An energetic young Democrat is challenging a long-time GOP incumbent in the race for New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, but the odds are stacked against the newcomer.
Mark Dunec, a 38-year-old management consultant from Livingston, is running in the November 4 election on a platform that includes creating jobs by investing in infrastructure, balancing the federal budget through economic growth rather than spending cuts, and stimulating the economy through an ambitious program of corporate tax reform.
The Democrat says his proposals would reduce corporate tax rates, encourage U.S. companies to repatriate funds that are currently sheltering overseas, and plug loopholes that allow some businesses to avoid paying their fare share — all without adding to the yawning federal budget deficit.
which also addresses immigration, healthcare, and energy independence, is long on specifics but may not be enough to dislodge U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the wealthy scion of a New Jersey political dynasty, who has defeated Democratic challengers by wide margins ever since he was first elected to the heavily Republican district seat in 1995.
“Rodney has an easement on this district,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Why Democrats continue to contest it is inexplicable. It is the heartland of New Jersey Republicanism.”
Frelinghuysen, 68, who voted to repeal Obamacare and to initiate legal action against the President for exceeding his constitutional authority, nevertheless says he has succeeded in working with Congressional Democrats when necessary.
In particular, he won the support of 190 Democrats and 37 fellow Republicans to pass the “Frelinghuysen Amendment”
in January 2013, providing an additional $33 billion in Sandy relief for New Jersey and other states hit by the hurricane.
Frelinghuysen, who at the time was chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriation Subcommittee, cited passage of the amendment as the highlight of his current term.
“I had to convince enough Republicans — there were precious few — to go along with the Democratic majority,” he said, in an interview. “I led that fight, and it was a huge achievement.”
For Dunec, the response to Sandy focuses on cutting carbon emissions to reduce the likelihood of another monster storm. He called for more investment in green technology and for reductions in energy waste.
Both candidates identified the economy as voters’ top concern but proposed different ways of generating jobs at a time when New Jersey’s jobless rate exceeds the national average.
Frelinghuysen said businesses would be more likely to add employees if the federal government reduced rules and regulations. He said the federal budget deficit should be trimmed using a combination of economic growth and spending cuts.
Dunec said that, if elected, he will press to eliminate the 35 percent corporate tax rate, require companies to distribute at least 35 percent of their earnings to shareholders as dividends, and double taxation on those dividends to 40 percent. The net result, he said, would be a lowering of the effective tax rate — the combination of corporate and dividends taxes — to 40 percent from the current 48 percent.
The changes, Dunec argued, would reduce the incentive for U.S. manufacturers to move their operations overseas, encourage foreign companies to set up in the United States, and incentivize U.S. companies to repatriate around $2 trillion in profits that are currently held overseas because of the high domestic corporate tax rate relative to some other countries.
Frelinghuysen dismissed Dunec’s corporate tax plan as “a pretty screwy idea”, arguing that a higher tax on dividends would be a disincentive to investment.
“I’m not sure he fully understands his own proposal,” Frelinghuysen said. “With a capital gains increase, if you want to drive our stock market down, that’s a pretty good way to do it.”
For his part, Dunec predicted an economic “tsunami” in “two or three years” in response to rising interest rates. Expected hikes in Federal Reserve rates from their exceptionally low level will create severe difficulties for both the federal government, which will have to make higher payments on the huge national debt, and for homeowners with variable-rate mortgages, he said.
But the impact of higher interest rates could be softened if more jobs are created, he said.
Dunec called for more public-private partnerships as a way of investing in job-creating projects like repairs to roads and bridges. Such partnerships represent the right balanced approach to economic management, he argued.
“I’m not a Keynsian guy, I’m not a supply-side economics guy. I believe in a hybrid approach to almost everything,” he said.
To help pay for infrastructure improvements, Dunec advocates an increase in the state gasoline tax; he declined to say how much gasoline taxes should rise.
“In New Jersey, I am in favor of raising the gas tax,” he said. “I don’t know why other politicians are not being honest about it.”
Federal gasoline taxes, too, may also have to rise, although only after other means of paying for infrastructure upgrades have been exhausted, he said.
The Democrat, who is running in his first race for elected office, said he put $40,000 of his own money into the campaign, and raised about $165,000 in the third quarter. Frelinghuysen listed total receipts of $1.23 million from January 1 to October 15 this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Frelinghuysen said the government should be investing more in domestic oil and gas exploration to help create jobs. He argued that continuing indecision over the Keystone XL Pipeline signals an administration that is trying to cut back on use of fossil fuels.
“The president’s energy policy invokes the ‘all of the above’ policy but in reality he wants to reduce considerably what we do in terms of our investment and use of fossil fuels,” Frelinghuysen said. “I don’t think anyone should fooled by a president who won’t even approve the Keystone pipeline.”
On the international stage, Frelinghuysen argued that voters are also concerned about turmoil in the Middle East, the Obama administration’s management of the Ebola crisis, and a perceived lack of border security that increases the risk of terrorists entering the U.S.
Those factors are undermining voters’ confidence in America’s role in the world, Frelinghuysen said.
“I’ve never felt so much discomfort among people that I’ve talked to, ranging from Rotarians to high-school students,” he said. “There’s an incredible amount of apprehension, frustration, and I think anger.”
The Republican, who lives in Harding Township, Morris County, said he stays in touch with voters in the 11th District — which covers parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties and 54 municipalities — by attending numerous community events such as pancake breakfasts and pasta dinners.
“I’m well fed but I’m also well educated because I am among my constituents each and every day,” he said.
Dunec, who acknowledged that he has his work cut out to defeat the long-term congressman, argued that frequent appearances don’t necessarily translate into effectiveness as a representative.
“He’s everywhere, he goes to every single event. He doesn’t say anything but he goes and he shakes hands. He’s a nice guy,” Dunec said. “If I come to every pancake breakfast, I’m not in Washington balancing the budget. The majority of my time will be spent in Washington.”