Lorna Phillipson remembers what it was like to lose her job at Bear Sterns, the New York-based global investment bank, when the company went belly up at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The experience helped teach her the importance of economic policies that strengthen the lower and middle class, she said.
The Democratic challenger in New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District race, Phillipson is hoping to take some of those lessons with her to Congress, if voters let her.
“For me, a living wage means that people can pay for their own rent, can buy their own food, don’t need to accept subsidies from the government,” Phillipson told NJ Spotlight, referring to her support for an increase in the minimum wage. “At the moment what we’re doing is we’re letting the corporations pay a low wage so that the taxpayers have to cover those extra costs.”
Phillipson is challenging U.S. Rep. Chris Smith in the 4th, offering what she characterized as a much-needed change of pace for residents there. A fiscal moderate with deeply conservative social values, the Republican has represented the district for over 30 years; the Democratic hopeful, who cited Congress’ rock-bottom approval ratings among voters in recent years, said that’s too long.
Smith and Phillipson also face Libertarian Party candidate Jeremy Marcus, of Monroe, and Economic Growth candidate Hank Schroeder, of Sea Girt, in this year’s race.
“It’s become a career for him,” she said. “Congress was never meant to have career politicians. It was meant to be public service, and I think he’s forgotten that.”
It won’t be easy, however, since the 4th District is another one of those incumbent strongholds in the state where challengers tend to have a hard time gaining traction. Covering an east-to-west swath of Central Jersey that includes parts of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, and Ocean counties, the 4th District is reliable Republican territory, with 140,000 registered Republicans, 126,000 registered Democrats, and more than 234,000 unaffiliated.
As such, Smith has had little trouble holding on to his seat there. Elected in 1980 after defeating liberal Democratic incumbent Frank Thompson, who had been indicted on corruption charges in the federal Abscam sting, Smith has enjoyed considerable popularity and name recognition among voters. Since 1984 he’s won the district with over 60 percent of the vote, and looks to be on track to a similarly successful reelection this year — though Phillipson has been putting up a slightly tougher challenge than some Democratic Congressional candidates in neighboring districts.
The odds are borne out by the math: As of the last Federal Election Commission filing, Phillipson had raised more than $251,000 since January 2015, and ended the most recent quarter with just over $59,000 cash on hand. Smith, on the other hand, has raised almost $533,000 since the beginning of the race, ending the third quarter with almost $300,000 cash on hand. A large chunk of those contributions came from building trades union and pro-Israel political action committees, including the Teamsters Union and NorPac, and the National Association of Realtors.
In an email to NJ Spotlight highlighting his record in Washington, Smith said he has the “experience, work ethic, determination, and record to make a positive difference” in the 647,000-person district. He said his priorities include growing the economy and creating jobs, reforming taxes and protecting social security, safeguarding the environment, and mitigating threats from terrorism, Iran, Russian, China, and North Korea.
His campaign website claims he is “tied for second” out of all House representatives in authoring legislation that is successfully voted into law, while also touting his work on issues relating to human rights, veterans healthcare, and national security, including several bills he’s sponsored to help fund operations at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a main economic engine for the Ocean County portion of the district.
Smith is also one of the staunchest pro-life advocates in Congress, having served as a prime supporter of legislation banning federal health coverage that includes abortion and opponent of legislation expanding embryonic stem-cell research.
“While our political system was designed to be benignly adversarial, it has become far too divisive, partisan — even toxic,” Smith said. “I work across the aisle to promote solutions and my record shows it.”
Phillipson, however, argued Smith’s focus has tended too often toward social issues, which she said don’t factor as heavily into the lives of residents in the 4th District as the economy. A former vice president of derivatives trading and Montclair University alumna, Phillipson said New Jersey needs to get back its former reputation as a “Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was out there,” which she argued requires investment in things like education and transportation.
A native of Sea Girt who now lives in Spring Lake Heights, Phillipson said she worked for a period at a Silicon Valley company after losing her job at Bear Sterns during the 2008 crash. She returned a few years ago and in 2015 mounted a longshot bid for the Assembly in District 30, but lost alongside Democratic running mate Jim Keady to Republican incumbents Sean Kean and David Rible.
“It all comes back to economics,” she said. “It all comes back to bringing jobs to New Jersey and the country, it all comes back to tax fairness, pay equity, and education. All of these things are intertwined.”
Smith, who lives in Robbinsville but also spends significant time in Virginia, said he has a strong human-rights record, having authored four major laws to combat sex and labor trafficking. That includes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and, most recently, International Megan’s Law, which requires special passports for sex offenders and authorizes notification of foreign governments when they travel.
“We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable — especially women and children — from exploitation, abuse, and the cruelty of modern-day slavery,” he said.
But Phillipson also hit Smith on that record, saying he’s contradicting himself by supporting laws that crack down on things like human trafficking, while simultaneously working against issues like marriage equality and abortion. She pointed to the Republican’s statements last year on gay rights, which she said place him in close company with fellow U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, another Republican incumbent in the state who is suffering in his own district for comments that have been widely perceived as anti-gay.
The chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, Smith had said at a 2015 meeting of the panel that he did “not construe homosexual rights as human rights.” The incident earned him criticism both from human rights groups and from members of his own party.
“For me these are not red values or blue values, these are human values. This is respect,” Phillipson said. “It’s disturbing that he thinks that he’s a human-rights person, but goes and shuts down human rights for the LBGT community and women.”
The backlash to Smith’s comments, however, did not reach the level that Garrett has experienced in north Jersey’s Congressional District 5, where the archconservative’s seven-term tenure is in real jeopardy as Democratic challenger Scott Gottheimer continues to climb in the polls. Highlighting the similarities between the incumbents, Phillipson lamented the lopsided attention that that race has received from national party committees, which have poured millions of dollars into the district on the side of the Democrat.
“The party has supported 25 out of 435 races,” Phillipson said. “Having been in business before, if I have 435 salesman, and 25 are my top performers, you still don’t give all your tools to those 25 performers and let the other ones hang. You help them all.”
Phillipson also knocked Smith for his support of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has come under fire for hot-mic comments he made 10 years ago disparaging women. She called Trump a “really nasty person,” and noted that Smith was named a co-chair of the Pro-Life Coalition for Trump earlier this year, an advisory group to the Republican nominee.
Smith, for his part, has denounced the real estate mogul’s rhetoric, saying that Trump’s comments “11 years ago were offensive and demean women and it is important that he has recognized this and has apologized.”
Phillipson said she supports Hillary Clinton for president, but that her ideals on the economy more closely align her with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran for the party nomination on a socialist platform of wealth equality and universal healthcare.
“For the most part I feel that it really is time for him to go, it’s time to put someone who really represents the people here, who really looks to this as public service instead of ‘eight years, pick me up, I’m still here,’” Phillipson said of Smith. “That’s not going to solve the problems of people in this district.”