Jay Webber and Mikie Sherrill showed some disagreements on race relations and their views on New Jersey values in their first face-to-face debate in one of New Jersey’s most closely watched races for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Webber, a five-term Assemblyman and former Republican State Chairman, and Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, made no mistakes and were largely successful in sticking to their talking points even as they jabbed one another over policy differences during a debate on NJTV Wednesday night.
Aside from a few instances in which the candidates challenged charges leveled by the opposition, there were few exchanges that moved outside already-established lines in the contest for retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s 11th district seat, but a question about racial imbalances in America brought a new dimension to the race.
“Mikie did a press conference in Morristown talking about Hispanic owned businesses and criticizing me voting against set-asides for Hispanic-owned businesses. Well, what about Indian-owned businesses and Chinese-owned businesses? They’re important too, and I don’t see why,” Webber said before Sherrill pointed out he voted against those as well.
“I voted against all set-asides because everybody should be treated equally, and if you want to divide this country based on ethnicity and play it up in a campaign, I think that demeans our politics and separates our society,” Webber continued. “I’m interested in uniting us Michael. Mikie’s running a divisive campaign.”
Webber accused Sherrill of engaging in identity politics, a charge he repeatedly made in Wednesday’s debate, which was moderated by NJTV’s Michael Aron.
Sherrill, who toed a moderate line in a historically Republican district – even going as far as to avoid taking a shot at Webber when asked for her reaction to President Donald Trump’s endorsement of the candidate.
“I wish we lived in a post-racial society, but we don’t. I wish we lived in a society that values women as much as men in the workplace, but we don’t. Women only make 82 cents on every dollar,” Sherrill said. “That’s why I was proud to see the Assembly and Senate recently pass and Gov. Murphy sign into law an equal pay bill, which Assemblyman Webber was one of only two people to vote against.”
The attack claiming Webber does not support equal pay for women has become a favorite for Sherrill’s campaign. Webber has previously said he supports equal pay for equal work but opposed the bill because of concerns over lawsuits its definitions could create. He repeated as much Wednesday night.
For Webber, a race-blind society should be a goal, and he said the country was moving in that direction with recent reductions in unemployment among black and Hispanic people.
“That’s what our goal should be, a race-blind society that’s prosperous and provides opportunity for all,” Webber said.
Sherrill pointed to the policing of minority communities as a possible cause for the race issues in the country.
“As far as looking at how we move forward, the problems between the over-incarceration of black and brown men, the problems of how people are treated with marijuana crimes, cocaine versus crack cocaine, we need comprehensive criminal justice reform, and it’s part of the reason I’m running, part of the reason that I feel so deeply that the legislative branch of our government is not functioning in the way we need it to function,” Sherrill said.
Sherrill also got the opportunity to ask Webber directly about where he stood on conversion therapy. The Assemblyman pushed back on those charges but ultimately stopped short of saying he did opposed the practice.
In the spin room, both candidates claimed they won the debate.
“Tonight’s debate demonstrated the fundamental differences between Jay Webber and Montclair Mikie Sherrill. Jay is focused on uniting us across party lines while Montclair Mikie Sherrill is focused on dividing us,” said Ronica Cleary, a spokesperson for the Webber campaign.
Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, a consultant for the Sherrill campaign, pointed out the contrasts between the two House candidates.
“Mikie Sherill won this debate because she showed that she’s a different kind of candidate who will bring new, dynamic leadership to Congress to help change course in Washington and fight for New Jersey. Meanwhile, Jay Webber was further exposed as a right wing ideologue pushing an extreme partisan agenda.”