Webber defends NRA, Sherrill slams Trump, at Metrowest forum

An estimated 400 people turned out to heard Congressional candidates Mikie Sherrill and Jay Webber at the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ in Whippany, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
An estimated 400 people turned out to heard Congressional candidates Mikie Sherrill and Jay Webber at the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ in Whippany, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Republican Jay Webber gave an impassioned defense of the NRA. Democrat Mikie Sherrill blamed President Trump for unleashing a rise in anti-Semitism.

The 11th District Congressional candidates also differed sharply over healthcare, and challenged each other’s honesty Tuesday at a campaign forum at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in Whippany.

Republican candidate Jay Webber speaks at Metrowest forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Republican candidate Jay Webber speaks at Metrowest forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Separately fielding identical questions for 30 minutes apiece, Sherrill and Webber voiced support for Israel, and for President Obama’s pledge of $38 billion in military support through 2028 to our Middle Eastern ally. Webber also endorsed President Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal.

The state Assemblyman from Morris Plains came out swinging, painting Sherrill as a tax-loving liberal aligned with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi–Sherrill denied it– and with Bob Menendez, “the most corrupt Senator we’ve seen in decades.”

Webber continued to imply, falsely, that Sherrill endorses abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Democrat Mikie Sherrill addresses Whippany forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Democrat Mikie Sherrill addresses Whippany forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, rapped Webber’s Assembly record on gun control and his opposition to an equal-pay-for-women bill, an attack Webber declared “dishonest” and “absurd.”

The Montclair resident listed top priorities as restoring New Jersey’s property tax deduction, capped by the GOP-controlled Congress; maintaining quality, affordable healthcare; and fighting for infrastructure improvements and the Gateway rail tunnel.

Sherrill and Webber are vying to succeed Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), who is retiring after 12 terms in Washington.  A new Monmouth University poll shows Sherrill with a narrow 4-point lead in the traditionally Republican district.

Congressional candidate Jay Webber, left, speaks with Rabbi David Levy at Metrowest forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Congressional candidate Jay Webber, left, speaks with Rabbi David Levy at Metrowest forum, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One of the night’s starkest contrasts came when Randolph High School student Darcy Schleifstein, citing the February mass shooting at a Florida school, asked how the candidates would prevent more carnage–and how they felt about the NRA.

Asserting “weapons of war should not be found on the streets of New Jersey,” Sherrill  called for universal background checks, and noted Webber’s NRA endorsement.

“My father was a lifetime member of the NRA. There was evidently a time, before my time, when it stood for things like sportsmanship and gun safety. I can assure you it no longer stands for that. It is a gun manufacturing lobby,” Sherrill said.

The NRA has blocked common sense gun laws and federal studies of “this epidemic of gun violence,” she said.

Candidate Mikie Sherrill, left, addresses Whippany forum. Panelists, from right: Rabbi David Levy, Linda Scherzer of Metrowest, and Darcy Schleifstein of Randolph High School, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Candidate Mikie Sherrill, left, addresses Whippany forum. Panelists, from right: Rabbi David Levy, Linda Scherzer of Metrowest, and Darcy Schleifstein of Randolph High School, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Webber called “vigilance” the best defense against school shootings, and he defended the NRA as “a group that has every right to speak and participate in our public life,” just like the National Organization of Women or March for Our Lives participants.

“It is a group of citizens who gets together and wants to defend a right they think is important. And why we would marginalize them is beyond me… Guess what, this is America, and you don’t get to do that,” said the Harvard-educated lawyer.

Both candidates had rooting sections in the crowd, estimated at 400 people by Metrowest officials. Sherrill heard rousing applause when she left the dais, and red-shirted Webber fans stood and cheered when he entered for his turn.

Supporters cheer Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26th Dist.) as he enters candidates forum in Whippany, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Supporters cheer Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26th Dist.) as he enters candidates forum in Whippany, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

When Webber proclaimed a booming economy, someone shouted: “For the rich!” Rabbi David Levy admonished everyone to be respectful.

A lighter moment came when panelist Linda Scherzer, a former CNN correspondent now serving as Metrowest’s community relations director, asked Webber what it’s like raising seven children. Webber grinned.

“Wonderful,” he replied, to laughter.

SWASTIKAS & CITIZENSHIP

But the overall tone was serious. Swastikas reported recently at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School and explosives found at a Jewish cemetery in Newark prompted panelists to ask about anti-Semitism.

“To think that we are now coming to a point where we see the growing rise of anti- Semitism in the country is hard to believe in this day and age. And I think a lot of that starts at the top,” Sherrill answered.

Mikie Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Mikie Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“So it’s important that we speak out when we see our leaders having some sort of moral equivalency between Nazis and the protesters who stood against them in Charlottesville,” she said, referring to Trump’s controversial statements after last year’s deadly clash.

Asked about hostility toward Jewish students on college campuses, Webber decried bullying and failed leadership at these institutions.

Rutgers President Robert Barchi, he said, has not done enough to ensure the state university is “a place where freedom of expression and thought can be pursued.”

On immigration, Webber knocked Gov. Murphy’s “desire to make New Jersey a sanctuary state.”

Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is running for Congress in District 11. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Oct. 9, 2018.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is running for Congress in District 11. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We need to get back to a place where citizenship means something,” he said. That includes a path to legal status for children brought here illegally, and reforms that “emphasize merit over luck.”

The candidates diverged over Medicaid block grants, which Trump has proposed with GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Block grants will diminish care for people who desperately need it, Sherrill said. Webber said the grants could work, and so could malpractice caps and tax breaks, as incentives for doctors to treat Medicaid patients. He cited declining Medicaid enrollments as proof of a robust economy.

“The best Medicaid reform is a job,” Webber said.

After Tuesday’s forum, the Sherrill and Webber dashed to another one in Sussex County. They are scheduled to square off again tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, on NJTV at 8 pm.

MORE ABOUT THE 2018 ELECTIONS 

Correspondent Marion Filler contributed to this report.

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