When voters in the 11th Congressional District go to the polls next month, they will be deciding between two major party candidates who echo much of what is being advocated by their party standard-bearers, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
For incumbent and nine-term U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the top issues are jobs and the economy. Democratic challenger John Arvanites agrees, but there are significant disagreements between the two men on how to address the nation’s economic problems.
In addition, the candidates are sharply divided on the social issues that have defined the platforms of the two major parties.
Offering another option on the ballot is Barry Berlin, running on the Independent ticket.
In a recent interview with NJ Spotlight, Frelinghuysen said he believes that the economy can be revived; that Congressional roadblocks have been a result of “too much government regulation, too many compliance requirements.”
The Republican also complained about the burden he says is being placed on small businesses by the Obama administration’s signature Affordable Care Act.
The disagreements were underscored at a recent debate between the incumbent and Arvanites, the one-term former mayor of Roseland.
Speaking at William Paterson University on Oct. 17, both agreed that job creation and preserving Medicaid and Social Security are priorities, but differed on issues including women’s rights, military spending and how to handle flooding problems along the Passaic River Basin.
Berlin was not invited to participate in the debate.
At times during the debate, the relatively inexperienced Democrat, looking nervous under the glaring lights, seemed to be no match for the tough and seasoned Republican veteran of Washington.
Frelinghuysen took control of the debate easily and often, cannily responding to questions with a confidence that made his government-insider status clear. His attack was punctuated by references to his congressional clout, his years in office, his friendly relationship with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Democrat Bill Pascrell of the 8th Congressional District, and even his influence with President Obama.
Arvanites, for his part, delivered his message with a straightforward simplicity that contrasted with Frelinghuysen’s tendency to leap over local concerns to discuss wider national issues.
A certified public accountant by trade, Arvanites methodically laid out his objectives like pencils on a desk: protecting women’s rights, building a tunnel to alleviate flooding, simplifying the tax code, preserving Medicare and Social Security.
The best moments of the debate came when he lost his guarded reserve and spoke passionately about his concerns, especially women’s rights.
“ ‘The rights and roles of girls and women is the only unfinished business of the 21st Century,’ ” said Arvanites, quoting Hillary Clinton. “I believe that. Society can’t grow and prosper until women are valued. Women and men should receive equal pay for equal work.
“My opponent has voted twice against the Lilly Ledbetter and the Fair Pay Act,” he added.”
Though Frelinghuysen said he had voted for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and was “very proud of that fact,” he noted, “In terms of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, I think the Supreme Court ruled correctly.”
He added, “Philosophically I support the Equal Rights Amendment. And I think women ought to be paid on an equal basis with men.”
“Twice you voted against the Fair Pay Act,” Arvanites challenged. “So you can say all you want that you think women should get paid the same as men and you support equal rights, but your voting record is your voting record. And you can’t change that.”
Another hot-button issue was the military and veterans’ rights.
Frelinghuysen, who serves on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and Homeland Security subcommittee, acknowledged that turmoil overseas was a concern but said he did not support more American military action in the foreseeable future.
“I think the American people are exhausted, quite honestly, from two wars,” he said. Though he briefly discussed political conflicts in Iran and Syria, calling the Syrian situation “a pending disaster,” he insisted, “I’m not interested in going to war.”
Arvanites pounced, saying that his opponent had voted to expand the military budget and that Frelinghuysen “has voted many times to go to war, to extend war, but then doesn’t take care of the veterans when they come home.”
“With all due respect, you’re clueless about my record,” retorted the congressman frostily.
In addition to his serving on subcommittees in Washington, his website states that Frelinghuysen has worked to secure funding and improve programs at the Lyons and East Orange VA medical centers and the Morris County VA outpatient clinic, and to support a homeless veterans treatment program at Lyons.
In a recent interview with NJ Spotlight, Frelinghuysen stressed that he was a moderate Republican (“I’m not particularly partisan”) and said he had voted for the Ryan budget as a way to generate congressional discourse on fiscal issues, particularly with regard to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
“A lot of the good programs we have are financially unsustainable,” he said in that interview. “To some extent that’s reflected in the Ryan budget. I don’t think that ever would have been signed into law but someone needs to be talking about the overwhelming debt our country is in . . . somebody needs to be focused on these issues. Sometimes people put in bills so we can start the debate.”
At the debate, Frelinghuysen asserted his support for a social safety net, while suggesting more work needs to be done to prevent potential problems in the future.
“We need to proceed with caution. Whatever we do to preserve and protect Social Security, it needs to be done in a bipartisan way.”
He also denied he supported a voucher system although he criticized the way the current Administration was handling heath-care services.
“How do you think we’re paying for all these new services?” Frelinghuysen said. “We’re paying for them by basically taking a raid on Medicare. Doctors aren’t getting the reimbursements that Medicare gives them to, shall we say, incentivize them to take Medicare patients. Hospitals are losing about $500 billion . . . So the Administration has already done damage to the Affordable Care Act, before we even get out of the starting gate.”
Arvanites argued that Frelinghuysen had already supported vouchers by voting for the Ryan budget. He said the Ryan budget proposed to “gut Medicare” and make it into a voucher system, and that his opponent’s position was anything but bipartisan.
“The congressman says he doesn’t support a voucher system but he voted twice for a Paul Ryan budget that creates a voucher system. He continues to talk about working in a bipartisan manner but the last three years he’s voted 100 percent with his Republican and Tea Party followers. To me that’s not bipartisan,” he said.
Arvanites said he supports the health-care act, which built in $716 billion as “a cost-saving measure over time. It is not taking money out of Medicare.” He said he would use a nonprofit model like that of the Mayo Clinic to implement efficiency measures.
As for local issues such as the perennial flooding problem along the Passaic River, Frelinghuysen cited an initiative he referred to as the “Passaic Study.”
“As a member of the House Appropriations Committee…the Passaic Study…is now a presidential priority as a result of my action, working with Congress and (Democratic Congressman) Bill Pascrell.”
But he made no promises about specific action he would take to solve the problem.
Arvanites said he would build a tunnel to prevent flooding in the Passaic River Basin – the the very same one Gov.. Whitman tried to build in 1994.
“Back in the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers suggested that the best solution to solving this problem with flooding is that tunnel project,” he said. “Since then, under the representation of my opponent, that tunnel project not being completed has cost (taxpayers) almost the same amount of money as it would have cost to build that tunnel.”
The newly reconfigured 11th Congressional District comprises 56 municipalities in Essex, Passaic, Sussex and Morris counties. Voter registration figures show a breakdown of 25.4% Democrat, 30.3% Republican and 44.2% unaffiliated. Reconfigured based on data from the 2010 Census, the area now includes territory from what was formerly Rep. Bill Pascrell’s 8th Congressional District.