President Trump is bad. Very, very bad. Assault weapons must be banned. Some form of universal health care is essential. Campaign finance reforms, likewise.
Four Democrats jockeying to succeed retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) concurred on these issues, and many more, during a Morris Township forum on Thursday.
They differed sharply on the presidential question of whether to impeach or not to impeach. For more nuances, spectators in the Alfred Vail School’s packed auditorium had to listen closely during the two-hour exercise, presented by the Township’s Democratic committee and moderated by Dawn Clarke of the League of Women Voters.
Subtly, three contenders tried to contrast themselves with Sherrill, the former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor who has raised more than $1.2 million along with a raft of endorsements.
Video: Opening Pitches by Dems for Congress
“I am a candidate who lives in the district, who’s invested in the district, I pay property taxes in the district,” said Harris, a divorce coach from Verona who stressed her “fresh perspective” as a native of the Virgin Islands, a working mother, and a former financial analyst in Asia who speaks Mandarin and Spanish.
Sherrill resides a few blocks outside the 11th District, in Montclair. An aide said the candidate intends to move into the district soon.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin and Lee Goldberg
Washburne, a Mendham resident and former stock broker who teaches history and political science at the County College of Morris, said he is doing zero fundraising.
“If you think we spend too much money on elections, well you have somebody this time who’s not taking money. You have a choice,” he said.
Washburne said he brings historical perspective–Thursday was George Washington’s 286th birthday, he reminded listeners–and experience as a (teachers) union member and a non-lawyer, two under-represented categories in Congress.
This article is part of an occasional series about the 11th District race.
Cobert, like Sherrill, is a lawyer, and a former assistant Attorney General. He prosecuted securities fraud on Wall Street, and now represents people ripped off by financial institutions.
But he emphasized his roots in the district, leading the Morris County Bar Association, serving on numerous boards, and helping forge the Morristown Partnership, which has helped revitalize the town where he has lived for 35 years.
“It’s that commitment to my community, that longtime involvement, that makes me the most qualified candidate,” said Cobert.
Video: Dems for Congress on Healthcare
‘THEY DIDN’T CARE WHETHER I DIED’
Cobert also spoke personally about the need for quality, affordable health care. When diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the head and neck in 2009, his insurance company told him to search its list of in-network physicians.
“I checked all the doctors. One was dead. Two were breast cancer specialists, none were board-certified,” Cobert said. The company refused to cover his preferred doctor.
“They didn’t care whether I died. They just didn’t. Stage 4…I know what it feels like when somebody doesn’t have insurance and they feel that they’re going to die,” said Cobert, who recovered after extensive treatments.
The Democrats thought the primary winner would face Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and wealthy scion of a New Jersey political dynasty.
For 12 terms he skated to victory as a moderate in a safely Republican district. But his party-line votes supporting Trump and conservative GOP leaders in Congress sparked fierce grassroots opposition, and a pair of nonpartisan political websites deemed his re-election chances a toss-up.
Frelinghuysen announced last month he will retire when his term expires. Martin Hewitt, a former Democrat who recently moved to Morris Township, and state Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26th Dist.), a Trump supporter from Morris Plains, are poised to square off in the Republican primary.
Trump’s election stirred Sherrill to run for Congress, she said.
“When President Trump took office, he undermined every single value I’ve spent my entire life supporting and defending,” said the soccer mom, who has endorsements from Emily’s List, VoteVets, and Democratic chairmen in Morris, Sussex, Passaic and Essex counties, among others.
Sherrill joined the Navy anticipating the Soviets would be her foe; she became a Russian policy officer in addition to piloting Sea King helicopters. But the Soviet Union collapsed. Turns out, she said, her fight is now:
“This is the existential fight for who we are, and what we want this country to be.”
She defined that as a battle for women’s and minority rights, for immigrants, for the federal courts and the Constitution.
Video: Democrats for Congress on Trump and Democracy:
‘A ROGUE PRESIDENT’
All the candidates expressed disdain for Trump. But Sherrill and Washburne differed sharply over his threat to democracy and how to respond.
“I don’t think our democracy is in jeopardy,” Sherrill said, citing thousands who demonstrated alongside her at last month’s Women’s March in Morristown. “In fact, I have never seen our democracy so vibrant.”
Talk of impeaching Trump should wait until Special Counsel Robert Mueller completes his probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and all evidence is in, she said.
“I lived through the impeachment of President Clinton, and I think we have to be very careful when we go through that process,” Sherrill said.
“I remember Nixon,” countered Washburne, reciting Richard Nixon’s Watergate coverup.
“We already know Donald Trump has tried to stop the [Russian] investigation. He fired the FBI director. I don’t need Mueller to tell me. There’s enough already out there that Donald Trump has obstructed justice and needs to be held accountable.
“He’s a rogue president, and I support impeachment of our president, and yes, our democracy is in jeopardy if we fail to act now,” Washburne said.
Harris seemed to lean towards impeachment, too, asserting the nation has reached a tipping point.
“From the day the President descended on that escalator from on high and declared that Mexicans were rapists and drug dealers, I knew we were in trouble as a country,” said Harris.
America’s allies no longer can rely on the U.S., damage that will take years to mend, she said. And internal divisions are widening, like the gap between rich and poor.
“The capacity for cruelty is very high in this administration…we have an executive in chief who has to have empathy note cards to deal with families who have suffered an egregious, shameful experience– the shooting of their families,” Harris said, referring to Trump’s meeting with survivors of last week’s massacre at a Florida high school.
Echoing Sherrill’s wait-and-see stance, Cobert contended impeachment now only would sow more division.
Candidates answered questions shown to them in advance by the Morris Township Democratic Committee, and also fielded a few from the crowd. They were allowed brief rebuttals.
Some light moments punctuated the serious tone. When asked about restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks and investment institutions, Washburne deferred to Cobert’s expertise.
“Mitch, if you think it’s a good idea, I do, too,” the professor said.
“I do,” deadpanned Cobert, to laughter.
Morristown resident Barbara Franklin listened intently and was impressed by the foursome.
“I wish the election were right now,” she said afterward.
Dems for Congress talk gun control in Morris Township:
MACHINE GUNS AS TOYS…SOUNDS OF SILENCE
In the wake of last week’s murder of 17 students and faculty in Parkland FL, allegedly by a dropout with an AR-15 assault rifle, all four candidates renewed their calls to restore the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
Cobert favors a government buyback program, and closing the “boyfriend loophole” that enables stalkers to buy guns.
“Assault weapons have no place in this country, except in the hands of the military,” said Harris, vowing to press for studies of gun violence by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sherrill, an advocate for universal background checks, said she wept after the 2012 slaying of 26 children and educators in Newtown CT. This month’s mass shooting in Florida has made her “incredibly angry.”
She described her father as an avid hunter.
“He knows guns. He has never once found a hunter who uses a machine gun to hunt,” Sherrill said.
“I myself am an expert both with a pistol and a rifle. I was in the military, and we in the military know guns. And we know that guns are weapons of war, and they’re not something to be purchased as toys by high school kids,” she said.
President Trump has suggested raising the legal age for purchasing assault weapons from 18 to 21, and arming teachers.
Washburne said he decided to run after reading a Washington Post story pointing to 2,140 false or misleading statements by Trump in his first year as president.
Cobert, who fears the administration’s attacks on the press and the judicial system invite authoritarianism, said non-statements convinced him to run.
“When I heard of a reporter with disabilities being abused, being made fun of [by Trump on the campaign trail], that was wrong. When I heard a Gold Star family being disrespected, I knew that was wrong. When I heard Sen. McCain being disrespected–he’s a war hero–I knew that was wrong.
“But what was most wrong was, our elected officials, the ones in power, did not speak out. When we do not speak out at times like that, then those people enable bigotry, prejudice and everything that’s wrong with this country,” said the lawyer, whose grandparents fled religious persecution in the Baltics.
His father, a tank commander under Gen. George S. Patton, liberated a Nazi death camp in World War II.
“I still have the picture that he developed, that I look at once every 10 years or so, that reminds me why we are all here,” Cobert said. “It reminds me of the importance of what we all do.”
Video: Closing Pitches by Dems for Congress