The Jefferson Township Democratic Club hosted a forum on March 22 with candidates for the party’s nomination for the District 11 congressional seat. The forum, part of the club’s monthly meeting, was open to the public. The four candidates who attended were Mitchell Cobert, Tamara Harris, Mikie Sherrill, and Mark Washburne.

Former Jefferson Township mayor Horace Chamberlain introduced the candidates and set the agenda. Each candidate was allowed 10 minutes for an opening statement, and then the audience was given the rest of the time for questions and answers. The meeting room at the Jefferson Township Public Library was standing room only.

The 11th District House of Representatives seat is currently held by Rodney Frelinghuysen, an 11-term congressman who has chosen not to seek reelection. According to Chamberlain, the Democratic Club believes it is possible for a Democratic candidate to win in the upcoming election, considering the current political situation.

Candidate Statements

Mikie Sherrill, the first to speak, talked about her family’s long tradition of fighting for the country, starting with her grandfather who served in World War II. Sherrill is a former federal prosecutor, former Navy helicopter pilot, and mother of four. She stated that she is running for office for the first time because she believes the country’s values are under attack by the current administration in Washington.

“The worst thing you can do in the Navy is run a ship aground, especially when the bridge crew knows it’s happening but is too afraid to say anything,” Sherrill said. “I believe the president is running the country aground, and the Republican leadership is just going along.”

Sherrill listed her key issues as quality healthcare, protecting the middle class, infrastructure and transportation, and national security.

Next to speak was Tamara Harris, a current resident of Caldwell who hails from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Harris is a longtime, successful businesswoman who left the corporate world to become a fulltime advocate for women and children in crisis. She said her experiences growing up poor have shaped her desire to protect children and families. She believes the 11th District has lacked any real political leadership for the last 22 years, especially on property taxes and infrastructure.

“All policy is local, and bad economic policies can be detrimental to children and the economic viability of families,” Harris said. “You can’t take resources for granted.”

Harris’s key issues are advocating for children and families, affordable universal healthcare, education, protecting children, and decreasing gun violence.

Mitchell Cobert, an attorney and former assistant attorney general, has lived in Morristown since 1982. He said he has long fought Wall Street on behalf of victims of economic abuse, and prides himself on having earned a solid reputation for integrity and honesty among colleagues from both sides of the political aisle. He believes in talking and listening to people, and advocating for their needs. He vowed to stand up to special interests and fight for middle class jobs and sensible gun control regulations. He also pointed out his service on the Morris County Drug Court, an alternative system for adjudicating drug crimes.

“I think I am the most qualified to win the general election,” Cobert said. “I am running because this is the most important election of my life.”

Cobert’s top issues are fighting for the economic life of the middle class, healthcare for all, protecting students from gun violence, and advocating for the needs of people in his district.

Mark Washburne is a historian, author, and professor who has taught at many area colleges, including County College of Morris. He has a Master of Business Education and extensive knowledge of the history of healthcare in this county, including how employer-based healthcare began and developed to be the primary source for health coverage. He believes the Affordable Care Act was a good start in universal healthcare, and that the Republican party is trying hard to sabotage it. In his view, it is time to get off employer-based healthcare and work toward Medicare for everyone.

“We need to impeach Donald Trump,” he said. “I am not going to take money from anyone and will finance my own campaign, so I will not be beholden to anyone but the people in my district.”

Washburne’s key issues are healthcare, specifically working toward Medicare for everyone, and impeaching President Trump.

Public Questions

After ascertaining that all four candidates would support the winner of the primary in the general election, Chamberlain opened the meeting to questions from the audience.

The first involved the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and whether the candidates feel it prudent to fight that decision head on. Generally, they all consider the decision bad, but one that cannot be fought directly. They suggested that the best way to address it is to elect representatives to Congress who will oppose it and create campaign financing laws to combat the influence of money on national politics.

Sherrill said that Democrats need to take back the House of Representatives, then the Senate, and hopefully the White House in 2020 so that justices who will overturn Citizens United can be nominated. Harris called for open primaries in which representatives are elected by the people, not by party officials behind closed doors. Cobert advocated that states litigate against the decision and for election reform, and that they combat gerrymandering – what he called “fighting Citizens United around the edges.”

The second question concerned military spending, based on the questioner’s belief that the country is spending too much on the military, going back to cold war levels. Sherrill responded that there is a certain of money misspent on the military, particularly systems that don’t work. However, she and Cobert both think that more money should be spent on cybersecurity, which they consider underfunded. Cobert said he had written manuals on the subject, which could prevent attacks on the country’s financial institutions.

The next questioner said he feels there is not much difference between the leadership of either national party, and that even people with good intentions who are elected buckle under the pressure of their party. He asked how the candidates would prevent that.

Cobert stated that election reform is needed, and people should pay attention to who is financing candidates to determine who might hold influence over them. Washburne said that he is not taking any money from special interests. Harris recommended looking at past performance as an indicator of future performance, pointing out that she has well established herself as an independent. Sherrill wondered aloud at what point a congressperson would “buckle” and said she is enthusiastic over the number of veterans running for office, because they have taken an oath to serve the country, not special interests.

The next question was sparked by recent history when Congressman Frelinghuysen did not hold town halls or meet with his constituents in person. The audience member wanted to know if the candidates would be accountable to the people they represent after winning, and whether they would be available. Harris responded that as a trained advocate, she would always be available for her constituents, in keeping with how she works. Cobert also made that promise, saying that he enjoys meeting and speaking with people. Sherrill said she had been offended by the assault on our democracy, as she described Frelinghuysen’s refusal to meet with people, and would be available to her constituents.

The final questioner asked the candidates how they felt they could win in what is considered a reliable Republican district. Washburne stated that they need to energize their base by being open, honest, and “democratic strong.” Harris believes many of the people who voted for Donald Trump are appalled at what is happening nationally, asserting that Republicans have the same concerns as Democrats for income equality and putting food on the table for their families. Cobert said that this is one of the reasons he is running, because he has proven that he can appeal to Republicans and their concerns, too. Sherrill contended that the electorate is made up of one third Democrats, one third undecideds, and one third Republicans, many of whom are opposed to current policies. Pointing out that many recent national policies, such as the new tax law, directly hurt New Jerseyans, she noted the need to fire up moderates and Republicans who are being hurt, as well as the Democratic base.

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