At the first televised congressional debate of the election season in New Jersey, candidates in the 11th district went toe to toe on the most pressing issues facing the state and the nation. And though this race has been billed by many as a litmus test for the national political temperament, President Donald Trump’s name was largely kept out of the discussion.
Both Democrat Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill and Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber maintained even keels, with only a few strategically placed barbs on the issues of immigration, north Jersey values, taxes, and healthcare.
The debate, moderated by NJTV’s chief political correspondent Michael Aron, saw the two candidates pulling back from the more polarized views of their parties on issues like the environment and immigration. Self-described “conservative conscience of the state Legislature,” Webber said he would support progressive efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change like offshore wind “when it makes sense” and as long as it was “fair to the taxpayers.” Meanwhile, when pressed on immigration, Sherrill said she would support more drones to secure the border from illegal crossings.
A GOP stronghold no more?
The 11th District has been GOP territory for years. Indeed, Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who surprised the region with his retirement announcement, served 12 terms. The district is wealthy and well-educated and voters have deep concerns about taxes and student debt. Despite the massive amount of cash being funneled into the race on behalf of the Democrat, the contest is nail-bitingly close with the latest Monmouth University poll putting Sherrill ahead by four points — well within the “statistically insignificant” range.
But despite running neck and neck in the polls, the two could not be more different in terms of platform — signifying the polarization of voters in the district.
The debate began with a question about newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh amid accusations of sexual assault. Webber took the stance of many Republicans currently serving in Congress, including most notably Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford undoubtedly suffered harm but that the allegations against Kavanaugh “could not be corroborated.” He did add that he thought there should have been more vetting.
Sherrill meanwhile said she would not have voted to confirm the judge and added that there should have been a longer, more thorough FBI investigation. Still, the consensus among the candidates and the Monmouth University poll is that Kavanaugh’s confirmation does not change the landscape of the race much.
“What this campaign has always been about are the issues that are near and dear to the people here in New Jersey.” Sherrill said.
Debating federal tax reform
One of those issues, Sherrill said, was the 2017 overhaul of the federal tax code.
Webber took the stance that the GOP tax plan was a net benefit for the people of New Jersey.
“On balance, a good deal,” Webber said. “Far more people gain than lose under this bill and the average family gets a $6,000 tax cut.”
Sherrill countered by saying the bill was unequivocally bad for the district. “We’re the worst affected state in the nation” she said, noting that not one member of the north Jersey delegation voted in favor of it, including Republicans Rep. Leonard Lance and Frelinghuysen. Sherrill also raised the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce opposition to the bill and the impact of the $10,000 state and local tax cap.
In response, Webber clarified that he too opposes the SALT cap.
As NJ Spotlight reporter Colleen O’Dea pointed out in her live commentary on the debate, 42 percent of tax filers in the 11th claimed a SALT deduction and the average was $20,124 — much more than the $6,000 cut Webber mentioned.
Matthew Hale, political analyst from Stockton University, said of Webber’s position on taxes: “… doubling and tripling down on the benefits of the Trump Tax Reform. That is not what this district believes.”
No help on healthcare
Moving from taxes to healthcare, the candidates seemed to present more problems than concrete solutions.
Webber said that to sort out the nation’s tangled healthcare system, people should be allowed to purchase insurance plans across state lines, suggesting that the competition could help to lower costs for everyone. This position is one frequently touted by Trump and one that the National Association of Insurance Commissioners says is a myth. The organization told Factcheck.org that “interstate sales will start a race to the bottom by allowing companies to choose their regulator, allowing insurers to target the healthiest consumers. And while those individuals in pristine health may be able to find cheaper policies, everyone else would face steep premium hikes if they can find coverage at all.”
Sherrill went on the attack at this point, saying Webber’s support for repealing the Affordable Care Act would gut coverage for those with pre-existing conditions. Instead, she advocated for bipartisan support to looking for solutions like allowing people 55 and older to buy into Medicare or allowing Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices to keep costs down.
Both candidates said they do not support a Medicare-for-all plan.
The student-debt burden
After a question about raising the retirement age slowly — both candidates said they were against it — the conversation turned to student debt. New Jersey’s current student debt default rate is 9.7 percent, lower than the national rate of 10.8 percent. The Federal Reserve indicated that the delinquency rates could be twice as high. And in a well-educated district like the 11th, finding a voter with a crushing amount of student debt or one with a kid that is suffering would not be difficult.
Sherrill’s proposed solution is to allow students to negotiate with banks to bring their rates down and to promote the benefits of a two-year degree.
Webber said as a father of seven kids, this issue is personal. He argued for requiring schools like Rutgers to hold tuition flat and finding different ways to finance college educations such as allowing students to “sell equity in their future careers.” The way that would work, Webber said, would be to have a lender pay for the education and have the students pay back a percentage of their income as they progress through their careers. His third idea is to “have those 529s (tax-advantaged college saving plans) explode,” something Joanna Gagis of NJTV noted on the NJ Spotlight liveblog that not every American living paycheck to paycheck can afford to pay into.
On the issue of free community college, which Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has been pushing forward in New Jersey, Sherrill said “without understanding how that would be paid for, I haven’t supported it because it sounds like it would raise taxes on our families.”
Posing a single question
The biggest moments of the debate came when the candidates were given the opportunity to ask each other one question. Webber used his to push Sherrill on her support for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Sherrill said when faced with the decision between him and Republican opponent Bob Hugin, she would choose Menendez because he is a “fighter for New Jersey.”
Sherrill’s question to Webber focused on the Assemblyman’s refusal to vote to prohibit the practice of conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth in the state. Webber did not denounce conversion therapy and defended his vote by saying it is a “relationship between therapists and their patients” and he doesn’t feel the government should be “interfering” with that.
Another pressing issue for the 11th is the Gateway infrastructure project. Webber said claiming federal funding for the project would be a “high priority” and said as a Republican he would be better positioned to work with Trump on this issue.
Sherrill said the way to guarantee the funding would be for new leadership to take on the challenge. She said if New Jersey couldn’t do it with Frelinghuysen as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, putting another Republican in a lower position would not guarantee success.
Race and gender parity
Moving away from infrastructure, the candidates fielded two questions about race and gender parity in the country and in New Jersey.
Webber made a point of saying he stands for a “race-blind” society and the “best thing” to do to solve perceived racial or gender inequality would be to provide people with more jobs. “Identity politics” he said was not his purview.
Sherrill meanwhile fired back, saying, “I wish we lived in a post-racial society but we don’t.” She added that Webber voted against the most recent equal-pay bill in the state Legislature and that the country needs comprehensive criminal justice reform.
On the latter issue, Webber claimed the bill was “redundant” and said it is “bad for business” and would “crush small employers.”
The candidates also addressed military spending, internet transparency, and foreign policy.
By the time the candidates reached their closing statements, Trump’s name had not been mentioned more than 10 times, though by all accounts this election may very well be seen as a referendum on his presidency.
Webber, who received a presidential tweet of support, noted that “Donald Trump’s America is working” and was proud to get the endorsement.
Sherrill, however, saw the tweet as perhaps a future opportunity to work together.
“I hope that if he is excited about the 11th district of New Jersey, that he gets some infrastructure spending here, that he makes sure that we get quality and affordable healthcare for everyone in this country, that we have a tax plan that invests in all states not just a chosen few, and that we work hard to move this country forward.”