Full of tension is how one could describe the Democratic primary race in New Jersey’s 7th district. It’s been identified as a “red to blue” race by the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), with Republican incumbent Leonard Lance considered vulnerable. Although there are now three candidates among the Democrats, until recently the field was crowded with seven candidates.
Tom Malinowski, 52, former assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama, is the presumed frontrunner after emerging the victor in a bitter battle against Linda Weber, a Berkeley Heights banking executive in six county contests for the organizational line. Weber, after being given the nod in Somerset and Essex counties, dropped out of the race after failing to win her home county of Union. Following her withdrawal, the Somerset and Essex County committees changed their endorsements, giving Malinowski the party line in all six counties.
Malinowski is running against two Indian-American opponents — Peter Jacob, 32, a social worker living in Union has the backing of two groups associated with Bernie Sanders; Goutam Jois, 36, is a Harvard-educated attorney and activist living in Summit.
The 7th district in Central Jersey has a population of 732,070 with a median household income of $106,896. It’s a largely suburban district and covers bits and pieces of six different counties including affluent neighborhoods like Short Hills, Montgomery and Tewksbury. The district has been firmly Republican since 1981 but went for Hillary Clinton by a small margin in the 2016 presidential election.
The Republican voter advantage has shrunk to a mere 10,812 voters over the Democrats’ 150,216 registered voters but the largest cohort is the 216,954 unaffiliated voters. Thus, the race is really about who can secure those independents on election day. For Jacob and Jois, their tactic is to embrace a fiercely progressive platform, while Malinowski’s method revolves around appealing to more fiscally conservative voters.
Peter Jacob is the underdog in this primary race with $26,958 cash on hand, and support from two groups — Justice Democrats, and Brand New Congress — established by former Bernie Sanders staffers.
Jacob is a social worker inspired by what he says are “brave, bold progressive ideas.” He ran against Lance in 2016 after facing no primary opponents and lost by 11 points.
Jacob’s activism is rooted in his college days at Union County College, Kean University, and later Washington University in St. Louis where he worked with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), the YWCA, and the International Institute. Jacob said it was through his advocacy and career as a social worker that he learned “our jobs and lives would be so much easier if Congress actually reflected the needs of America.”
“As a social worker I realized a lot of the work I’m doing is just maintaining the status quo and getting people on welfare,” Jacob said. He added that his policy intentions — establishing a $15 minimum wage and ending the private prison industry — go beyond government assistance to revamp the way the country handles income inequality and social issues. “We don’t have to feed the machine that continually creates poverty,” he said.
Jacob also advocates for a Medicare-for-All model proposed in HR-676 by former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Common critiques of the plan have said that it offers only a sketch of a new healthcare system and leaves much up to the discretion of the Department of Human Health and Services. Jacob, however, said the plan is the best option on the table. “When it comes to solid issues, we don’t play around, we don’t try to obfuscate. When I say ‘Medicare for all,’ I mean it.”
Gun control is another big issue for Jacob, who told NJ Spotlight shortly after the school shooting at Santa Fe High School, TX, that he wants to “abolish the Second Amendment completely” adding that some analyses have pointed out that the amendment has a racist history and “is based on genocide of Native Americans.”
A challenge facing both Jacob and candidate Goutam Jois is the party itself. Jacob said the money is with the county parties and the fact that they did not support him, despite his building a strong grassroots network in 2016, was “overwhelming and disappointing.” Jois said lacking the party endorsement isn’t insurmountable but educating voters on what (or who) their options are has also been difficult.
Jois is an attorney and organizer who says his experience has perfectly positioned him to win this race. He was born and raised in the state and in high school was named Youth Governor of New Jersey. He received a Master of Public Policy degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from Harvard. Currently, Jois works for Atlas Corps, an organization that facilitates fellowship programs to bring aspiring nonprofit leaders to the U.S. and also works with his father’s construction management consulting company. Jois has also coached semi-pro football in the state and performs stand-up comedy. He recently won Gotham Comedy Club’s Funniest Attorney competition.
He’s raised an impressive $302,131 for a newcomer, but Jois is still well behind Malinowski’s $739,944. And while Jois shares many platform issues with Jacob — $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, a call for serious gun control — Jois said his “record of fighting and winning” court cases involving many of the current political issues is what sets him apart.
“As a litigator the issues I’ve worked on and values I’ve defended are what are under attack today,” Jois said. He’s been a high-profile civil rights lawyer who has worked on immigration, domestic violence and First Amendment free-speech cases and represented a victim of police brutality at the Supreme Court.
Jois’s strategy has focused on registering voters and reaching out to diverse communities. He said he recently set up tables to register people to vote at screenings of the Black Panther movie and has worked hard to engage the South Asian community of which he is a member.
His top priorities if elected would be to repeal and replace “this awful tax bill” signed by President Donald Trump and secure federal funding for the Gateway transportation program.
All the Democratic candidates would “be on our worst day, a better representative than Lance on his best day,” according to Jois. But he added that he’s bumped heads with Malinowski on more than one occasion. Jois said he takes issue with Malinowski’s “inclusive rhetoric” concerning gun owners. At a recent town hall, Malinowski advocated universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and other gun controls but said that the only way to progress gun-law reform on a national level is to refrain from alienating responsible gun owners.
Jois said in an interview with NJ Spotlight that Malinowski’s methods of campaigning are something he disagrees with. “I don’t think that sounding Republican enough to maybe get people to vote for us is the right approach,” he said.
Malinowski, a moderate Democrat, has approached this campaign with the backing of the Democratic party line, but a wary eye on Republican-leaning voters and how he would measure up to Lance in the general election.
Malinowski rolls out big names
“The big question is who can win and who can be effective if he wins,” Malinowski said. He added that he’s “got experience and a proven track record in getting things done. We don’t have time given the crisis our country is in for a learning curve.”
Malinowski grew up in Poland and immigrated to the U.S. at age six, settling with his family in Princeton. He interned for former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and worked as a special assistant for U.S. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY) before becoming a Rhodes Scholar in 1988. He entered Washington politics in 1994.
In D.C., Malinowski worked as a diplomat and political adviser, drafting speeches for Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright as well as for President Bill Clinton before serving as assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under President Obama. In 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president, Malinowski became the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. He said his work in Washington has prepared him to move quickly and act effectively in Congress.
Among his priorities are reforming campaign finance by overturning the Citizens United decision, repealing the tax bill recently signed by Trump, and working to secure funding for the Gateway infrastructure project either by enabling Congress to require spending on projects of particular significance to national economy and national security or by denying Trump one of his priorities like border security.
“The entire conception of the tax bill is economic malpractice in my view,” Malinowski said. He wants to repeal the tax bill and replace it with “more fiscally responsible tax reform” legislation that lowers rates, cuts special interest loopholes and “doesn’t explode national debt.”
Scrutiny for position on Syria
On healthcare, Malinowski said he “does not support Medicare for all, but the idea of a Medicare option for all is worth exploring.” He said he’s spoken to many people who appreciate having healthcare options and he “would not force anyone to give up private health insurance which many Americans are happy with,” though he added that expanding a Medicare option could eventually lead to a single-payer type of system if people chose it voluntarily.
Malinowski has come under scrutiny for his position on Syria. The candidate tweeted in April that “On Syria I’m willing to give Trump the support many GOP reps, including @RepLanceNJ7, refused President Obama when he asked for it in 2013.” Jois and Jacob both said they vehemently oppose the air strikes Trump authorized in February in response to the use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people.
“My position is I don’t like to see children gassed to death,” Malinowski told NJ Spotlight. “I think that we as a country have responsibilities when it comes to dealing with problems like that.” He said, “I would be willing to support a president who I dislike if he did the right thing.”
Another source of contention in the race has been Malinowski’s residency. The candidate only recently moved to Rocky Hill, a Somerset County borough close to Princeton where he was raised. While Malinowski does not have to live in the 7th to run for Congress there, his critics have taken him task for not living long enough in the district to form deep roots in the community. Politics wonks across the state and country have been questioning what impact his perceived carpetbagging will have on the race.