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Despite their absence, Republican incumbents in the 21st district took center stage in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters Saturday night.
Three of the district’s six candidates — Democrats Stacey Gunderman and Lisa Mandelblatt and conservative independent Martin Marks — attended the hour-long candidate forum in New Providence.
While most of the run-time was spent with candidates giving their positions on policies ranging from the state’s taxes to its pension crisis and problems at NJ Transit, none of the three candidates in attendance shied from taking jabs at Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.
“Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz have taken for granted and shown a lack of respect for conservatives in their district, for the president and his supporters,” Marks said. “Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz were given four different opportunities, four different dates. It’s a lack of respect for the league. It’s a lack of respect for you. It’s a lack of respect for the people sitting before you. It is arrogant and it is cowardly.”
The Republican incumbents said they could not attend the debate because of scheduling conflicts. Marks said Harry Pappas, his running mate, could not attend the debate because he was ill.
Marks made attacks on the incumbents more frequently than his Democratic opponents, though Mandelblatt and Gunderman did not shy away from hitting the two.
“I live in Westfield, and back in June, we had an armed gunman show up at one of our elementary schools. Thankfully, due to amazing police work, nobody was hurt and the man was apprehended,” Mandelblatt said. “Not two weeks later, Jon Bramnick stood on the floor of the Assembly and spoke out yet again against sensible gun violence prevention legislation. He and Nancy Munoz have been enabling the NRA for years now.”
At an Assembly Session in June, Bramnick raised concerns about a bill requiring gun owners to renew their licenses every four years.
The measure, he told the New Jersey Globe at the time, could turn law-abiding gun owners who were not aware of the new policy into criminals. At the time, gun licenses lasted indefinitely.
The incumbents’ names didn’t come up in every answer.
The Marks and the Democrats espoused their support for medical marijuana without mentioning Bramnick and Munoz, and the Democrats backed having voters decide on the legalization of recreational marijuana, which Marks opposed.
None of the three candidates in attendance said the state should change pension benefits for those already paid into the system, with the Democrats urging for protections to collective bargaining rights and Marks saying the state’s pensions should be changed to reflect those used in the private sector.
The Democrats offered tepid support for county-wide school districts, which some experts say will reduce costs for cash-strapped municipalities, but said that local districts must be the ones to make the decision to regionalize.
Marks didn’t go as far, saying he’d prefer to see a change to the state’s school funding formula, which he said directs funds away from suburban towns like the ones that make up the 21st.
Both Democrats stopped short of calling for the dissolution of the Economic Development Authority, which has been embroiled in controversy over abuse of tax incentives it administered. They said they’d like to see the results of the investigations into the EDA before deciding whether the organization should exist.
Marks had no such compunctions, saying he wants additional criminal investigations into the authority, adding he was sure that those bodies would recommend the EDA be dissolved.
Between the two Democrats, Mandelblatt more frequently went after the Republican incumbents, doing so on questions about the cost of healthcare in the state, cost of living for seniors and NJ Transit, among others.
“It’s important that people get to stay in the communities where they raise their families. the senior property tax freeze is one way,” Mandelblatt said. “For some reason Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz didn’t think that that was something that they should support. They voted against that. They voted also against a prescription drug discount program for seniors.”
The race there is expected to be one of the tightest in the state this year, and though Bramnick and Munoz have more than once declined to say whether they fear Marks and Pappas will siphon off conservative votes from their re-election campaigns, it was clear Saturday that the independents were after their base.
“If you are a liberal or even a moderate, I would suggest that you vote for Gunderman and Mandelblatt. Absolutely. We may not agree on anything, but I respect their opinions. I respect the fact that they have joined the fray and have put themselves out there,” Marks said.
“If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for someone to roll up their sleeves, get down to Trenton in that cesspool and may not be so courteous or civil and really deal with the liberal mindset down there. I’m your guy, and Harris Pappas is your guy,” he said. “From where I sit, there is absolutely no reason to re-elect Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz.”