Yacht manufacturer Bob Healey Jr. and Atilis Gym owner Ian Smith, the two most prominent Republican candidates running for New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district, met tonight for a New Jersey Globe- and Save Jersey-hosted debate that focused as much on the candidates’ personal histories as it did on the issues facing Republican primary voters.
The straight-laced Healey and the more rambunctious Smith are fighting for the right to take on Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), a two-term representative in a Democratic-leaning district, as Republicans around the nation are optimistic about their midterm election prospects.
But Kim’s name barely came up during the hourlong debate, which was moderated by Save Jersey’s Matt Rooney and the Globe’s David Wildsten. Instead, the candidates focused on attacking President Joe Biden, Gov. Phil Murphy – and each other.
In March, Smith was arrested for driving under the influence while making his way home from a night out, an incident that ended up serving as a focal point of tonight’s debate. Just as he has done in the past, Smith insisted tonight that he is innocent and that voters in the 3rd district should wait to see the legal process play out.
“We maintain innocence,” Smith said. “That’s why we asked for the tapes to be released immediately… We’ll let the rest unravel in court, and obviously we’ll respect the decision that comes down.”
But Healey pointed out that Smith had already lied once before when he said he had passed a field sobriety test, a claim contradicted by body camera footage, and questioned how voters could be expected to trust him on anything.
“You lied,” Healey said. “You lied twice. How are voters supposed to believe you when you lie about something like that?”
Smith has a deeply unfortunate history with intoxicated driving. He served jail time in his 20s after he drove with alcohol in his system and killed a teenager, something Healey harshly juxtaposed with his own slightly checkered past as a punk rock singer.
“I may have sung in my past about killing someone; Ian actually did kill someone,” Healey said.
Smith, in turn, attacked Healey for being born wealthy, arguing that Healey only inherited his father’s yacht company and hasn’t had to work hard for anything in his life.
“The rest of us didn’t spend our 20s screaming into a microphone about death and darkness,” Smith said. “We were building businesses of our own, and not being handed corner offices.”
Healey responded by once again bringing up Smith’s repeated DUI troubles and saying that Smith should have learned from his past the way he did.
“The way I grew up, I had advantages that a lot of other people didn’t have,” Healey said. “It’s about what you do with your advantages. You had advantages too. You got out [of prison] and you had years to change your life. And you made the same mistake, Ian. So spare me all this moral incredulity.”
Notably, both candidates declined to unequivocally say they’d support the other in a general election. And in the midst of the personal back-and-forths, many concrete issues got lost in the shuffle, though the two candidates did find time to align on a variety of questions.
On abortion, both Smith and Healey said the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a good ruling, but neither zealously argued for abortion restrictions and both instead directed their outrage at the leak’s existence. On policing, each candidate vowed to support law enforcement from defunding and attacks; on energy, each castigated Democrats for limiting American fossil fuel production.
As for the issue of Covid restrictions and mandates – the original cause célèbre for Smith, the owner of a gym that refused to shut down in spring 2020 – it barely came up at all, except for a brief aside in which Smith said he disagreed with his idol, former President Donald Trump, about the effectiveness of the Covid vaccine. (Trump is a booster of the vaccine while Smith, aligning with many of Trump’s supporters, vociferously opposes it.)
There was a small set of issues on which the candidates clearly diverged, however. Among them was recreational marijuana legalization: Healey echoed the longstanding GOP position that marijuana shouldn’t be federally legalized, while Smith took the more libertarian view of supporting legalization and the release of those imprisoned for using it.
“I don’t have a problem with the legalization of marijuana as long as it is done in a safe and responsible manner,” Smith said. “What I do have a problem with is the amount of individuals who have been punished unfairly, especially minority young men, … as a result of harsh criminalization of marijuana.”
The two candidates also had different stances on lifting the SALT deduction cap, which would mean tax relief for some middle-to-high-income families in high-tax states like New Jersey. Healey took the typical Jersey position of supporting lifting the current cap, but Smith more controversially said the deduction “doesn’t interest our voter base.”
Asked who they planned to support for the next House Republican leader, Smith said he’d ditch current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for an archconservative representative like Jim Jordan (R-OH) or Paul Gosar (R-AZ); Healey, on the other hand, said he’d have to sit down with McCarthy and other candidates to determine his vote.
“When I’m elected to Congress, I would hope I have a chance to hear Kevin McCarthy speak, I want to hear how Kevin McCarthy feels he’s going to take our party forward,” Healey said. “And I want to hear, more importantly, how Kevin McCarthy is going to help me help the people of the 3rd district.”
But primary voters could be forgiven for missing these policy differences amid the noise of the two candidates’ attacks. And on that front, Smith probably came away victorious; despite being the more traditionally political of the two men, Healey sounded less practiced and confident throughout the debate.
The June 7 primary, which is now just over a month away, will also feature a third Republican candidate, realtor Nicholas Ferrara, who did not respond to an invitation to tonight’s debate. The winner will likely face a tough race against Kim in a district Biden carried by 14 points, something alluded to by both Healey and Smith in their closing statements, albeit in different ways.
Healey, part of a long tradition of businessman-politicians in New Jersey Republican politics, said that voters shouldn’t be fooled by Smith’s rhetoric and should instead look for a candidate who can win and produce real change.
“I can appreciate why some people like Ian’s bombast, but the reality is we need a representative from this district who cares more about lasting results than fleeting fame,” Healey said. “It’s time for a change, and I look forward to being that change in November.”
Smith, meanwhile, argued that in light of a yearslong Republican losing streak in New Jersey congressional races, voters might as well try something different.
“You can keep doing things the old way and continue to lose, or you can take a chance with something new and you win,” Smith said. “With your help, I’ll kick the doors down in D.C. the same way we did at Atilis Gym.”