Snaking from South Plainfield to the Raritan River, out to Sandy Hook, and then hugging the coast to Asbury Park, New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District might be said to cover the waterfront.
But the spindly, elongated district in parts of Middlesex and Monmouth counties can scarcely contain the differences between this year’s candidates. Even so, the contest has avoided the nasty edge seen elsewhere around the nation.
Veteran Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Republican newcomer Anthony Wilkinson have strong and strongly differing opinions, and prefer to talk about their issues. Yet both also present themselves as willing to work with the other side.
“I’m not one of those ‘Just say no’ Republicans,” Wilkinson said. “I think a lot of people are tired of them … I know I am.”
Pallone sees many areas where government action can help New Jerseyans, such as rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy, and readily acknowledges that some Republicans support such programs.
For Wilkinson, an attorney who spent years as a school teacher, the divide between the two men comes down to philosophy.
“The era of big government is over,” an unaffordable luxury at a time when families and businesses are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, Wilkinson said. Pallone is “out of touch” with current economic realities, he said.
Nothing illustrates the candidates’ differing approaches more than “Obamacare.” Pallone was an author of the underlying Affordable Care Act. Wilkinson wants to repeal it.
Pallone contends the law “makes significant investments in the health of our nation while controlling costs.”
But Wilkinson asserts, “The implementation of Obamacare has already resulted in the loss of both jobs and existing health care insurance coverage.”
A recent report by the federal Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid suggested healthcare costs are increasing slightly faster this year than in 2009-2013, but less than during 1990-2008.
The number of Americans with health insurance has increased, as about eight million people signed up initially for the new program, with another five million expected in the next enrollment period beginning November 15.
Part of Wilkinson’s critique is that the law does not go far enough, falling short of an actual national healthcare system. Many working-class people make too much to qualify for federal subsidies, but still cannot afford all the insurance they need, he said.
“I would keep some parts of the law, such as requiring insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions,” Wilkinson said. “But we need tax credits to allow people to get the insurance they need.”
“I agree with him that the tax credits should be more generous, but I would do that within the framework of the Affordable Care Act,” Pallone said. “If you take that away, the insurance companies can do whatever they like.”
Even if Republicans wrest control of the U.S. Senate, though, Pallone said the new system is here to stay. President Barack Obama would veto any repeal, “as more and more people are using it, they like it,” Pallone said.
Unsurprisingly, the candidates differ on a number of other issues, including the environment.
As Pallone describes it, he has been fighting for New Jersey interests since he was first elected to Congress in 1988, and some of the same issues still require action. Closing ocean dumping sites has led to cleaner water, but the effects of climate change now threaten the Shore, he said.
“In terms or priorities, the most important thing is to address climate change, because catastrophes like superstorm Sandy are the result of increasing greenhouse gases,” Pallone said.
Pallone has sponsored legislation to curtail offshore drilling, saying, “We need to keep our precious coastline pristine for all of New Jersey and our tourists who visit the Shore (and pump millions of dollars into our economy) to enjoy.”
Pallone and other New Jersey officials were less successful getting the Obama administration and Rutgers University to scuttle offshore seismic tests. But the project’s equipment problems have opened a one-year window to press the issue.
“I’m opposed to any drilling off the Atlantic (coast), and the seismic testing is a prelude to that,” Pallone said. “It raises the potential for another BP-like disaster at our shore.”
The incumbent also sponsored legislation that would have restored the original funding source for the federal Superfund environmental cleanup program, a tax on polluting industries, which Congress allowed to lapse.
“The American taxpayer should not be paying for the mistakes of corporate polluters,” Pallone said.
But to Wilkinson, the taxpayer should not be footing the bill for government programs that, however well-intended, create a drag on the economy. At times, the public sector needs to stand aside, he said.
“We need to do more in the area of job growth and job development,” and government deficits are not helping, Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson supports “reasonable” environmental laws, but opposes “regulations that favor the environment at the expense of the people’s liberty, safety or security.” In his view, his opponent has gone overboard, especially in regulating fuel production.
“President Obama and Frank Pallone have responded to our energy crisis by supporting legislation and regulations that hinder American energy production at the cost of American jobs,” said Wilkinson, an Old Bridge lawyer.
The Detroit native, 49, has degrees in electrical engineering and the law, but spent 15 years teaching school after volunteering with students. He started a law partnership shortly before launching his campaign.
Wilkinson wants to open more federal land to drilling, although primarily in the West and Alaska. Like many prominent Republicans, he also makes a point of supporting TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline.
A Detroit native whose parents and sister still live there, Wilkinson said decades of unrealistic government spending — along with the loss of industry — led to that city’s current crisis. He wants other governments to curtail their spending to avoid similar outcomes.
“We have to be fiscally responsible when we come with solutions to problems,” Wilkinson said. “I’m looking for programs that create opportunity rather than dependency.”
For example, Wilkinson said, contracting Job Corps training to the private sector would support business while continuing to improve employment skills for participants.
“I’m a big advocate for investing in infrastructure,” Pallone said. “Roads, bridges, mass transit create a lots of jobs and promote economic activity.”
On another hot-button issue, Wilkinson believes in “enforcing existing immigration laws and ending the practice of sanctuary cities,” where local authorities often turn a blind eye to existing policies. He considers current laws and border security to be “critical components of our national defense.” But Wilkinson also calls for “timely” processing of legal immigration to eliminate “excessively long” waits.
Pallone calls himself a “champion for DREAMers,” referring to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors proposal. It would provide permanent residency for children brought into the country without documentation, but who complete educational programs or military service.
Pallone says his goal is “a fair immigration system” to replace the current “broken” one. He pushed legislation to allow the parents or children of green-card holders to reunite with them here.
“Fairness” is also the key to Pallone’s approach to trade. Unlike establishment figures in both major parties, he believes “free trade” deals have harmed the American economy and led to the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries.
He points out that the 1994 North American Free Trade Act has created annual net losses of jobs in the United States, as the country’s balance of trade with Mexico went from a $1.7 billion surplus in 1993 to a $61.4 billion deficit in 2012. The pending Trans-Pacific Partnership “would be more of the same,” he said.
Wilkinson also favors “buy American” efforts, and also in block grants for job training in states “with leaders committed to putting people back to work.” But he the first steps in his economic plan are capping government spending and introducing an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, which only President Bill Clinton managed in the past 45 fiscal years.
Both candidates critique the current tax system, but for Wilkinson the priorities are reduction and simplification.
“Instead of hurting middleclass families and small businesses through high taxes, the government must reduce the tax burden,” he said, including the elimination of the alternative minimum tax. Originating in 1970, the system targeted only high earners, but was not indexed to inflation until 2013 and thus hit larger numbers of households.
To Pallone, fairness is the key to taxation, and the current system puts a “disproportionate burden” on the middleclass. He favors a version of the “Buffet Rule,” first advocated by billionaire investor Warren Buffet, which would impose a minimum 30 percent income tax rate on millionaires.
Under the current tax code, “the top 400 richest Americans — all making over $110 million — paid only 18 percent of their income in income taxes in 2008,” Pallone said.
The two candidates identify closely with core groups in their parties.
“Let’s help our families by acknowledging that a marriage between one man and one woman is special and good,” Wilkinson said, adding the institution deserves “limited special benefits” over other relationships.
Pallone has been particularly active on behalf of lesbian, gay and transgender people, opposing the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress and in the courts, and sponsoring anti-bullying legislation.
Wilkinson believes “there should be no governmental mandates requiring anyone to violate his or her religious beliefs.” He also promotes his support for the Second Amendment.
Pallone pointed to his record of support for “reasonable and commonsense gun control to maintain the safety in our schools, public spaces, and communities,” including limits on high-capacity magazines.
He also favors enacting a new version of the federal Voting Rights Act to restore provisions recently eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court. Further, he has supported equal pay for women and opposed “extremist Republican attacks” on women’s health centers and Planned Parenthood.
In an era of pervasive government spying on Americans, Wilkinson said, “Our government should not monitor our phone and Internet usage without probable cause.”