Albio Sires, the former teacher and title agency owner seeking a fifth term representing what is now New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District, enjoys “one of the safest Democratic seats in the country.”
That description is hardly controversial, since it comes from his Republican opponent, Jude-Anthony Tiscornia.
Centered on Hudson County but extending into bits of Union, Essex and Bergen, the 8th takes in prime Democratic territory, with that icon of immigration, the Statue of Liberty, standing on its doorstep.
The district covers less than 55 square miles, but they include Jersey City, Elizabeth, Hoboken and part of Newark. It has about 29 percent more residents than Wyoming packed into .00056 percent of the space. Some 55 percent of residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census, and almost 45 percent are foreign-born.
The 8th District is a place where partisan identities, unlike ethnicities, can be fungible. After starting as a Democrat, Sires became a Republican to make his first, unsuccessful run for Congress in 1986 against the late Rep. Frank Guarini (D-NJ).
Sires, 63, eventually became an independent, before returning to the Democrats in the late 1990s, and seemingly overnight getting elected to the Assembly and being chosen its speaker as the result of an intraparty squabble.
In the same period, he served as mayor of West New York before being elected in what was then the 13th Congressional District to replace U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
“My wife is a Democrat, my parents are Democrats,” Tiscornia said. “When I went to register, the lady automatically reached for the Democratic list and when I said, ‘No, Republican,’ everybody was kind of startled and she went, ‘Oh!’ ”
Tiscornia ran for an Assembly seat in the 33rd Legislative District last year, and acknowledged that some acquaintances have reacted to his partisan political career “like I’m Benedict Arnold or something.” But rather than self-promotion, he presents his actions as public service. These days, far too many officials have safe seats that guarantee them almost automatic re-election, he said.
“I feel incumbents should be worried about their jobs at the end of a term, because that’s what keeps the fire under them to work for their constituents,” Tiscornia said. “This is what our system is all about, giving people a choice.”
“I think even Albio would support my run, in theory,” he said.
Asked how he differs from a Hudson County Democrat, Tiscornia said he is worried about the long-term impacts of big government spending.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” he said. “Our elected officials are notorious for overspending taxpayer money on a whole host of issues, foreign and domestic.”
Tiscornia harkens back to Herbert Hoover and a spirit of “volunteerism” to address community and national needs. Franklin Roosevelt incorporated some of those efforts into the New Deal, he said, though acknowledging more sweeping programs were needed to combat the Great Depression.
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Sires pointed to gradual improvement in the economy since the Great Recession, but said many families, workers and small businesses continue to need help regaining their footing.
“The key to improving our economy is to rebuild our once robust manufacturing sector,” Sires said in press statement, particularly citing renewable energy as a potential growth area for the state and nation.
He co-sponsored legislation to provide block grants to small and medium-sized businesses with worker training and retraining to shift to clean energy and high technology. Sires cited other bills to support infrastructure projects and to help workers obtain degrees, certifications and other credentials to maintain competitive skills.
But he also said federal action is necessary to help those still struggling, such as extending unemployment assistance and continuing the cut in payroll Social Security taxes. That is particularly true when many lenders are taking a tough line with homeowners and small businesses, he said.
“While some progress has been made in turning our economy around, the credit squeeze is still being felt by the average American and the country continues to see high rates of foreclosures,” Sires said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues to address these important issues and ensure that our economy fully recovers.”
On other issues, though, the candidates’ views seem more reflective of their similar backgrounds. This campaign lacks some of the bright-line separations between the national political parties.
For example, Sires’ family fled Cuba in 1962 with the help of relatives already in America. When he arrived in West New York, he and his brother were two of only three Latinos in their school.
Last year, Sires and other Democrats cosponsored immigration reform legislation that would have affirmed some provisions passed by the U.S. Senate, creating a “path to citizenship” for undocumented residents.
”Comprehensive reform will reduce our deficit, grow our economy, reaffirm our values, advance our ideals, and honor our history as a nation of immigrants,” Sires said at the time.
The bill remained bottled up in committee for lack of Republican votes. But it is not something Tiscornia finds objectionable.
In “one of the most diverse districts in the nation,” there is strong support to enact fair immigration laws and regulations, said Tiscornia, who recently visited his family’s village in Italy. “I support legislation to provide a path for citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, he said.
Like other New Jersey Democrats, Sires is a strong supporter of the health insurance initiative originally developed by Republicans, but which has come to be known at the federal level as Obamacare – the Affordable Care Act.
“Without access to affordable health care, our children cannot learn properly, parents cannot be as productive at work, and our seniors are forced to choose between food, shelter, or medical care,” Sires said in a statement on the issue.
There were other practical reasons to act, because rising healthcare costs were “putting our nation on an unsustainable fiscal path,” Sires said. Many Americans were unable to get quality care, and the 46 million without insurance “were a serious illness away from destitution,” he said.
Sires sees the program as especially beneficial to women, saying they have faced barriers such as limits on their choice of obstetrical-gynecological care or insurers classifying having been pregnant as a pre-existing condition.
“One of the most beneficial provisions of the new law allows women to receive preventative care without co-pays, including mammograms, new baby care and well-child visit,” Sires said in a statement.
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sires said he cares about women’s issues at home and abroad, particularly education and health, such as support for the United Nations Population Fund. He outlines his views.
Tiscornia would like to see Obamacare repealed, but said that cannot happen yet. His party has an obligation to do more than simply scrap the system, he said.
“I don’t agree with the plan, but unlike most Republicans, I believe we have an obligation to present a viable alternative,” he said. “There are a lot of problems with Obamacare, but right now it’s the law we have, and we don’t really have a better plan.”
If anything, the program is a windfall for insurance companies, driving customers to them, Tiscornia said. He would prefer to encourage a more “free market” approach, like the voluntary clinic for the poor and uninsured established by Dr. Alieta Eck, the Republican candidate in the 12th Congressional District.
“A lot of my clients don’t have health insurance,” and may not qualify for subsidies to buy it under Obamacare, Tiscornia said. Insurance companies and financial institutions are driving health policies instead of doctors and patients, he said.
Tiscornia supported the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013, which passed with Sires’ vote. It somewhat curbed the high interest rates allowed on federally guaranteed student loans, although some still will be as high as 10.5 percent.
“Why do we have to hold students’ education hostage to loan-sharking?” Tiscornia asked.
“Because a college degree is as important as a high school diploma was a generation ago, we must make college more affordable for families,” Sires said.
He cited success in maintaining Pell Grants, the largest federal grant program for post-secondary education students, at as much as $5,550. Sires termed them essential to giving many the means to attend college.