My Central Jersey - District 7 Candidates Each See Self as Reformer
By Martin C. Bricketto
The candidates running for a 7th District U.S. House seat each want voters to see them as the true reformer this election.
State Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Clinton Township, describes himself as a moderate Republican who wants to help overcome partisan wrangling in Washington to bolster the economy, resolve the country's $10 trillion debt and encourage renewable energy initiatives.
"I run for the Congress of the United States based on my belief in fundamental fiscal responsibility," Lance said during a recent joint editorial board of the Courier News and Home New Tribune.
Arguing she stands for real change after eight years of the George W. Bush administration, state Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Fanwood, wants to end oil industry tax breaks and bring the Iraq War to a close to pay for domestic initiatives such as renewable energy and health-care reform.
"I think this election is going to come down to more of the same or a new direction," Stender said of the Nov. 4 contest.
The independent candidacy of Bridgewater Councilman Michael Hsing could affect the final result in a district where just 3,000 votes made the difference in 2006.
The candidates in this battleground are vying to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Ferguson, R-Providence, who announced last year he would not seek a fifth term in office.
The comparatively wealthy and well-educated district includes nearly 650,000 people in parts of Hunterdon, Somerset, Union and Middlesex counties. Lance and Stender are products of opposite sides of it.
Stender, 57, is a former mayor of Fanwood, where she was born and raised. She also served as a Union County freeholder and joined the state Assembly in 2002. Stender has touted her sponsorship of the state Global Warming Response Act and the reorganization of the state's motor vehicle agency.
A 56-year-old Hunterdon County native whose father was a state Senate president, Lance served in the Assembly from 1991-01 and in the state Senate since 2002. The former Senate minority leader is a long-time opponent of borrowing without voter approval, suing the McGreevey administration in 2005 in a lawsuit that blocked future state borrowing for operating expenses.
Hsing, born in Taiwan and elected to the Bridgewater council in 2001, said he resigned from an Internet technology position this year to run for Congress.
"I am a true reformer, I am a true maverick and I can bring change to Congress," Hsing said.
On health care, Stender said she supports a reformed, shared system between individuals, businesses and the government, while Lance has called for bolstering the insurance coverage available through employers and creating nonprofit agencies in the states to provide insurance for others.
"If we go to a system where the federal government becomes the insurer of last resort, in my judgment what is likely to happen over time is that it will become the insurer of first resort," Lance said, calling instead to support the private sector.
Lance said he supports a middle-class tax cut, but not a cut in the corporate tax rate. Lance said he opposes increasing taxes for those earning more than $250,000, as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has proposed.
Stender said she also doesn't favor increasing the income tax for those earners.
"I don't think the numbers that are being talked about are anything that I would support at this time," Stender said. Stender also said she wants to reform the alternative minimum tax so it doesn't hit as many middle-class taxpayers.
Stender and Lance each say they would have voted for both versions of the $700 billion bailout package that Congress eventually passed for the nation's ailing financial sector, but with reservations over perceived pork in the final product. Hsing said he would not have voted for either proposal.
Stender also said the government needs to help keep homeowners in their homes, pointing to a 1930s program under the Roosevelt administration that worked with homeowners on their mortgages.
Lance is pro-choice, but Stender has tried to attack him in that area by accusing him of voting against a bill in the state Legislature that would have required pharmacies to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. Lance has said the bill did not refer specifically to birth control pills and his primary concern was the morning-after pill, which is emergency contraception that can prevent a pregnancy after unprotected intercourse.
On Iraq, Lance said the United States will be able to leave the country by 2009 because of the success of the surge, which Stender did not support.
"I do not use the phrase in Iraq "victory,"' Lance said. "I think that is not really the term I would use. I think stability and based upon stability I think we will be able to leave Iraq."
Stender said she has been opposed to the war from the beginning.
"We should have finished the job in Afghanistan," Stender said.
The district is widely considered a toss up between the parties and the race has garnered national attention, with the national Republican and Democratic congressional committees pouring money into advertising alongside political action committees such as the union-funded Patriots Watch.
The attention is understandable.
In 2006, Ferguson won re-election over Stender by a slim margin of 2,945 votes. Stender carried Middlesex and Union counties, while Ferguson carried Hunterdon and Somerset counties. Somerset may have been the difference maker in that race, with Ferguson carrying the county by 3,185 votes.
Stender has come out ahead in the fundraising race. As of Sept. 30, she had raised more than $2.2 million with $602,285 in cash on hand, while Lance had raised roughly $1 million with $258,032 on hand, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Hsing has raised $196,219 with $93,648 in cash on hand.
Both sides have accused the other of negative and unfair attacks in the blitz of commercials and mailers peppering district voters.
A mailer by the Democratic Congressional Committee accuses Lance of supporting Whitman's $2.7 billion pension borrowing plan in 1997. Lance, however, voted against the legislation authorizing the borrowing and was denied the chairmanship of the Assembly budget committee in retaliation.
"It is demagogic and false to say I supported the $2.7 billion pension bond issue of the Whitman administration, I was the leading opponent of it," Lance said, calling on the assemblywoman to disavow it. Stender said she stands by the citations in the literature.
Meanwhile, Lance's campaign has resurrected the rhyming "Stender is a Spender" message that Ferguson used against her in 2006.