Legislative candidates in the first district agreed more often than they disagreed at a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters Monday night.
The wide-ranging debate, which ran for about 80 minutes, saw candidates from either party agreeing on the need to repeal taxes affecting the mostly working-class district, their opposition to recreational marijuana and the need for more research for a proposed massive offshore wind energy project.
That’s not to say some sparks didn’t fly.
Though both sides agreed on the need for Route 55’s extension, the Republican candidates — Cumberland County GOP Chairman Michael Testa for the district’s State Senate Seat and Ocean City Councilman Antwan McClellan and Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen for its Assembly seats — more than once hit Democratic incumbents over what they said was inaction on the project.
“Bob Andrzejczak has been in the Assembly and now in the Senate for six years. He said he’s been working on it since day one. we still don’t have a shovel-ready project for Route 55,” Testa said. “That’s a real problem. There’s a whole lot of work. There’s a whole lot of sizzle, but no steak.”
Andrzejczak, who had earlier pointed to unsuccessful efforts from a number of his predecessors to extend the highway to the eastern end of Cape May County, hit Testa over what he called the challenger’s ‘laughable’ expectations.
“It’s a multi-billion dollar project, and it’s ridiculous to think that it’s going to happen overnight. It’s funny, we were at a forum and my opponent said — the question was what are you going to do your first year in– and my opponent said ‘I’m going to extend 55,’” Andrzejczak said. “It’s a joke. It’s laughable. We all know it’s not going to happen within a year.”
In some ways, the debate was a reflection of the campaign in the first district so far.
Testa more than once attacked Andrzejczak by proxy, lobbing shots at Gov. Phil Murphy, who received a 31%-40% approval rating in a recent Stockton University poll, while Andrzejczak leaned on his military record.
The senator lost his left leg during his second tour in Iraq. Andrzejczak often wears shorts in campaign literature, with his prosthetic leg on full display.
The candidates also sparred some on immigration, with one of Andrzejczak’s running mates, Assemblyman Matt Milam, offering a softer stance on illegal immigration.
“I believe in the same way as I believe in our church’s motto is ‘open doors, open hearts, open minds,’ and that’s how we should be in this state,” Milam said. “Let’s help anyone that wants to come and be a United States citizen. Let’s help them because everyone works hard. Let’s help them get them get their citizenship and be good tax-paying citizens, as we all are.”
Assemblyman Bruce Land, the third Democrat seeking re-election in the first district, said he backed legal immigrants, as did McLellan and Simonsen. The Ocean City Councilman added that he opposed drivers’ licenses for immigrants in the country illegally.
Testa and Andrzejczak mostly agreed on guns, with the incumbent saying he would, as he has, oppose gun laws that limited the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
Andrzejczak, who is a gun owner, added that he frequently went shooting with his son at local gun ranges.
Testa touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association and took a shot at Murphy over new gun control legislation signed into law under the governor’s tenure, including a law limiting the maximum magazine capacity to 10 rounds.
Though they agreed the system had problems, the two senate candidates disagreed on healthcare for veterans.
While both praised the planned construction of a new Veterans Affairs clinic in the district, Testa said he backed allowing veterans receive their healthcare from private providers, while Andrzejczak opposed such privatization.
“If they’re on busses for hours, it means the federal system is broken. it means they do need access to the capable doctors that we do have in the private sector,” Testa said. “And I can tell you this much: I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan. He always said the most dangerous words were ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help. That healthcare system is not doing the veterans the service that they so desperately need.”
Still, the debate was telling about the state of the electorate in the first district. Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland Counties aren’t Essex County or Hudson County.
The Democrats there aren’t progressive, and at attendees would be hard pressed at times to tell which party a candidate belonged to were their affiliations not announced at the start of the debate, like when Land espoused support for voter ID laws, for instance.
“I still can’t understand why we don’t need to show a good ID to vote. I know some people may think this is funny coming from a Democrat, but I believe that we should have some kind of identification when you go into those polling booths to show you who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve been,” Land said. “So, anything we can do to improve any kind of our identification process, I’m 100% behind it, and I’m sure my colleagues are also.”