Topping off a long career in New Jersey government and politics, Bonnie Watson Coleman was elected as New Jersey's first African-American congresswoman in 2014. Two years later, she has earned top ratings from environmental groups, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Working Families Party and other liberal groups, plus $693,619 equally raised from business and labor contributors.
In an era where Democratic primary battles usually pit the party's Wall Street wing against progressives, Alex Kucsma instead challenges the liberal Watson Coleman from the right. A former mayor of Franklin Township (Somerset), Kucsma presents himself as a "Liberty Tea Democrat." The English professor/playwright opposes abortion, touts the Second Amendment, wants to "restore military spending," combat illegal immigration, and replace the "Obamacare" health insurance program.
Kucsma is pro-life "without apologies." While the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision is law, "that doesn't mean I have to advocate for it," he says. But one Liberty Tea tenet is to allow members to reach their own conclusions on contentious issues such as abortion and gay marriage, he says. "Do we force those who hate guns to advocate for the Second Amendment?" Kucsma asks. "On some issues, we must accept disagreement as a condition of democracy."
Watson Coleman has found herself on the defensive in the Republican-dominated Congress, "a body overwhelmingly run by men." Saying one in five Americans will receive services from Planned Parenthood, she told her colleagues to "give up the attacks on women's health." She hailed the Voting Rights Act, weakened by recent court decisions, and has backed civil rights protections for the disabled, lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people and other groups.
In April, Watson Coleman announced bills that would reduce penalties on withdrawals from retirement accounts by long-term unemployed workers, and provide incentives for companies to hire older people in that category. New Jersey ranks high in the number of workers out of work for long periods, she says. But instead of aiding them, congressional Republicans have pushed $622 billion in tax cuts for corporate interests over the next decade, she says.
Government spending should be cut to "common-sense levels" that do not overly burden taxpayers, Kucsma says. Party leaders have become disconnected from the people and overly reliant on money from organizations that lobby them for legislative favors, he says. But Kucsma feels military spending should rise to keep America the world's foremost power and support veterans. He also wants to boost funding for NASA, the space agency.
Kucsma wants to reform the nation's health insurance market but in the process jettison the system known on the federal level as "Obamacare." Coverage should be offered nationwide, not be limited or vary from state to state, he says. Insurance companies should be blocked from citing "pre-existing conditions" to get out of payments, Kucsma says. But the government should not "compel Americans to buy coverage that they do not want," he says.
Before Obamacare, millions were deprived of access to health care, "a basic need," according to Watson Coleman. She has voted against repeated Republican efforts to eliminate the program, which originated with Republicans. Watson Coleman has promoted measures to expand health care access. One bill would require the Veterans Administration to study leasing space in private medical facilities. Another would open enrollments for pregnant women to alter their coverage.
Watson Coleman says she favors "common sense immigration policies that support people seeking freedom, security and access." She has supported amnesty for undocumented residents and voted to protect deferred action for childhood arrivals to prevent deportations of children. Immigrants "enrich the American landscape and strengthen the American dream," she says.
Kucsma supports "sensible immigration policies," including stepping up efforts to combat illegal immigration. This approach hinges on increased funding for the immigration agencies within the Department of Homeland Security to secure our borders and ensure that visitors entering our country do so legally, including abiding by the terms and condition of their entry visas, he says.
Kucsma organized the Liberty Tea group and says it does not conflict with the Democratic Party but marks a return to its traditional positions. "These principles originated from John F. Kennedy. Bill Clinton and even Jimmy Carter learned the benefits of a strong military," Kucsma says. Moderate Democrats feel unrepresented by the party's entrenched politicians, and "it's absolutely time for a challenge," he says.
Watson Coleman's campaign says area voters "are incredibly happy with the way she is representing the district, not only by taking positions that reflect their own values but also in providing strong constituent services." The campaign casts the challenger as less like Democratic presidents and more "in the Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan vein."