Democrat Tom Malinowski and Republican Tom Kean, Jr. sharply disagreed on who was best able to address health care, transportation issues and campaign finance reform in Congress during a debate on Saturday sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Malinowski is seeking re-election to a second term as the congressman from New Jersey’s 7th district against Kean, the minority leader of the New Jersey State Senate.
The debate was fairly civil, but with some heightened tension between the two House candidates as compared with their first debate two weeks ago.
“I think all of us can sense that we are heading towards the most important election of our lifetimes and it has only gotten more important in the days since Senator Kean and I last debated, in part because of the tragic passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Malinowski.
Both candidates said they viewed health insurance as a right, but sparred on how to get there.
Malinowski argued that the death of Ginsburg last week presents a “clear and present danger” to the future of the Affordable Care Act.
“With Justice Ginsburg not on the court, we all have to face the reality that the Affordable Care Act is now almost certain to be struck down,” Malinowski said. “The only hope for restoring the basic protections of that law, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions, is to vote for Members of Congress who will actually vote to restore those protections.”
He accused Kean of voting against key elements of implementing the ACA in the New Jersey legislature.
“Can you imagine if we had not had the Affordable Care Act through the height of this pandemic?” Malinowski asked. “We don’t agree on pre-existing conditions because only one of us supports the law that guarantees them.”
Kean maintained that he supports protecting patients with pre-existing conditions and said Congress needs to come up with a better plan.
“One of the problems with the ACA was that it was passed simply on a partisan basis and when you have things that are passed on a partisan basis alone, you have things don’t always have the best solution that stands the overall test of time,” he stated.
The two also disputed who was best able to deliver on the Gateway tunnel project.
“There’s a contrast between what I have done in the transportation space and my opponent, who has only been on partisan press releases and on Twitter,” Kean said. “If you’re going to actually going to seal the deal and make sure the Gateway project is fully funded and is a reality, just like I built the rampway for that to happen, it has to be done on a bi-partisan basis. It’s too important.”
Malinowski said that wasn’t true.
“I’ve actually been leading the way,” he said. “The only thing you’ve ever done to get a tunnel under the Hudson River is to kill it.”
The freshman congressman accused Kean of working with then-Gov. Chris Christie to stop construction of the ARC tunnel in 2010, although there is no evidence that the Republican state senator played any role in the decision.
“I have fought and I have succeeded in obtaining the funding and the approvals of the first step of the Gateway Project – the Portal Bridge,” Malinowski reminded his opponent.
Still, citing anticipated – but undocumented – cost overruns, Kean says that shutting down the ARC tunnel might turn out to be in New Jersey’s long-term best interests.
“The ARC project was a tunnel to a dead-end in Macy’s basement,” Kean explained, suggesting that Gateway better meets the needs of his home state.
If anything, the issue that caused the most friction between the two candidates for Congress was over the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the door to dark money in political campaigns.
“We need a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United,” Malinowski said. “A majority of the ads that you are seeing, the attack ads containing unbelievable lies about me, and supporting Senator Kean, the majority of those ads are paid by those unaccountable dark money PACS.”
Malinowski noted that he supported legislation that would have required a full disclosure of all money spent to influence elections, but that the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any consideration by the Senate.
“I could be raking in a lot of money from direct corporate contributions to my campaign. I refuse to do that. I have a policy, I will not take any direct contributions from corporations,” the congressman said, making a clear distinction between direct and indirect. “He’s asking them for money, and he owes them.”
Kean contends that Malinowski is the beneficiary of corporate PAC money that makes its way to his re-election campaign through intermediary PACS.
“He was taking contributions from other PACs. That’s hypocritical.” Kean charged. “72% of his money comes from outside the state of New Jersey.
The Union County senator said a Democratic super PAC was spending $4 million to defeat him. Malinowski said he would need to fact check that number.
“We both have super PACS that are in this race, supporting us or opposing the other candidate,” Malinowski said. “That’s the system that Citizens United created.
While the League of Women Voters moderator, Michelle Bobrow, commented early in the debate that Malinowski and Kean appeared aligned on some of the major issues, both candidates disputed that.
“He’s for the strong guns laws we have in New Jersey, he voted against them. I’m pro-choice, he’s voted to defund Planned Parenthood,” Malinowski said.
Kean said that as a congressman, he would do a better job on pocketbook issues.
“We need to make sure we grow jobs and economic activity. Restore the SALT deduction,” he said.
Kean said that Malinowski has been a Washington insider for 25 years — he worked in the Clinton White House, for Human Rights Watch and served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of State.
“That is not the kind of person who is capable of fixing Washington, D.C,” Kean said.
Kean worked in Washington in the 1990s as an aide to Rep. Bob Franks, but noted that he lived in Maryland and carefully avoided getting “lost inside the bubble of Washington politics.”
“That is why I joined a volunteer fire department in Maryland, just outside the D.C. bubble, climbing real ladders instead of social ladders,” he said.
In case you missed it: watch the New Jersey Globe’s 7th District Congressional Debate between Tom Malinowski and Tom Kean: