For many college students, a semester’s internship in the office of a powerful member of Congress might trigger a strong personal ambition to enter politics. But not Lisa Mandelblatt. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be sitting here discussing my campaign for Congress,” she told NJJN. “It never crossed my mind.”
But some 22 years after performing constituent services for Rep. Patricia Schroeder — a Democratic member of Congress from Colorado who rose to become the first female member of the House Armed Services Committee — Mandelblatt has changed her mind. She is entering the political arena for the first time as one of seven Democrats seeking to run against Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) next November. The primary is set for June 5. District 7 covers all of Hunterdon County and parts of Somerset, Morris, Union, Warren, and Essex counties.
Interviewed in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel while she was en route to a women’s political luncheon, Mandelblatt said that her Jewish beliefs and membership in the Reform Temple Emanu-El in her hometown of Westfield are strong motivators for her decision to run.
Judaism, she said, is “very cultural. We talk about tikkun olam, repairing the world, and that is always your obligation. It is my responsibility to do what I can.”
Another reason for her foray into politics is her strong opposition to President Donald Trump.
“We need members of Congress who are going to stop him and his agenda, and we know Leonard Lance was not going to stand up to him. That was my impetus,” she said.
She views Lance as a “very vulnerable rubber stamp for the Republicans’ agenda. He has been voting over 90 percent with President Trump.”
But, she acknowledged, “he is not going to be easy to beat. He is a very smart politician.”
One of her six Democratic rivals, Scott Salmon, is a fellow resident of Westfield and member of Temple Emanu-El and the only other Jewish candidate in the primary contest. “But I am not going to focus on him or the others,” Mandelblatt said. “I am going to focus on Lance. Our ultimate goal is to see that Lance loses.”
She claims a “different background” from her competitors since she’s a community activist. “I have all these different pieces who make me who I am,” she said.
While growing up in Springfield (her maiden name is Wallach), Mandelblatt’s goal was to become a lawyer, not a politician. After graduating from Cornell University and Fordham University Law School, she began working in Manhattan as a criminal defense attorney, then moved to practicing corporate law at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a prominent New York City-based law firm. She took the job, she said, because “I had student loans, and they came a-calling.”
After marrying her husband, Gary Mandelblatt, a management consultant, she moved with him to Boston and worked in insurance law. After their son and daughter were born in the 1990s they moved to Westfield, where, she said, she “decided to take time off to become involved in my community.”
She chaired Temple Emanu-El’s Early Childhood Education Committee and served as a congregation trustee. Mandelblatt also works as a substitute teacher in her town’s public schools.
Discussing the issues that guide her campaign, Mandelblatt said she yearns for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think the two-state solution is probably the way to go,” she said, adding that Trump’s announced move of the American embassy to Jerusalem “does not in any way preclude a peace process. But it does throw a monkey wrench in the process.”
She also blames the president for much of the hostility with North Korea. “North Koreans have been raised on the belief that the United States’ sole purpose is to knock them off the planet,” she said. “Our president’s tweeting is feeding right into their narrative.”
In terms of halting the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, Mandelblatt said, “You almost get the feeling that anything President Obama did, Trump as a kneejerk reaction acts to unwind it.”
Questioned about immigration policy, Mandelblatt said, “We have people who are undocumented, but we are not going to be able to round them all up and ship them all out. It is senseless. So, we have to figure out a path to citizenship that helps everybody. For the children who were brought here as small children, this is their only home. They need to be able to stay.”
Her critical comments often returned to the subject of the Trump administration.
She said what “terrifies” her most is “his attempt to dismantle our systems. He is discrediting the free press. He is discrediting the judicial system. He is weakening the State Department. He is weakening environmental protection. We can unwind legislation. But it is this attack on our institutions that terrifies me.”
She said she is particularly troubled by Trump’s attacks against the media. “That is how people get their information,” and the president is “trying to create an oligarchy” run by his friends and family.
Asked about the investigations into the administration’s relationships with Russia, Mandelblatt said, “We have to find out if Russia interfered with our elections,” and if there was assistance “from anyone on the Trump transition team or the administration. This is not vengefulness; this is about protecting the United States of America.”
Mandelblatt said she has already traveled more than 5,000 miles campaigning throughout the district.
“I believe you can’t represent the people if you don’t listen to them,” she said. “That is what I have been doing full-time, and that is what I’ll keep doing. If I am elected I may not always agree with you, and I may not be able to do what you’ve asked me to do, but I’ll tell you why I can’t do it.”