By Charles Zavalick
In a close and contentious contest, two veteran state legislators are seeking a promotion from Trenton to Washington, D.C., to represent the 7th Congressional District.
Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Union, and state Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, are running to fill the seat currently held by Rep. Michael Ferguson, a Republican who is not seeking re-election.
All the communities in northern Hunterdon County are in the 7th District, which includes most of Union County and portions of Somerset and Middlesex counties.
With no incumbent in the field, both national parties have been pouring resources into the race in an attempt to win the seat. Recent polls have indicated the race is extremely close.
In separate interviews with editors from Recorder Community Newspapers, publisher of this newspaper - and during a recent televised debate - the candidates clashed over their credentials and qualifications for the job.
Stender, a Fanwood resident who was elected to the Assembly in 2001 after serving eight years on the Union County Freeholder Board, has continually tried to link Lance to the President George Bush. She used similar tactics two years ago when losing narrowly to Ferguson.
"Two years ago I came very close,'' she said. "The issues haven't changed.''
Lance, a resident of Clinton Township who has served in the state Senate for the past 6 ½ years after also serving in the Assembly, calls himself a social moderate and an independent thinker.
"I've been in Trenton, not Washington,'' he said in regards to Stender's attempt to tie him to the largely unpopular Republican President.
Lance said he is running on his record of "fiscal responsibility'' and "ethical integrity.''
Among the key issues discussed were the war in Iraq and national security, the ongoing financial crisis, the huge federal deficit, and the need for change.
Stender has been a persistent critic of the Bush Administration, saying the "failure of the last eight years has dismantled the American dream.''
An opponent of the Iraq war, she wants for bring home our troops "safely, honorably and soon'' and end the costly battle.
"The Iraqis need to stand up so we can stand down,'' she said, calling for "more determined diplomacy'' on the part of the United States.
"Military action alone with not end terrorism,'' she said.
"Cowboy diplomacy'' hasn't worked, she said, adding that she opposes the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive military'' action.
Regarding her opponent, she said it's "more of the same vs. a new direction for our country.''
Lance said he doesn't know whether he would have voted for the Iraq war initially because, as a state legislator, he did not review the national intelligence reports.
Like Stender, he also opposes pre-emptive military action.
Nonetheless, he said he "thinks American is safer now then on 9-11.''
He also believes that the so-called military "surge'' has worked, saying it would have been a mistake to leave "a broken Iraq'' in 2007.
He breaks with the President by opposing "water boarding'' and other forms of torture deployed at Guantanamo.
Lance also said he has been "very disappointed with spending'' by the administration.
He pledged that he would not raise taxes in the next two years, which he said "would hurt the recovery.''
He also said he opposes Sen. John McCain's plan to lower the corporate tax rate below 35 percent because the nation cannot currently afford it.
He said he favors a second economic stimulus package and lower taxes "on middle class America.''
Lance also said he favors taxing the profits of oil companies that are off shore.
Lance noted that he has signed onto a pledge to reform earmark spending and wants to reform the military procurement process.
He also opposes the nation's $300 billion farm bill.
"I don't have to genuflect to the people of Iowa,'' he said, adding he has no intention of running for president.
Saying he has a five-point plan for energy independence, Lance noted that the head of the Sierra Club once called him the strongest environmentalist in the state Legislature.
He said he "opposes drilling off our coast'' because New Jersey is dependent on its tourism industry.
Lance said he would have voted for the federal bailout package and blamed both parties for the initial rejection of the $700 billion proposal.
He said he wants to see more bipartisan cooperation in Washington, saying he has had success in that regard in Trenton.
"We need more moderate Republicans in the House,'' he said. "They are scarce.''
Lance pointed out that he had the political courage to fight his own party over economic measures he opposes, citing his opposition to then Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's controversial pension refinancing plan.
"I voted against it and was punished for it,'' he said, saying he was denied the chairmanship of the Assembly Appropriations and Budget Committee by the GOP because of his actions.
He also successfully litigated against inappropriate borrowing by the McGreevy administration, he noted, and is one of the primary sponsors of the 2008 state ballot question that would require voter approval for state borrowing in many cases.
"I'm New Jersey's leading opponent of borrowing without voter approval,'' he said.
Lance was visibly angered by Stender campaign literature that links him to the "Whitman/Lance scheme.''
That particular flier "raises my blood pressure,'' he said.
Stender said she did not authorize that flier, which was put out by the Democratic Campaign Committee without her knowledge.
"I wouldn't have done it that way,'' she said.
Nonetheless, she refused to apologize for it, saying Lance was head of the budget committee and has "responsibility'' for the state's large budget increases.
"You (Lance) were there, you were the budget leader,'' she said. "He voted for all the Whitman budgets. The budget was balanced with the borrowing.''
Stender said the state debt quadrupled when Lance was part of the majority, calling his position "fairy tale economics.''
At the federal level she said "there has been no oversight, no enforcement'' for the last eight years, resulting in the "meltdown'' on Wall Street.
"He represents more of the same,'' she said.
She also called for energy independence, ending tax breaks and subsidies for "big oil,'' restoring trust in the nation, creating affordable health care and creating good jobs.
Lance fired back, saying Stender voted "at least'' 67 times to increase taxes in the Assembly.
The "looming issue'' facing the nation, he said, is the $10 trillion federal debt.
"We have to get our fiscal house in order,'' he said.
The current crisis regarding the subprime loans was due to "lack of regulation,'' he said. However, he argued that it wasn't all the fault of the Bush Administration, noting that the problem began under President Clinton with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment and commercial banking operations.
"We should have had better regulation of the investment banks,'' he said. "We have had a freezing of credit on main street as a result of what happened on Wall Street.''
On social issues, Lance said he is pro choice.
Stender, however, criticized Lance for voting against a bill that required pharmacies to fill all prescriptions for birth control pills.
In her campaign literature, she pointed to this vote as part of the "Bush-Lance assault on women's health care.''
Lance said the bill stipulated that all prescriptions and devices had to be filled "regardless of the moral convictions of employees.''
"I personally am very reluctant to force moral views upon anybody,'' he said. "She claims that makes me pro life. I have taken my lumps in the Republican Party for being pro choice.''
He also noted that he supported an amendment that would have required a pharmacist that does not carry a prescription to locate one nearby that does have it in stock.
Stender also says Lance favors privatizing Social Security, as evidenced by his vote against a bill opposing the Bush initiative at the time it was raised.
But Lance adamantly denies favoring the privatization of Social Security, saying he simply did not vote for a Democratic sponsored bill that criticized the President.