Despite a tone of careful civility, the two candidates vying for the District 7 congressional seat made their differences glaringly apparent on Sunday, Oct. 22.
In an hour-long debate at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains, sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Republican Rep. Leonard Lance stressed his track record of fiscal conservatism during four years in Congress.
His challenger, Democratic Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, tried to frame Lance as a onetime Republican moderate who now embraced the agenda of the Tea Party — or “Lance One” and “Lance Two,” as he put it.
Lance parried, pointing out that he had voted in August for compromise legislation to keep funding the government, a move opposed by the Tea Party. Turning to the deficit and his hopes for a Romney administration, he called for bipartisan agreement to cap government spending, in order “to jumpstart the economy and provide greater certainty.”
Lance, the third generation of his family elected to the NJ Legislature, served in the Assembly for 11 years and in the Senate for seven. He mentioned that he has lived all his life in the district, which included parts of Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, and Union counties and now encompasses parts of Essex County, including Millburn and Short Hills.
By contrast, it is Chivukula’s first electoral bid in the district. After immigrating to the United States from India in 1974, he went on to have a 30-year career as an electrical engineer. He entered public life, he said, out of a desire “to give back.” A former mayor of Franklin Township, he was elected Assemblyman for District 17 in 2002, the first Indian-American elected to the NJ Legislature and the fourth in the country to be elected to a state legislature.
The candidates started with two-minute opening statements and moved on to questions posed by CRC governmental affairs cochairs Ken Rotter and Janice Schindler. They then took questions submitted by audience members. Just 90 seconds was allowed for each answer.
On the subject of Israel, the candidates didn’t even attempt to claim a difference. They sought only to be more emphatic in their support, as they talked of their visits to the Jewish state, and their view that it is one of America’s key allies in the Middle East.
Some daylight emerged in their discussion of Iran. While agreeing that the country can’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, Lance stressed his early support for sanctions and expressed regret that the Obama administration didn’t impose them sooner. Chivukula countered that the administration’s actions have created the desired pressure on Iranian society and that the impact is becoming evident.
About 175 people attended the forum, filling the center’s Weinberg Conference Room almost to capacity, according to CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick. Event chair David Lentz, recent past CRC chair, described the organization’s role as engaging local politicians in issues of particular concern to the Jewish community.
Cosponsoring the debate were the JCC of Central NJ, Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County; Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties; NJ State Association of Jewish Federations; NJ National Council of Jewish Women State Policy Advocacy Network; and the NJ regions of American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and ORT America.