Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) and State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) went after each other over health care, immigration and party leadership in New Jersey’s first general election debate of the year Sunday.
The debate, held virtually and moderated by New Jersey Globe Editor David Wildstein, saw tension between the two 7th district House candidates reach its peak in an exchange over healthcare.
Asked how he would address high health care costs if elected to national office, Kean urged further transparency around costs and a reexamination of dated long-term care centers, but he also charged Malinowski supported a bill that would have
“We need to ensure that we have more private sector jobs and opportunities for people who are doing the research for these,” Kean said. “My opponent voted voted for a bill that would destroy 58,000 jobs in the pharmaceutical sector in New Jersey along.”
The claim, which Kean raised more than once earlier in the debate, centers around a bill supported by House Democrats that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Republicans and the pharmaceutical industry opposed the bill.
Malinowski charged Kean’s attacks over the measure, which passed the House in December but has since languished in the Senate, came at the behest of drug manufacturers.
“The VA negotiates with pharmaceutical companies. This is the market. This is capitalism. We’re supposed to set price through negotiation. More than 85% of the American people support this,” he said. “Now, I get it, Sen. Kean takes money directly from pharmaceutical companies for his campaign. That’s why I don’t take corporate PAC contributions, so I can actually take an independent position on issues like this that affect the lives of my constituents.”
Kean tackled Malinowski over contributions from Democratic PACs—while the congressman has refused money from political action committees tied to businesses, he, like Kean, accepts money from party leadership and other organizations—and warned that allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices amid the pandemic would be a fatal misstep.
“In COVID, voting to destroy the pharmaceutical industry would be like, in World War II, voting to destroy the tank factor,” Kean said. “We need to have an individual who can go down to Washington D.C. and understand the importance of innovation for New Jersey. It’s our future.”
Neither candidate offered an unflinching endorsement of their party’s leadership.
While Kean said he’d vote to give President Donald Trump a second term, he also chided the Trump for downplaying the threat posed by COVID early into the pandemic.
“When we look at what’s going on in Washington D.C., the president should have told people a lot earlier,” Kean said.
In recorded interviews with Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward, Trump in February said he knew the virus spread through the air and was much more lethal than the flu, despite making public claims to the contrary for months afterwards.
Malinowski, who faced attacks from Kean for voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi almost all of the time, declined to say he’d vote to give her another term in the speaker’s chair.
“I’ll say right now exactly what I said in the last campaign, which is nobody has my vote unless they can promise me that they will help me deliver for my constituents in New Jersey on issues like SALT and the gateway tunnel and other things that are important to us,” Malinowski said.
The Congressman on Sunday also directly faced a Republican attack claiming he lobbied against a national sex offender registry for the first time.
Malinowski’s name appears on lobbying disclosures filed by Human Rights Watch, where the congressman was then Washington director, for a 2006 crime bill that included the registry.
“I did not play any such role. It’s not my campaign that says that but the organization that says that,” Malinowski said. “We submitted lobbying reports that listed everybody in the organization that lobbied on any issue … my opponent knows that this is true. What you’re seeing here is the swamp. This is why people are so turned off by politics in this country.”
Kean, who repeatedly sought to burnish his bipartisan credentials, charged that the incumbent’s leadership position within the organization made him responsible regardless of whether or not he personally lobbied against the registry.
“He was the top lobbyist for the organization, and they advocate against protecting children. So, either he was weak, he didn’t try to stop it,” Kean said. “But the real question is how in the world can you work for an organization that advocated against protecting children?”
The senator took fire from Malinowski over his 100% rating from the National Rifle Association. Though the senator said he was proud of the state’s strong gun laws, citing specifically its red flag laws, he has opposed other gun control measures, including a state law limiting magazine capacities to 10 rounds.
“We do not have, nationally, the strong laws that we have in New Jersey,” the congressman said. “A guy with an A-rating from the NRA is not going to get the job done.”
Given a single opportunity to ask their opponent a question, both candidates chose to press one another on other members of their party.
Malinowski asked Kean why he neither stopped nor condemned State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford) for a speech during a 9/11 ceremony during which the Republican claimed systemic racism did not exist, charged Black Lives Matter was a Marxist organization and warned the defund the police movement was meant to destabilize the nation.
“You just told us you disapproved of Senator Doherty,” Malinowski said. “You were there. You missed your moment.”
Kean said he disagreed with Doherty, pointing to his attendance at Black Lives Matter rallies and saying he believed systemic racist was real before asking Malinowski whether he opposed the reelections of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich), two first-term Muslim congresswomen who have faced fire for anti-Semitic comments.
The congressman said he wasn’t supporting their reelection and pointed to a resolution condemning Omar for criticizing the influence of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
The two candidate found some common ground on Afghanistan — both believed the United States should leave a small force there to ensure the Taliban didn’t overrun the Afghan government and create a haven for terrorists.
Both also opposed pulling the country out of NATO, though Kean said other member nations were paying what they owed, messaging often used by the president when discussing the alliance.
Kean said he supported a physical wall along the border, and while Malinowski opposed Trump’s signature campaign promise, both candidates agreed that electronic monitoring was needed and family separations must not occur.