Republican businessman and political newcomer Brent Sonnek-Schmelz is running a longshot campaign against Rep. Frank Pallone in the 6th District, arguing that the 28-year Democratic incumbent is part of an underperforming Washington establishment that has not done enough to help small businesses, superstorm Sandy victims, and a region hurt by the closure of Fort Monmouth in 2011.
Pallone, meanwhile, says he’s proud of his record of protecting the environment, helping fix Medicare, expanding federal health coverage for poor children, and addressing the heroin epidemic. He says he successfully pushed for a Sandy aid package over GOP opposition and fought the process that led to Fort Monmouth’s shutdown.
Sonnek-Schmelz, 40, is a school board member for the pre-K through 6th-grade district in Atlantic Highlands, where he and his wife reside. With his brother, he co-owns Soccer Post, a chain of soccer specialty stores, and he serves as attorney and chief financial officer for its parent company. The brothers last year also bought the rights to City Sports, a defunct sporting goods chain they plan to revive.
Sonnek-Schmelz was a contestant on the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in 2010 and won $100,000. Though now a Republican, he worked on Pallone’s reelection campaign in 1998, when he was an unaffiliated voter.
Pallone, 64, is a lawyer originally from Long Branch. He and his wife have three children. He has served on the Long Branch city council, in the state Senate, and in Congress since 1988. He first represented the old 3rd District, encompassing parts of Monmouth and Ocean counties, and in 1992 was elected to the reorganized 6th District. He’s the top Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Pallone ran for U.S. Senate in 2013, losing the primary to Cory Booker.
The 6th District, along the coast in north-central Jersey, includes portions of Monmouth and Middlesex counties. Though largely suburban, its cities include New Brunswick, Asbury Park, and Perth Amboy, and it is home to Rutgers and Monmouth universities.
The 6th is historically a blue district, with 38 percent of voters registered Democratic, 15 percent Republican, and 47 percent unaffiliated. Its voters chose President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 61-37 percent in 2012 and Obama over Sen. John McCain 58-41 in 2008. Pallone won reelection in 2014 with 60 percent of the vote to 39 percent for challenger Anthony Wilkinson.
The congressman has an overwhelming financial advantage in the race. As of September 30, Pallone reported $2.2 million in contributions during the current election cycle, $1.3 million in outlays and $1.4 million cash on hand. Sonnek-Schmelz has raised $49,000 this year and spent most of it, leaving him with $3,000 in the bank.
Sonnek-Schmelz said he decided to run after watching Congress leave many of the district’s economic problems unaddressed.
“The primary reason is just getting frustrated with Washington, watching what I see the government doing, which is essentially failing the American people and the people of this district,” he said. “We lost Fort Monmouth, the Sandy recovery’s been terrible, there’s lots of corruption. I constantly see issues that should be dealt with, I see over-taxation, businesses struggling to grow. New Jersey’s been one of the worst states for recovery since the Great Recession.”
The decision by the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission to close the former army base at Fort Monmouth and move thousands of jobs to Maryland continues to rankle area residents, and Pallone is “definitely guilty” of failing to fight to keep it open, Sonnek-Schmelz argued. The congressman also hasn’t sufficiently pressured the Federal Emergency Management Agency to follow through and help residents left homeless by superstorm Sandy, some of whom remain swamped by insurance companies and government bureaucracies, he said.
One of Sonnek-Schmelz’s key issues is streamlining small-business regulations, which he said cost companies almost 20 cents per dollar of revenue, not including taxes. He said he’s not anti-regulation but rules “can’t be dictatorial,” and the amount of government paperwork and agency oversight small business owners have to manage is unreasonable.
As an experienced, successful businessman, he will do a better job helping shape federal law to benefit the district’s residents than Pallone has, Sonnek-Schmelz argued. He also called for strict term limits on lawmakers.
“When you’re stuck in Congress for 28 years, you lose your ability to identify with normal people. I know what it’s like to get your hands dirty in a job, to invest your life savings in a business, and cross your fingers that it succeeds. That feeling will provide me the compassion necessary to drive regulation that helps people more often than not,” he said.
But Pallone argued that his long tenure in the Legislature is the very strength that makes him an effective advocate who deserves reelection.
“If you’re going to be effective in Congress, you have to be there for a while. The more seniority you have, the more effective you are,” he said. “I’m basically running on my record, which I’m very proud of, especially when it comes to health and environmental issues.”
He was a sponsor of the Affordable Care Act and was involved in passing bills that addressed Medicare’s inadequate reimbursement rate for doctors; expanded the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program; expanded federally funded clinics for low-income people in Asbury, Long Branch, and other towns; and funded recovery programs for opiate users, he said.
He’s also worked on legislation to end ocean dumping of waste, prevent offshore oil drilling, ban polluting microbeads from cosmetics, and reduce toxic chemicals in many products, among other efforts, he said. While Sonnek-Schmelz did not specifically mention the environment, Pallone said the challenger’s call for streamlining regulations on business should concern voters who appreciate such legislation.
“When I hear someone say ‘I want to cut back on regulations,’ I translate that to mean I am going to join the Republican right wing that every day tries to tear down all these environmental regulations,” he said.
Pallone noted that he was part of the Save Our Fort Committee that sought to identify Fort Monmouth’s strengths and convince the BRAC to keep it open. The army ultimately “made the wrong decision,” he said. Pallone said he has always opposed the BRAC process and called it “rigged” because it blocks Congress from having a say on military base closure decisions.
As for Sandy, he said “no one worked harder” than he did to get a multibillion aid package approved over Republican objections. When state agencies that administered much of the aid botched the effort, he was among those criticizing the mismanagement and calling for an audit of the state program, which was released earlier this month. He also demanded that FEMA inform Sandy victims of their rights after reports surfaced of insurers using altered engineering reports to deny claims.
“I just spend a lot of time trying to review these programs and bring out when there are major problems they’ve had. I think we’ve been largely successful in pointing out the problems with FEMA and getting those problems corrected. There’s still work to do,” he said.
Sonnek-Schmelz said two debates are planned. Details have not been announced, but he said one will occur by the end of October and the other on November 2, and there will be one each in Monmouth and Middlesex counties.
Also running in the 6th are two independents: Rajit Malliah of Piscataway, representing the Green Party, and Judith Shamy of New Brunswick, a Libertarian.
Follow this link for an interactive overview of District 6.