State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) and Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton) met tonight for a New Jersey Globe-hosted 8th district debate that found many moments of common ground between the two candidates, but that also focused heavily on their main point of contention: Addiego’s party switch nearly three years ago.
In her opening statement, Stanfield immediately directed attention to Addiego’s flip from Republican to Democrat in January 2019, saying that it was what convinced her to skip retirement and instead successfully seek election to the State Assembly.
“I was going to have a stress-free life,” said Stanfield, who served as the sheriff of Burlington County from 2002 to 2019. “But Senator Addiego decided to switch parties, and I really found that to be reprehensible. She gave away a seat that really wasn’t hers to give away – it belongs to the supporters, the people that helped get her there, and the people that voted for her.”
“I wanted to have a seat at the table,” Addiego responded in defense of the switch. “The most important thing to me is to serve, and to serve my continents well… I think that I can better serve my constituents as a Democrat, and I’ve proven that.”
But Stanfield said that even with Addiego now serving in the majority, she still hasn’t shown up and fought for the 8th district enough.
“It’s very ironic that Dawn says she wanted a seat at the table,” Stanfield said. “Time after time after time, she doesn’t vote. She’s there and she’s present, but she’s not voting… She’s not coming to the table.”
Later in the debate, the issue of the party switch came up once again, after Addiego and Stanfield had a testy exchange about donations Stanfield has received from special interests, particularly from groups supporting warehouse expansion.
“Jean’s money that she’s received is not legally reported – this is important,” Addiego said. “People need to know where the money’s going and who you’re beholden to.”
“Dawn has a Camden political boss who pledged $10 million to her campaign,” Stanfield hit back, referring to South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross. “So talk about being beholden – come on… Dawn switched parties so she would get the big money.”
Despite the harsh words for one another, however, Stanfield and Addiego expressed agreeing views on many of the state’s key issues, and said they’d fight for similar policies if elected or re-elected to the Senate.
On gun safety legislation, both Addiego and Stanfield concurred that the state’s current gun laws are sufficient, and that gun owners in the state shouldn’t be burdened with further regulations.
“We don’t need any more laws, we have more than enough,” Addiego said – a position which Stanfield said she fully agreed with.
Both legislators also concurred that Roe v. Wade should be codified into state law, an increasingly dominant position among both Democrats and Republicans in the state, but that the Reproductive Freedom Act is not an ideal bill as presently written.
“I think the rest of the bill [beyond codifying Roe v. Wade] needs some work,” Addiego said “It needs to be worked on, and get to a point where we can all support it.”
Stanfield went farther, saying that she’d be a definite “no” vote on the bill if it came to the floor as-is; Addiego did not specify how she would vote in such a situation.
Most notably, when asked about gay marriage, Stanfield nearly seemed to take a position to the left of Addiego, who voted against legalizing same-sex marriage when she was a Republican legislator a decade ago.
Addiego defended her vote as stemming from her Catholic faith and her desire to prevent churches from being forced to perform marriages against their will, saying that she personally would have been happy to support and officiate gay weddings.
“I am for gay marriage – many people I love are gay or even considering it – and I’m glad that Senator Addiego has had a change of heart,” Stanfield said in response. “Maybe some of her other changes I don’t agree with. This is one I do.”
The two candidates also largely agreed on the issue of policing, but Stanfield nevertheless worked to cast Addiego – who’s been endorsed by the state’s two largest police unions – as anti-police.
“I don’t believe in defunding the police, I don’t support it at all,” Addiego said. “I have a very clear record of support for police officers… [My running mates and I] have been endorsed by the PBA, by the FOP. I’ve been endorsed by the State Troopers. I think that says it all.”
“Endorsements don’t mean anything,” Stanfield said. “I’m sure they would not have endorsed you if they knew how you really feel and how your running mates really feel about law enforcement.”
Among the final exchanges of the night was on the issue of the millionaire’s tax and the subsequent tax rebate for less wealthy families, which Addiego praised as critical aid for the middle class and Stanfield dismissed as a political stunt.
“It was really just a gimmick,” Stanfield said. “They borrowed money to give these $500 checks because it’s an election year. That I don’t agree with.”
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t a game to the people who got the money,” Addiego responded. “Millionaires don’t need all the money. Our firemen, our working families – that $500 could pay food for a month for a family of four. You can’t say that was just a little bit of money.”
In their closing statements, Addiego and Stanfield each accused one another of becoming out of touch with the district they hope to represent.
“My opponent has shown that, as someone who aligns herself with dark organizations that skirt the state election law, she can hide who she really answers to,” Addiego said. “But I will tell you that she does not answer to the people of District 8.”
Stanfield, meanwhile, highlighted constituents’ experiences of unresponsiveness and unhelpfulness in Addiego’s office during the pandemic.
“I think the best predictor of future behavior is looking at someone’s past behavior,” she said. “It’s all about being there for the people. When people called our office during the pandemic, we answered. Very many times, we got calls from people saying they called Senator Addiego’s office – they never got a return call, and never got a return email.”
For both Addiego and Stanfield, the campaign – widely considered the fiercest in the state – has been about proving their worth to the 8th district. Addiego has worked to prove that becoming a Democrat was to the benefit of Burlington County; Stanfield wants instead to show that it was disloyal and politically harmful.
Tonight’s debate hit on those same themes, and Addiego’s party switch clearly remains top of mind for the two candidates. The one question that lingers even still: come Election Day, will it be important for the voters of the 8th district?