunity must be prepared to fight inside and outside the party.
“Look at what happened with healthcare,” he said, referring to the Obama administration’s adoption of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health insurance system as the national model. Not only did congressional Republicans turn their backs on their own party’s idea, but some Democrats “sold us out” on a broader national program, Rice said. He promised to work to get recalcitrants in both parties “un-elected” to improve the prospects for a more progressive approach.
Gill is critical of both approaches. “This is not about who you like in Congress,” she said, arguing that her legislative background in Trenton is a better preparation for shepherding bills in Washington.
“I’ve been inside the room, and I know how they work the levers of power,” Gill said, and also how people get excluded. But she also chided Rice for talking about going after wayward Democrats, saying that would distract from representing the district.
Smith also said New Jersey must continue to back new technologies, including maintaining its solar energy credit program at levels sufficient to support participating businesses. But on the federal level, he said the district would benefit from programs that have enjoyed bipartisan success in the recent past: providing tax incentives and training for businesses that relocate into areas of high unemployment.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration designated nine empowerment zones, including one in Harlem. Even earlier, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY) proposed urban enterprise zones, an idea picked up by former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY) and adopted in many places, including New Jersey. Either or both of those approaches could be applied to areas throughout the district, Smith said.
Even though cities are the nation’s economic centers, the country lacks an urban policy, and reviving that focus would be one of his top goals in Washington, he said.
Only Flynn appears skeptical about such government programs, arguing it is more important to audit the Federal Reserve and re-examine monetary policy.
He is also the only candidate who opposes same-sex marriage laws, saying marriage is “a religious institution, there’s no reason the government should be involved at all.”
The other candidates, including Smith, a Muslim, all support a marriage equality law. Wright said the issue needs to be handled nationally and not left to governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey. Gill and Rice said gays are guaranteed equal protection under the law by the 14th Amendment. Payne went back even further, to the “pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration of Independence.
The two female candidates both support President Obama’s timetable for extended involvement in Afghanistan, but all four men say they would urge him to bring troops home much faster than the current deadline of the end of 2024.
“We need to bring them home and get them out of harm’s way,” Payne said. “I would continually press him [Obama] to get out of Afghanistan.
“We still have troops in places like Japan and Europe,” Rice said, adding the country needs “a real re-examination of troop deployments around the world.”
With 400 military installations in 140 countries, the United States should close the vast majority and bring the troops home, Flynn said. These expensive commitments often reduce our security by involving us in local politics and conflicts, creating enemies, he said.
Besides needing to re-invest that money in pressing infrastructure needs here at home, Smith said such ongoing military commitments are creating long-term problems for support efforts like Veterans Administration hospitals.
“We’re going to have to come up with a new system, like assisted living,” to support the growing number of injured veterans, Smith said.
But Wright said that even if federal spending needs to be reined in, “I do not believe we should take away money from troops while they are overseas.” Like Gill, she said the President is privy to information unknown to the public.
Gill argued Afghanistan needs time to develop its civil society, and pushing Obama for a faster withdrawal “could destabilize an internal program.”
Most of the candidates still express enthusiasm for President Obama, blaming an obstinate Congress for gridlock in Washington. It is a point of pride for Rice that he was the first elected Democrat in New Jersey to endorse the future President when much of the party establishment was lining up behind Hilary Clinton.
But Flynn said raids on medical marijuana facilities licensed by states, expanded domestic spying, and presidential claims of authority to kill Americans without trial are part of a continuing erosion of civil liberties.
The lone white candidate, Flynn referred to the drug war as “a new Jim Crow” because of the disproportionate numbers of minorities imprisoned for drug possession, then deprived of the right to vote. Current laws have triggered the rise of violence on both sides of the border with Mexico, he added.
But Gill said the war on drugs had its origins in real and widespread problems. She has sponsored health initiatives on the state level, and supports expanded drug treatment programs. But Gill did not waiver on punishing drug users along with traffickers.
“I don’t believe it makes sense to decriminalize cocaine, heroin or any other drug,” Gill said.
Wright countered that the war on drugs “is a complete failure in policy and practice.” For decades, the country has locked up the poor and addicted, although not necessarily the well-off and addicted. What’s needed is a “war on addiction” to “pursue them as patients,” Wright said.
Smith drew a distinction between members of violent drug selling organizations and people who are disenfranchised and unemployed after serving time for mere possession. He supports the federal “Second Chance Act” program, which provides funds for state, local and non-profit re-entry and drug treatment centers.
“We’ve got to change federal drug sentencing laws” to eliminate disproportionate sentences for minor offenses, Rice said.
The two different groups — sellers and users — generally should be handled differently, Payne said. But he would “look at decriminalizing non-violent offenses.” Even some drug sellers are “people that don’t have [economic] opportunity” and would respond to alternatives, he said.
Payne’s campaign is the best off economically. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show he raised $188,688 through May 16. Gill reported contributions of $121,029, and Rice $53,725. No reports were available for Flynn, Wright or Smith.