Deep in South Jersey, Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Republican Seth Grossman clashed over a range of issues during a 2nd Congressional District debate that turned from robust to raucous.
"I support President Trump. That's why I'm running. I want to give him a strong majority of Republicans in Congress. I want to expose the deceit, ignorance, intolerance, and hatred of those Democrats who are using nothing but fake news and fake charges to destroy President Trump," said Grossman in his opening statement on Wednesday night, setting a tone for a debate at Stockton University, in which policy platforms mixed with the partisan infighting seen nationwide this election season.
"We're at a flashpoint. Do we want to bring people together, or do we want our news to look like a reality TV show?" Van Drew said. "We owe all of you honest answers."
Grossman, an Atlantic City resident and former councilman, former Atlantic County freeholder, and Somers Point attorney, and Van Drew, a dentist and a state Senator since 2008, had considerably divergent views about what the 2nd District needs from its next representative. The two candidates answered policy questions provided by the audience of approximately 200 people, a group of onlookers that would unexpectedly become part of the debate before the allotted hour was up.
Immigration caused friction between Grossman and Van Drew. When asked about Trump's efforts to restrict immigration, Grossman was blunt.
"I think it's a good start. There are billions of people in the world, and many of them would like to come here. But if they all come here, our country will become just as poor, violent, divided, and miserable as the countries these people are running away from," Grossman said, noting his support for building a wall on America's southern border. "We've got to enforce the immigration laws somehow. And those who say they don't like the way they are being enforced are being dishonest. You're really saying you don't like immigration law being enforced."
Van Drew noted that while the country needs order at its frontiers, the execution of current immigration laws is disordered.
"We need to really reformulate and work with the immigration policy that we have. It does not work well," said Van Drew, protesting Grossman's inference that he supports sanctuary cities and states, even though he’s consistently stated he does not. "We need to maintain our borders. But we're not going to ship 11 million (estimated undocumented immigrants) all back in boats. We need to make changes that need to be done in a bipartisan way."
When asked about Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Grossman made a biblical assessment.
"The climate has been changing for five billion years. Go ask Noah," Grossman said. "What's causing it? We don't know. There is no consensus from scientists, except the ones that are getting a lot of federal money."
Van Drew questioned Grossman's judgment of the veracity of climate change.
"We need to look at the issue head on with intellectual honesty," Van Drew said, noting the potential seriously negative effect climate change could have on a district that relies on summer seaside tourism and has an established fishing industry. "We can't bury our head in the sand and pretend that it doesn't exist."
Grossman expressed his belief that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) backed by former President Barack Obama should be dramatically changed.
"We don't even know what insurance means in this country anymore," Grossman said, saying he would work with Trump to repeal "expensive" mandates. "My dad was a dentist before there was insurance. Now, the co-pay is so expensive that it's more than what the dentist used to charge before we had the government trying to make everything affordable."
"We should look to make our healthcare system better, but there was nothing to replace it with," referring to a Republican-led attempt in Congress to get rid of Obamacare last year. "When you go to the emergency room, it is the most expensive form of medical care that there is. Emergency care has to be subsidized because hospitals need help due to charity care. This inflicts even more pain on people because they get taxed more since people don't have health insurance. We need to make changes, but we still need continuity of care."
Grossman responded by saying that Van Drew gave him an idea "to find all those illegal aliens without having to take the census."
"If you go to the emergency room of any hospital, you'll find a whole bunch, and maybe we can solve our problem," Grossman said. "And if we didn't have to subsidize illegal immigrants, healthcare insurance would be a whole lot cheaper."
"We can't just blame every single thing on immigrants," Van Drew said, pointing out controversial statements Grossman has made about diversity, including that it is “a bunch of crap and un-American.” He continued, “You have all kinds of people who are citizens of the United States of America, some of them working two, three, and four jobs with no healthcare. This has nothing to do with immigration."
Both candidates had their fans in the audience.
"I'm supporting Seth Grossman because I support what President Trump is doing," said Tracy Allen, 65, from Pleasantville, a retired engineer for Atlantic City Electric who is a member of Bikers for Trump. "He's for closed borders, reducing taxes, and the working man."
"I'm probably voting for Jeff Van Drew," said Isabel Valdivieso, 18, a Stockton University freshman from Egg Harbor Township. "He's a lot less conservative than Seth Grossman and Donald Trump."
At the close of the debate, Grossman broke the fourth wall with the audience.
"You need to learn that you've been lied to about everything," Grossman said. "Once you see that, you'll be so angry at the Democratic Party, you'll turn up to vote on November 6."
"Stockton University used to award prizes for civility. Has there been any awards lately? Do they still have it?" Grossman added as the audience both grumbled and laughed. "I'm surprised the students here are not concerned about this. I'm hoping that Stockton University maybe will do something about diversity in this regard."
After the debate, both Grossman and Van Drew expressed confidence in their chances in the election.
"When the time comes, people will rally to me," Grossman said, "And they will rally to President Trump."
"The people know who won this debate," Van Drew said, noting that he looks forward to working with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress if he wins. "This is a very independent district, and people will keep that in mind when they come out to vote."