The six candidates vying to become the Democratic nominee for the 10th Congressional District seat met for a debate at the Rutgers-Newark campus.
The seat was held by Donald Payne Sr. since the late 1980s until his death March 6. With the passing of Payne Sr. -- a highly regarded lawmaker who made a name for himself as a champion of human rights and for aid to developing nations -- the seat is competitive for the first time in several years.
The Democratic primary election is June 5. The 10th District, which was reconfigured this year following redistricting occurring nationally every 10 years, will encompass much of Newark, parts of Bloomfield, Maplewood and South Orange, as well as parts of Hudson and Union counties.
The diverse, crowded field running this year includes seasoned elected officials as well as political newcomers. Wayne Smith, the longtime mayor of Irvington, would focus on obtaining federal help for infrastructure improvements. Cathy Wright, a former AT& T manager and political novice, has positioned herself as an everywoman in touch with the problems of average people.
Nia Gill of Montclair, a state senator and the most experienced elected official running, said her knowledge of the mechanics of government would give her an edge in passing legislation. Another political novice, Dennis Flynn, an Iraq War veteran, has a strong libertarian streak and believes the federal government’s influence should be curtailed.
Two members of the Newark Municipal Council, Ron Rice and Donald Payne, are also running for the seat. Payne, who has the backing of the Essex County party machine and is the son of Donald Payne Sr, is considered the frontrunner in the 2012 contest. Rice, however, has also picked up several important endorsements, including fellow council members Darrin Sharif, Mildred Crump and Ras Baraka as well as from organized labor.
The debate, held at the Paul Robeson Center, was sponsored by All Politics are Local -- a call-in radio show based at Rutgers-Newark -- the debate team at Newark’s Science Park High School, and the Jersey Urban Debate League.
Moderator John Austin, a co-host of All Politics are Local and the coach of the debate team at Science Park, asked the candidates seven questions, with each candidate given a fixed amount of time for answers and to follow up. The debate lasted about 90 minutes.
Candidates were asked whether they supported President Obama’s policy in Afghanistan. which calls for the end of combat operations by US troops next summer and a transition to a support role thereafter.
Most candidates called for an immediate withdrawal of all troops, with the resulting billions in savings being spent domestically instead of for the military.
“I support our troops, so much so that I think we should bring them home,” Payne said. “We need to get out of Afghanistan. We could use that peace dividend at home.”
Wright and Gill, however, hewed more closely to the president’s gradual approach, with Gill stating that an abrupt departure could compromise national security.
“I support the guy who got Osama [bin Laden],” Wright said.
The candidates were next asked for their views on the drug war and whether the nation should switch from a policy of penalizing drug users to treating the drug problem strictly as a medical issue.
Most of the candidates stopped short of endorsing an outright decriminalization of drugs but drew distinctions between non-violent offenders and violent offenders or high-level dealers. Candidates largely supported measures that would expand treatment opportunities for users as well as legislation that would help convicted drug users get a new start.
“I do have a strong position on drug distribution organizations that wreak havoc in our cities,” Smith said, but added that he supported so-called “second chance” legislation that would make it easier for those with a non-violent criminal record to re-enter the workforce.
Flynn, however, tilted towards decriminalization, an approach taken in the nation of Portugal.
Referring to the large number of minority men who have been incarcerated throughout the course of the nation’s 40-year-old “War on Drugs,” Flynn said modern drug laws are “the new Jim Crow.”
“I think we have a moral obligation to treat it as a medical problem,” he said.
Asked about their plans to bring jobs to the 10th, candidates’ responses were as varied as the candidates themselves.
Payne, the son of the man who last represented the district, said his “relationships” in Washington would help him bring federal money to the district. Flynn focused on monetary supply, calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve as a way to free up the market economy. Smith said he would work to create urban enterprise zones and would seek dollars to repair the region’s crumbling infrastructure. Wright said she would work to strike deals with her colleagues in Congress to get aid for the district.
Rice’s tack involves undermining the Republican Party as well as right-leaning Democrats, a bloc which he depicted last night as obstructionist. Rice vowed to assist the national Democratic Party in unseating Tea Party and other conservative candidates.
“As long as Republicans, the party of ‘no,’ are in control, you’ll never have a jobs program...I will work to un-elect some Republicans and compromising Democrats,” Rice said.
In what was the only sharp exchange among the candidates last night, Gill threw some elbows in response to Payne’s and Rice’s approaches. With her decades of experience as a lawmaker, she said she was far better positioned to actually get effective legislation passed, noting that the “placement of a comma” could undermine a bill’s stated intent and that she was very familiar with the subtle procedural gambits used by opposing legislators.
“This is not about who likes you in Congress, it’s about your ability to serve....I have the legislative background and that’s how you move legislation,” she said.
Asked about their views on gay marriage, the candidates were universally in support, with nearly all portraying the matter as civil rights issue. Despite President Obama’s identical stance on the issue, however, the candidates’ position is problematic given the resistance to same-sex marriage among many African-Americans, a large voting bloc in the 10th. Murmurs of disapproval could be heard among the largely African-American crowd when the question was posed last night.
Asked what their focus would be in their first few months in office, Rice said he would zero in on re-entry programs for prisoners; Wright said she would promote green energy jobs; Flynn would increase the transparency of the office; Smith would work towards the creation of an infrastructure bank; Payne said he would focus on job creation; and Gill said she would beef up banking regulations to foster a broad-based economic recovery.
Several candidates, including Wright, Smith, Payne and Rice, would dismantle or revamp the No Child Left Behind Act, which “grades” school districts on how well their students do on standardized tests. Gill supports expanding aid programs for college students, student loan forgiveness for teachers (Rice expressed support for this position as well) and making tuition tax-deductible.
The night’s final question proved to be the most awkward: the candidates were asked to name the five largest donors to their campaigns. The candidates were largely unable to give specific answers, partly out of fear, as Gill pointed out, of making a misstatement. Candidates noted, however, that their finance information is readily available online (click here).
Flynn and Wright, neither of whom have large institutional backing, seemed to charm the crowd when they admitted that most of their contributions have come from “friends and family.”
“I haven’t even raised enough to meet the FEC reporting minimum,” Wright said.
For more information about the candidates, click here and .
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