During a televised debate Wednesday night, Democrat Mikie Sherrill and Republican Jay Webber presented contrasting views of healthcare, taxes and the environment, while finding common ground in opposition to free community college tuition and raising the retirement age. The debate was hosted by NJTV at its studios in Newark and moderated by NJTV’s chief political correspondent, Michael Aron. Sherrill and Webber are vying to succeed Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in the 11th Congressional district, which spans parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties, as well as a large part of Morris County.
Aron opened the debate by asking the candidates whether Brett Kavanaugh should have been confirmed as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Webber, a lawyer by background, said yes, adding that while Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who said Kavanaugh had assaulted her in high school, was “empathetic”, her allegations could not be corroborated. Webber said that Kavanaugh had evidence corroborating his version of the facts. Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor, said she would not have supported Kavanaugh but expressed dismay that issues had not been vetted prior to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. She also added that, as a prosecutor, she had not seen any FBI investigation that only lasted a week.
Asked about the federal tax plan passed by Republicans last December, both candidates stuck to their previous positions, with Webber supporting it and Sherrill opposed. “We need a tax plan that helps all states, and not just a chosen few,” Sherrill said. On a day when the Nasdaq stock market fell 4% and the Dow Jones index suffered its third worst point decline ever, Webber said that the Republican tax plan has been a boost to the U.S. economy. “The arrow is pointing up in this economy,” Webber said, “in large part due to the tax plan.” As a further indicator of the tax plan’s success, Webber asserted that there were 1.5 million fewer Medicaid recipients as a result of the plan, which MyVeronaNJ.com could not corroborate. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzes health care issues, noted in April in a fact-check on claims about Medicaid that most Medicaid recipients were already in working families.
The latest Monmouth University Poll, released on Tuesday, found that the Republican tax plan is particularly unpopular in NJ11, a wealthy district accustomed to taking substantial deductions for state and local taxes, the so-called SALT deductions. It found that 43% approve and 46% disapprove of the Republican tax plan, but more voters strongly disapprove (34%) than strongly approve (25%) of the tax plan. The poll also found that when voters were asked who they trusted more to handle tax policy, 37% chose Sherrill and 33% chose Webber.
The Monmouth poll identified health care as the leading issue for NJ11 voters and the candidates were asked how they would address rising costs and shrinking coverage. Webber said he would lower costs by allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, a change that has been advocated by President Donald Trump. But the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has said the idea that such an approach would lower premiums is a “myth” and that insurers in a state-regulated open market would gravitate toward the healthiest consumers. Sherrill advocated for bipartisan reform of the Affordable Care Act to focus on preventative care and said that, if insurance coverage for New Jerseyans were opened to carriers in other states, New Jerseyans might not have the coverage they now have for pre-existing conditions. The ACA, which is also known as Obamacare, bars denying coverage for pre-existing conditions but New Jersey had such a ban before the ACA was enacted. Webber said that insurance plans would have to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions.
The candidates were also asked how they would re-secure federal funding for the Gateway rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York city. The Obama administration had committed to providing federal funds for half of the $13 billion project’s cost, but the Trump administration has pulled that commitment. Both candidates agreed that the tunnel must be built. “People in this district tell me that we don’t need a wall between the United States and Mexico, we need a tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan,” Sherrill said. Webber, touting his endorsement by President Trump, asserted that he would be better able to secure federal funding because “somebody from a minority party will not be able to walk into Trump’s office.” Sherrill noted that NJ11’s current Republican representative, Frelinghuysen, is the head of the House Appropriations Committee, and has been unable to secure funds for Gateway.
In addition to moderator questions, each candidate was each allowed to ask one question directly of the other. Webber asked Sherrill whether she supported Sen. Bob Menendez, who he termed Sherrill’s “running mate”, even though there is no such position in a Congressional race. Menendez, whose prosecution over corrupt dealings to benefit a campaign donor ended in a mistrial last November, was formally admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee in April and told to repay the money he had been given by the donor. Sherrill said she agreed with the committee, but said that the choice in New Jersey’s Senate race is now between “a fighter for New Jersey or someone who raised drug prices on cancer patients”. Bob Hugin, the Republican challenging Menendez for the Senate seat, is the former CEO of the pharmaceutical company Celgene. Stat, a news website that covers the pharma industry, found that while Hugin did substantially raise the price of Revlimid, it was “probably true” that the company offered some patients discounts.
Sherrill used her question to ask Webber whether he still supported gay conversion therapy. Webber said that while “people have the right to be who they want to be”, he is opposed to “interfering in communications between therapists and patients.” Gay conversion therapy asserts that a therapist can use a behavioral or psychoanalytic approach to change an attraction to someone of the same sex. The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all have called conversion therapy unscientific and ineffective and note that it can harm gay youth.
You can watch the entire debate in the video below. The last day to register to vote in the November 6 election is Tuesday, October 16, and there will be evening hours at all county clerk offices on that day. The last day to apply for a vote by mail ballot by mail is October 30. The last day to get such a ballot in person is Monday, November 5, and the ballot must be received by the county clerk by Tuesday, November 6.