LIVINGSTON – The Democratic candidates for the nomination to replace retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen debate on Wednesday night, giving lesser-known candidates some valuable exposure heading into the June 5 primary.
Social worker Tamara Harris used the opportunity to take repeated thinly-veiled shots at front-runner Mikie Sherrill, who has the party’s backing, and to position herself as the race’s progressive candidate, while Sherrill repeatedly drew on her experience and skill as an orator to frame herself as the most effective candidate in the race.
“I would be an amazing and distinguished candidate and congresswoman from day one because I will have been someone that ran an unbossed and unbought campaign – not beholden to party bosses, not beholden to corporate interests, and someone who showed up to put people before the politics and make sure the people controlled the process,” Harris said.
While Sherrill and Harris had brought members of their camp to the room, the frequent bouts of applause from the audience at the Livingston Community Center tended to be more raucous and originated from a larger majority of the room.
“If I could pass a great piece of legislation that’s going to get us the gateway tunnel that we definitely need, I don’t need my name at the top of it,” Sherrill said to a round of applause. “I’ll put whoever’s name at the top of it that’s going to work with me to get that done. If I can get healthcare reform, if I can get good quality tax reform so that we can invest in our families, I don’t need my name in lights”
While candidates Mitchell Cobert and Mark Washburne did not get tripped up by any of the audience members’ questions, they failed to make any sort of major splash that could shift voters – though there’s some question to how many votes tonight’s debate would shift in either case.
For the first several questions, Washburne would not depart from his script, repeatedly referring to Medicare for all legislation that was, at times, tenuously linked to the question at hand.
“I made a decision before I got into the race that I was not going to take money during the primaries, mainly because of what happens with these ads,” Washburne said, referring to negative ads. “People set them out and they’re trying to influence people, and I want to influence you by saying that I have not been endorsed by anybody, I have not taken money from anybody.”
Washburne’s answers frequently had this sort of cant, which bent towards a lighter tone than any of the other candidates presented.
Cobert, a former assistant state attorney general, spent much of the debate framing himself as the experience candidate, but his oratory skills didn’t quite match Sherrill’s, sometimes stumbling slightly over the wording of his answers.While he was generally prepared, some of his answers might have been somewhat lacking. On a healthcare question, his answer lacked much of the detail present in other candidates’ responses.
“What I’ve done is I’ve looked at the plans that are out there. I’ve seen Bernie Sanders’ plan. I’ve looked at the abominations on the right side,” Cobert said. “I’ve looked at all the plans, and I think that one of the best plans that I see is the Medicare Extra for All. It accomplishes the purpose, and I think that’s where we’re going to go. It’s a buy-in plan, but it will provide healthcare for every single person.”
A fifth candidate, Dr. Alison Heslin, did not attend the debate.