New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District seat is up for grabs now that long-term incumbent Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen announced he will not be seeking re-election. Democrats are intent on flipping the seat in November, but first they must muscle through a competitive primary full of strong contenders.
The Democratic field has five candidates: Frontrunner Mikie Sherrill, a U.S. Navy vet from Montclair is leading the pack, closely tailed by financial analyst Tamara Harris of West Orange, former assistant Attorney General Mitchell Cobert of Morristown, history teacher Mark Washburne of Mendham, and economic sociologist Alison Heslin of Sparta.
The 11th District, once considered among the reddest in the state with Frelinghuysen having served 12 terms, is being targeted for a pickup by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). A grassroots group of Democrats, called, had been dogging Frelinghuysen since the 2016 election, as Donald Trump captured less than 50 percent of the district in the presidential election, barely squeezing out a win over Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point. After staggering and constant criticism from the group — particularly during the fight over the Affordable Care Act — Frelinghuysen decided to retire from office, despite having been given the powerful position of House Appropriations committee chairman.
The district contains portions of Essex, Sussex, Morris and Passaic counties, with 158,666 registered Democrats and 168,247 registered Republicans. Registered unaffiliated voters number 216,164 and they will undoubtedly be the key to capturing the race for either party.
A former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, Sherrill said she has the experience in law and public service make her an ideal candidate for Congress. During her ten years of active duty, she flew in Europe during the Iraq invasion and served as a Flag Aide to the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
Sherrill said she spent most of her life serving the country but after Trump’s election she was concerned that “the institutions of our democracy are under attack.” She asked herself “what can I do? I’ve taken oaths to the Constitution and I feel responsible for this country.” The answer: Run for Congress.
Sherrill’s policy priorities are in line with the party’s: She wants to return the full SALT deduction to New Jerseyans, tighten up national gun laws, and work to improve upon the ACA foundation that the Obama administration laid. She pointed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a model for drug price negotiations and said she would support allowing people 55 and over to buy into Medicare.
She also cited the importance of funding the Gateway transit project, as well as investing in the green-power economy like offshore wind and solar energy.
“I see myself as somebody who is part of a puzzle,” Sherrill said. “Hopefully the Democrats coming in will be a strong delegation and we all need to be able to work together.”
Sherrill has been eyeing several congressional committees were she to be elected. She said she could see herself sitting on the natural resources committee, small business committee and the armed services committee — she said one of her priorities is to keep Morris County’s Picatinny Arsenal open and funded.
Though she emphasized her desire to work alongside other members of Congress from both parties, Sherrill said she thinks it’s time for change at the top. At a recent debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, Sherrill said she does not support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and would like to see change in the Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C.
In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Sherrill said she would support new Democratic leadership. “Something is not functioning in a way that we need it to function ... it's critical to have new leadership with fresh perspectives and new ideas on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
For Sherrill, the biggest challenge at this point is maintaining her lead into the June primary and differentiating herself from her opponents, many of whom share similar policy goals and promises. Sherrill said what sets her apart is her dedication to the country.
“All of us vets have a real sense of mission accomplishment. We’re used to working with a diverse group of people to get our mission done.”
Sherrill’s fiercest competitor is Tamara Harris, 51, a former social worker, financial analyst, and international businesswoman who is fluent in several languages and has lived in Hong Kong and Beijing. She’s been endorsed by the Collective PAC (a committee that supports African-American candidates seeking political office nationwide) as well as by the National Association of Social Workers and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Born in the Virgin Islands, Harris said she brings a “very Caribbean energy” to the race and a global perspective that none of her opponents can quite match. As a woman of color and former social worker she believes she has a “unique capacity to speak to the issues like education, immigration, healthcare, that matter to this district.”
Harris shares many of Sherrill’s policy views, including her stance on returning the SALT deduction, retaining portions of the ACA and improving upon it, and funding the Gateway and Portal Bridge projects. Her ultimate goal is to provide a “pathway from precariousness to prosperity” for her constituents, Harris said.
Harris said that pathway includes prioritizing affordable housing and education reform including universal pre-school and accessible college tuition costs.
She also supports a universal healthcare system but is wary of the “band-aid” effect of Medicare for All — a policy that some Democrats in Congress back.
“I'm a fiscal pragmatist,” Harris said. “We have so many unfunded liabilities in our Social Security and you can't make a blanket policy like [Medicare for All] without taking into account the current debt load.”
If elected, she would “look at all of the buckets that we're using to capture revenue and use it to fund healthcare,” eventually ending with universal coverage.
When differentiating herself from her primary opponents, Harris said it comes down to her “credentials, capability, and track record.”
She is running “Democrat strong, not Republican-lite,” and sees herself as a competitive candidate for the general election. However, she has been grappling with a few challenges which she looks at as “checkpoints.”
Not having the party’s backing has made her run more difficult, but Harris said it forced her to “go directly to the people” for support. She also said the structure of the ballot has given her cause for concern — “it's been artistic, where they have figured out where to put my name.” She said voters are going to have to put in effort to locate her name on the ballot and that could negatively impact her results. Though support within the party appears to be coalescing around Sherrill, Harris maintains she has the resilience and passion to energize a diverse base of excited young people and should not be counted out before Election Day.
“If you can’t show up to this primary with the party smacking you around and people telling you you'll never make it ... this is nothing compared to what I’ll have to deal with in Congress. This is just a primer for me,” Harris said.
As far as Heslin is concerned, “The government has not really taken the scientific evidence into account in terms of policies … As a scientist it starts to become really frustrating to produce a lot of evidence that is being disregarded.”
Heslin has a long family history in the 11th District. She was born in Morristown and raised in Sparta. Her great-grandfather, Russell Noncarrow, served as Postmaster for the Morristown post office from 1935-1954 and her parents and grandparents also grew up in the region. She left the state briefly for school, earning a master’s and doctorate in Political and Economic Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.
Her policy priorities are wide-reaching and intertwine with climate science at nearly every juncture: Heslin said she wants the country to invest in renewable energy, update its infrastructure to be more sustainable, and modernize the nation’s waste management system.
Another of her major policy issues is racial inequality. Addressing economic and racial inequality would solve many of the core issues that the country is struggling with, she believes.
“I think addressing racial inequality really should be high on the priority list, more so than making sure that the tax rate is as low as possible. We need to make sure that our fellow citizens are granted the same quality of life as everyone else,” She said.
One of Heslin’s specialties is in studying the social implications and consequences of environmental policies. “I look at how policy changes affect environmental changes and how those environmental changes affect policy and society.” She said her experience working with data and studying the real-world implications of many laws and political decisions will help bring a new perspective to Washington.
“When I entered the race, I didn’t see anyone focusing on climate change with the urgency that we need. It really can’t be the tenth issue that we mention. It’s really critical and we're running out of time to address it.”
Another hopeful in the race is Mark Washburne, 61, a longtime history teacher at the County College of Morris who is running with an eye on the past and the future.
Washburne said he was inspired to run, like many in this primary, by Trump’s election.
“Back in 2017, Barack Obama gave his farewell address and he said if you don’t like the results of an election, get some signatures and run for office yourself. Well, I already had a clipboard.” Washburne noted that he gained a lot of his early support from his students and co-workers.
Washburne supports impeaching the president and described Trump’s administration as the “Watergate era on steroids.”
Set on a Medicare for All healthcare system, Washburne is interested in getting employers out of the healthcare business. “We’re seeing less companies covering people. I tell my students, ‘your tuition wouldn’t be as high if you didn’t have to cover my health insurance,’” he said.
Washburne is also a proponent of strengthening gun laws across the country and banning assault weapons altogether. “I want to do away with weapons meant for war,” he said. “We need federal legislation on this. I realize deer are getting tougher, but you don’t need an AR15 to take them down.”
The history teacher also has a strong platform on education policy. He supports Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed plan for tuition-free community colleges but would implement a “means test” to ensure that those who can afford reasonable tuition costs pay their fair share. He would also support a requirement for students to meet certain grade standards to maintain their free tuition.
“People would have to earn it, if you’re getting C's or better you could get [free tuition] and we all benefit from that. People with a college education make twice as much as someone without and they contribute meaningfully to society.”
Washburne said what sets him apart in this race is his deep knowledge of history and his refusal to accept money from anyone. He believes that money in politics is ruining the political system and he intends to run on his platform alone, with no outside support. He even turned down a donation from his own father, he said.
“All of that money comes with strings,” Washburne said. “They all want something from you in the future.”
Mitchell Cobert, 70, is a former Assistant Attorney General in New York and a practicing securities attorney who insists that the best way to govern is to get out there in person. His platform includes universal healthcare, water reform, and holding Wall Street accountable. His $13,365 cash-on-hand is keeping pace with Harris, though she is out-fundraising him substantially. FEC records show Cobert has raised $128,146 to Harris’s $705,360.
Cobert survived a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and said his firsthand experience dealing with difficult insurance companies gives him a unique perspective that his opponents lack. “Every single person in this country has to have health insurance at an affordable price,” Cobert said. “I’m tending towards Medicare for All, but I like to research and be very careful on where I come out on things.”
One stance he is certain about is ending the privatization of water systems across the state and country. “There’s nothing more important than water,” Cobert said. He thinks that, as more systems are privatized, “people’s bills will go up and soon they will not be able to afford water.”
Cobert said he recently visited Pompton Lakes — a borough heavily impacted by ground and water pollution from the DuPont munitions plant in the region — and spoke with homeowners about their water quality.
“I had stage 4 cancer, you think I’m going to overlook those homeowners?” Cobert asked. “I’m doing the research on this, because if I’m elected I'll take on the issues no one knows about.” Cobert also pledged to take on the Trump tax bill which he called a “crime against everyone in New Jersey” and said he would fight to reinstate Glass-Steagall — legislation rolled back in 1999 that separated commercial banking from investment banking. As a well-known and trusted adviser on securities law, Cobert has written articles for the New Jersey Law Journal and is an active member on the editorial board of the New Jersey Lawyer Magazine.
“I'm running because I think this is the most important election of my lifetime,” Cobert said. “I can’t be silent anymore.”