Contenders vying to succeed Rep. Rodney Frelinghysen (R-11th Dist.) bring diverse skills and backgrounds to the race.
If you’re looking for a Congressman who won’t blanch when a 3,000-page bill thuds onto his desk an hour before the vote, Mitchell Cobert may be your candidate.
The Morristown lawyer learned to follow complex paper trails while prosecuting securities violations as an assistant attorney general in New York’s Bureau of Real Estate Financing.
Now, he wades through mountains of minutiae on behalf of people ripped off by financial institutions.
“I’m the one who represents victims of securities fraud. I represent the little old man or woman with Alzheimer’s who lost their life savings to fraud. I fight the largest brokers and dealers and Wall Street firms,” said Cobert, 71.
He is running in the June 2018 Democratic primary against Mikie Sherrill, Tamara Harris and Mark Washburne, in hopes of earning a November shot at the seat held by Frelinghuysen for 12 terms.
Facing grassroots opposition for the first time, the Republican incumbent, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has opted to retire.
On the GOP side, newcomer Martin Hewitt and Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26th Dist.) of Morris Plains have announced their candidacies, and Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.) is mulling a run.
This article is part of an occasional series about the 11th District race.
Democrats and Republicans who know Cobert describe him similarly.
“He’s got a great history of fighting for the little guy,” said his longtime friend and neighbor, Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, a Democrat. “He’s a standup person, he’s honest….He oozes decency.”
Former Mayor Jay DeLaney Jr., a Republican and a fellow lawyer, called Cobert “rock solid, as honest as they come. He’s compassionate, he’s decent, he’s nice and I wish him well.”
Frank Alai, a Morristown lawyer who voted for Frelinghuysen several times, compares Cobert to physicist Rush Holt Jr., a well respected Democrat who represented the 12th Congressional District for 16 years.
“He’s reasonable, he knows how to make a deal. You’re not going to push him around,” Alai said of Cobert. “Very few attorneys will take on major brokerage houses. Mitchell does all the time— and he wins.”
Natalka Farrell, a disabled widow from Springfield, said Cobert helped recover money from a company she accused of overly aggressive investing. The attorney was prepared, persistent and personable, she said.
“If he was in Congress, we wouldn’t have all this bickering,” said Farrell.
Years after her settlement, she added, Cobert still calls around the holidays to see how she’s doing.
“Anybody whose life crosses his path is very lucky,” Farrell said.
‘WE HAVE TO SPEAK OUT’
But can a nice guy finish first in a district that still tilts Republican, against candidates with deeper pockets?
Sherrill, also a former prosecutor, raised more than $1.2 million through the end of 2017, according to federal election records. And she has garnered a stack of endorsements. Harris raised nearly $600,000 during the same period, records show.
Cobert’s warchest was just under $61,000–of which nearly half was a personal loan.
“It’s a predominantly Republican district, and Republicans I’ve spoken to will not support a partisan Democrat. But they don’t perceive me as a partisan Democrat,” Cobert asserted.
“I’m a long-term resident of the 11th District, and I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time involved in the community, to benefit the community.”
Cobert and his wife Kathi raised two daughters and a son in Morristown, their home for 34 years. In the early 1990s, he helped create the Morristown Partnership, an organization at the forefront of the town’s revitalization.
“He is as honest as they come, and what he says he’ll do, he will do,” said Michael Fabrizio, the Partnership’s former executive director.
A member of Temple B’nai Or, Cobert has served on numerous local boards and is past president of the Morris County Bar Association and its Foundation. He continues to mentor young lawyers, said Nancy Bangiola, the association’s executive director. “Mitchell is brilliant, kind and the consummate professional,” she said.
The Brooklyn native said he is running for the same reason he shelved dreams of a theater career as an undergrad at the City University of New York to study law at St. John’s University: To stand up to bullies.
His grandparents emigrated from the Baltic countries to escape persecution, he said. In World War II, his father led a U.S. Army tank battalion that helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp.
“That’s why I’m running. Because we have to do something to prevent prejudice, to prevent bigotry from happening again. We have to protect our rights as citizens,” said Cobert, who served in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
“If we are silent in the face of prejudice and bigotry and attacks on immigrants, then we are all complicit. We have to speak out and do whatever we can to protect all people who come to this country to seek a better life.”
His campaign motto is “Common Ground, Common Sense.” For him, that equates to securing U.S. borders without President Trump’s Mexican wall “boondoggle,” while providing a path to citizenship for “Dreamers”–children brought here by undocumented parents.
Cobert considers the GOP repeal of Obamacare “evil… [and] so political as to be offensive.”
Providing affordable health insurance for all, he said, “will require everyone sitting in a room and locking the door until they come up with a resolution. It’s not going to be easy. But that’s why we need some common ground.
“We need to replace partisan politics with qualified people like me, to resolve problems for everyone,” Cobert said.
He strongly opposes Republican legislation to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines (“an accident waiting to happen”), and any privatization of Social Security or water utilities.
The tax bill passed by Congress was partisan and “vindictive,” punishing residents of New Jersey, New York and California, he said. And President Trump’s belittling of the Justice Department is corrosive.
“You need respect for the FBI and the Justice Department,” Cobert said. “When you attack the very institutions our country relies upon…you tear at the fabric of our country.”
Mitchell Cobert and the other Democratic candidates are scheduled to speak on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at a 7 pm forum at the Alfred Vail School, at 175 Speedwell Ave. in Morris Township.