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The New Jersey Globe/Save Jersey LD24 Republican primary debate.

Assembly candidates race to the right at LD24 debate

Four candidates espouse similar positions while attacking opponents’ supposed heresies

By Joey Fox, April 27 2023 11:58 pm

Who are the “true conservatives” running for two open State Assembly seats in the 24th district? According to each of the district’s two Republican slates, it’s themselves – and definitely not their opponents.

That was the tenor of tonight’s New Jersey Globe/Save Jersey-hosted Republican primary debate between Sussex County Commissioner Dawn Fantasia (R-Franklin), Chester Township Mayor Mike Inganamort, Warren County Commissioner Jason Sarnoski (R-Independence), and Lafayette Township Board of Education President Josh Aikens.

Fantasia and Inganamort are running on one slate helmed by Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Wantage), who is unopposed for the district’s Senate seat, while Sarnoski and Aikens are the leaders of their own slate. Whoever wins the June primary are all but certain to get elected in what has long been one of New Jersey’s most conservative legislative districts, covering Sussex County and other parts of rural northwestern New Jersey.

And conservative was indeed the name of the game at tonight’s debate. Asked about issues ranging from abortion to transgender rights to the Second Amendment, the four candidates moved essentially in lockstep, arguing that New Jersey has gone off the left-wing deep-end and that conservative policies are needed to rein it back in.

Fantasia and Aikens both supported drastically increasing limits on abortion access, though they noted that in liberal-leaning New Jersey, they’d take whatever they can get.

“I believe that life begins at conception,” Fantasia said. “What New Jersey has is one of the most egregious Wild West approaches to abortion… What Florida and Governor Ron DeSantis is doing, [banning abortion] at six weeks, is logical to me.”

Both slates also essentially agreed on transgender health care, saying that children should not be medically transitioning and insurance companies shouldn’t be required to pay for it.

“There’s two genders, honestly. There’s male and female, and that’s it, in my opinion. What you are born with is who you are,” Aikens said. “Too often, we are letting progressive policies push an agenda on our children, and it is confusing them… We’re going down a very, very steep slope, and I don’t know if we can claw ourselves back.”

“Any child, or adult for that matter, who is confused about their gender deserves our prayers and our well wishes,” Inganamort said. “[But] I would be very concerned about putting young kids on a path to effectively mutilate their bodies in a permanent way.”

And on gun rights, the candidates were unequivocal that the right to bear arms is essential – a popular stance in a part of the state where guns are very much integrated into the local culture.

“Quite frankly, I think that the restrictions on our Second Amendment rights in this state are ridiculous,” Sarnoski said. “We see that the criminals are the ones that are getting the firearms, not the good people. They have trouble getting the firearms. They have trouble protecting themselves.”

Also getting universal approval from the four candidates: limiting warehouse sprawl, a top issue in rural New Jersey; signing onto State Sen. Doug Steinhardt (R-Lopatcong)’s bill preventing Chinese companies from buying New Jersey farmland; taking a stronger stand against overly powerful public sector unions; and finding ways to share services across multiple municipalities to save taxpayers money.

The real dividing lines were not policy-based, but instead built on accusations of disloyalty to the conservative cause.

One such debate erupted over New Jersey’s 2016 gas tax hike, which was intended to address crumbling infrastructure. Both Sarnoski and Fantasia were in elected office at the time – Sarnoski as a county commissioner, Fantasia as a Franklin Borough councilwoman – and each accused the other of supporting the tax raise.

“We went from one of the lowest gas taxes in the country to the highest,” Sarnoski said. “Rather than cutting spending and looking at waste, fraud, and abuse, we just want to keep feeding the beast… [Fantasia] did a radio ad advocating for the gas tax.”

“All these antics – it’s all histrionics, and it’s nonsense,” Fantasia shot back. “You supported [the gas tax].”

A similar fight focused on environmental, social, and corporate governance, or ESG: an investment framework and a frequent target of attacks from conservatives. According to Sarnoski and Aikens, Inganamort’s consulting firm pushed ESG; according to Inganamort, it’s Sarnoski who is really in the pocket of ESG.

Inganamort and Fantasia were also happy to attack Aikens over his past apostasies, including his erstwhile support of Barack Obama.

“We do know that in 2008, he did vote for Barack Obama, which was a little bit disheartening to find out from a candidate whom I thought was somewhat more on the conservative side,” Fantasia said.

“I was 24 that year,” Aikens responded. “I may have made a mistake one time. However, I’m not trying to push Barack Obama-type policies throughout the state of New Jersey.”

And whatever his past votes may have been, Aikens made it clear he’s now an unabashed supporter of Donald Trump: “I will support former President Trump in his re-election bid.”

Fantasia took something of a more ambiguous stance when asked about the 2024 presidential election, saying that while Trump was “the best president we’ve had in modern times when it came to policy,” she was interested in other candidates as well.

One man who did draw universal approval from the four candidates was Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown), who represents the neighboring Warren County-based 23rd district. Each of the candidates indicated their strong support for DiMaio’s continued leadership of the Republican caucus – or maybe leadership of the Assembly itself, if Republicans can pull off a major upset and win control of the chamber.

Another prominent local leader, Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), is all in for Team Space; the very first thing Fantasia said at the debate was that Oroho and retiring Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Wantage) are backing her ticket. Aikens and Sarnoski, meanwhile, emphasized what they characterized as their independence from insider politics.

“We don’t want any insiders; we are the outside candidates,” Aikens said. “We’re here for the voters, not for endorsements, and that’s all that matters to us.”

That contrast in emphasis points to a potentially important distinction between the two slates. Though the four candidates’ legislative voting records would likely be very similar, Inganamort and Fantasia are more tied into the existing state Republican apparatus than Sarnoski and especially Aikens, and their attitudes towards governance in Trenton may be quite different if elected.

But that potential divide was only visible for brief moments at tonight’s debate. The far more powerful, overarching theme from both slates: We will be your conservative fighters in a state government that is way out of step with the 24th legislative district.

“We offer the real thing: a bold and conservative plan to get New Jersey back on track,” Inganamort said. “Repeal the extreme sex ed standards, cut taxes across the board, oppose wasteful spending, defend our Constitutional rights, protect the unborn, and stand with our police. There is a better way for New Jersey, but to get there we need conservative Republicans who tell the truth.”

“Josh and I are the real tax-cutting, parent-supporting, children-protecting conservatives in this race,” Sarnoski said. “We don’t represent the establishment; we represent the people. The establishment in Trenton has forgotten you. We won’t.”

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