The race in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District has become celebrated across the country as a symbol of the political showdown coming next week. As a result, well-known advocates are answering a call to try to drag their candidates over the finish line. Meanwhile, local voters seem to have a number of questions on policy that they’d like to have answered.
The Republican party is mobilizing its biggest names in support of Assemblyman Jay Webber, including Kellyanne Conway, Paul Ryan, Sen. Tom Cotton and President Donald Trump himself.
Just look at a tweet from last week: “Jay Webber of New Jersey, running for Congress, is doing a great job against a person who is looking to raise Taxes substantially. Jay wants big Tax Cuts and Changes. A Harvard graduate and father of seven, Jay will be great for New Jersey and get the job done-and I will help!” tweeted the president.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Mikie Sherrill has been endorsed by almost every local newspaper and news site, including the Bergen Record, nj.com, and even the New York Times. She is leading in fundraising and has enjoyed the support of women’s groups. A coalition of female legislators in New Jersey has come out against Webber, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (LD-37), Sens. Linda Greenstein (LD-14) and Nia Gill (LD-34), Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (LD-31), Carol Murphy (LD-7), Britnee Timberlake (LD-34), Yvonne Lopez (LD-19), Cleopatra Tucker (LD-28), and Shanique Speight (LD-29).
“Jay Webber does not believe in gender equality. He has centered his entire career in the New Jersey Legislature on the unequal treatment of women — whether it is access to healthcare or equal pay. His outrageous rhetoric is only outweighed by his atrocious voting record on women’s issues. We need a congresswoman for the 21st century, not a congressman with 19th century values,” Weinberg said in a statement.
Either could win
According to the latest Monmouth University poll, Sherrill is up by four points but with the election just over a week away, it’s still within reach for either candidate.
At debates, forums, and town halls, voters have heard where the candidates stand on the favored national talking points of taxes, healthcare, and immigration, but as the loudest voices in the political arena continue to blast on behalf of their candidate, voters in the 11th district are seeking answers to issues close to home.
We asked voters to share their concerns via social media, and many pointed to pressing issues for New Jersey including job creation, environmental protection, and gun control.
We did our best to bring those questions directly to the candidates and though Sherrill agreed to an interview, Webber did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Climate change matters here
Climate change has become a key issue for voters.
The district includes Pompton Lakes where for decades, toxic chemicals from the old DuPont munitions facility have leached into the soil and groundwater beneath hundreds of homes. And voters in the region want to know what their elected officials plan to do about it.
Christine Clarke, 41 from Jefferson Township, said the issue is not just a problem concerning the water table. She invoked the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that said, at best, 10 years remain to get anthropogenic climate change under control. She wants to ask the candidates “What will you do to stop polluters and change how we source our energy needs?”
Sherrill said she’s committed to federal and local efforts to help the environment and economy, including expanding the offshore wind and solar sectors.
“We need to have a longterm plan for when we are going to make the shift [to clean energy] and how,” Sherrill said. “Certainly I want to be involved in those decisions for how this country moves forward… this is a state with incredible amount of opportunity. [Congressman Frank] Pallone will be chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee (if the Democrats take back the house), we have a governor who wants to lead the way. We have the tools to be a real leader here.”
Both against a carbon tax
During this month’s NJTV debate in Newark, both candidates said they do not support a carbon tax.
Webber, taking a more moderate tone than others in his party including the president, said during the debate, “When we talk about the protection of the environment and what we leave to our children it is an obligation that everyone who goes to Washington needs to take seriously and I will.”
Webber said he has voted in the Assembly, against offshore oil and gas exploration drilling, against pipelines, and in support of wind-energy programs “when they make sense.”
“If someone shows me a plan that will address climate change that is fair to the American taxpayer, that treats all nations equally and that puts everyone with skin in the game I will consider that. So far I haven’t seen it.” Webber said.
Webber scored 13 percent on the most recent Clean Water Action scorecard, putting him among the lowest-scoring Republicans in the Assembly. He has been criticized by environmentalists for his “no” votes on bills to allow loans for environmentally green buildings, prohibit treatment or storage of fracking waste in the state, establish a zero-emissions program for nuclear plants, and authorize county and municipal authorities to establish stormwater utilities.
School safety, gun violence
In a district with some of the best attended public schools in the state, parents in the 11th district are seriously worried about school safety and the potential for shootings.
Joann Manhardt, 59, of Morristown is an orchestra teacher at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit middle school and she said the risk of gun violence is constantly on her mind. She wants to see the candidates come forward with a commonsense plan for gun control, she said.
“It’s horrifying to see students at risk for no real reason,” Manhardt said. She added that the solution proposed by Republicans and the president to arm teachers is woefully insufficient, even for someone who acknowledges Second Amendment rights. “I’m not a ‘never guns’ person, I’ve shot a .22, it’s fun, but I don’t believe we should have concealed weapons or guns in schools.” She said she knows there can’t be a “one size fits all” solution but that “we have to be intelligent.”
Sherrill has come out strongly in favor of more restrictions on gun ownership. She has been endorsed by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and Moms Demand Action has named her their “Gun Sense Candidate.”
“I have strong feelings that it’s critical for the safety of our kids that we move forward on commonsense gun safety in this country,” Sherrill said. She has called for universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and is opposed to concealed carry reciprocity — a proposal by Republicans in the House of Representatives that would require all states to recognize concealed-carry permits across state borders.
Guns: contentious issue
Webber campaign spokesperson Ronica Cleary said in a statement following a contentious debate in Wayne, “Jay has been an advocate for common sense gun legislation long before announcing his candidacy, including his vote to limit gun access for domestic violence offenders, (S2483) which was applauded by Former US Representative Gabby Giffords.”
Indeed, Webber has voted in favor of several gun-control bills in the state Assembly including: authorizing extreme risk protective orders (which allows families and police to petition a court to temporarily restrict a person’s gun access if there is evidence that an individual is a significant harm to themselves or others), requiring background checks for private gun sales, and banning bump stocks. He has also voted in favor of authorizing a ballot measure to issue $500 million for school upgrades including security enhancements.
However, during his time in office, he has also opposed efforts to limit magazine capacity, require justifiable need to carry a handgun, establish a statewide buyback program, and allow cities and townships to establish weapon-free zones around their schools.
NRA has endorsed Webber
Webber has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and said at a recent forum in Whippany that the best protection against school shootings is “vigilance” and that the NRA is “a group that has every right to speak and participate in our public life,” the same as the National Organization of Women or March for Our Lives participants.
Three local students involved with the March for Our Lives in New Jersey — Alexandra Stephens of Morris Township, Bella Bhimani of Mendham Township, and Meghana Maddali of Denville — met with Webber in April to discuss gun safety but left feeling “belittled” and “near tears.”
“You treated us poorly and put us in an extremely uncomfortable situation. And we still don’t know where you stand on the issues,” the students wrote in an op-ed on Morristowngreen.com. “We are focused on making gun violence and school safety a nonpartisan issue. We don’t believe that any one political party owns all the right ideas and that progress will only be made if we all work together.”
Jobs and manufacturing
Wayne Marek, 44, of Morris Township wanted to ask the candidates what they will do to encourage more domestic manufacturing. Marek works in data entry but ran as a Democrat against Webber for his Assembly seat three times, in 2007, 2009, and 2015. One of Marek’s platform issues was domestic manufacturing and though he lost to Webber, he has since endorsed the candidate.
“I think that from the research that I’ve done [running for Assembly], it’s one of the more important sectors in the economy,” Marek said. “When I drive through town there’s a lot of foreclosed homes, a lot of ‘for sale’ signs up.”
He added that bringing manufacturing jobs back to the district could be the key to solving what he called the “hollowing out of the middle class” and a separation of the district into the “haves and the have nots.” Marek said, in the 11th district, “you’re either living in a Mcmansion or a bungalow.”
The 11th includes Morris County, one of the counties in the state with the highest incomes. Its 3.9-percent annual wage increase matches the national average. However, the cost of living in the county is one of the highest in the nation. The latest ALICE report shows that 24 percent of the 181,059 households in the county are living below the ALICE threshold, meaning they are above the federal poverty line, but still cannot afford a fundamental cost of living for food, housing, healthcare, child care and transportation. That’s a 4 percent increase from the 20 percent of ALICE households in 2014.
The district also includes parts of Essex, Sussex, and Passaic counties, all of which saw double-digit percent increases in foreclosures in the past year, as Marek said. In West Caldwell, for example, 23 percent of households are below the ALICE threshold, and in both Stanhope and Hopatcong, 27 percent of households in each town are below the threshold.
Regardless of Marek’s position, not everyone in the 11th district is sold on bringing manufacturing into their backyards. Morris Plains residents have mounted opposition to plans to bring a French fragrance company’s manufacturing facility into their neighborhood. As Marek put it, there’s still a strong “not in my backyard” sentiment in the district and the candidates have definitely picked up on those feelings.
For Sherrill, the issue of manufacturing is not as much about growing for growth’s sake, but instead growing with intention.
“We need to look at how we are growing our workforce,” Sherrill said. “We have domestic manufacturing here but some people are having trouble finding employees. We have to get the cost of living down… we need to look at healthcare costs and look at ensuring employers can afford to cover their employees.”
For Webber, the success of job creation would be to avoid government intervention. On his campaign website, Webber writes, “The trick is to get out of the way and let our people prosper again. Our economic stagnation is attributable to bad government policies — but we can change that.”
In the Assembly, Webber is sponsoring the Home-Based Jobs Creation Act, which would establish state guidelines to make it easier for individuals to operate small businesses out of their homes.