Incumbent Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen and his Democratic challenger, attorney Joseph Wenzel, made pitches for votes in separate appearances at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
As he seeks his 12th term as U.S. representative from New Jersey’s District 11, 70-year-old Frelinghuysen characterized himself as a “moderate” who often opposes the right-wing faction of his party.
At his Sept. 25 appearance, Frelinghuysen estimated that between 30 and 40 right-wing House members from his own party are members of what is called the Freedom Caucus, who have voted on occasion to shut down the federal government.
“I don’t think ‘compromise’ is a dirty word,” he said. “We need compromise to get across the finish line.”
He said when he attends meetings of Republicans, “there are people who look at me with steely eyes. That’s unpleasant. I want the Republican Party to be the party of Abraham Lincoln.”
In a July 4 speech in his hometown of Morristown, the congressman acknowledged that although he rejects much of what GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has said, assuming he’s re-elected — and that Trump is victorious, as well — “I’ll be working with him.” Frelinghuysen said that Trump was not his first choice to be his party’s nominee.
“I would have preferred Jeb Bush.”
Candidate Wenzel, who lives in West Orange with his wife, Kelly, and two daughters, told a forum at the synagogue on Sept. 19 that while his opponent has not sponsored or cosponsored “some of these radical right-wing bills,” he has still supported them. Frelinghuysen, Wenzel said, “hides behind silence.”
One example of this silence, Wenzel said, was the congressman’s inaction on gun control laws. Wenzel said he was disappointed that Frelinghuysen, whom he said he considers a “relatively open-minded, reasonable man,” does not understand the need for strict gun control.
“He didn’t get up there and introduce a bill or even cosponsor a bill about limiting access to these weapons.”
Wenzel spoke of the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a former religious leader at B’nai Abraham who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King in demonstrations in the civil rights battles of the ’60s. The Democrat said that, upon introducing King at the 1963 March on Washington, Prinz noted the danger of keeping silent, a message that led to Wenzel’s political career.
“Our silence over the gun issue in this district is what propelled me to run,” he said, urging the audience “to send a message to Congressman Frelinghuysen that the time for silence is over.”
In an interview several minutes before his speech in the temple’s sanctuary, Frelinghuysen told NJJN that gun control “is a very emotional issue. I think we need more dialogue rather than less. As I look across the broad constituency that I represent, there are a lot of people who strongly believe in the right to bear arms — but all of us are horrified by acts of violence.”
Asked specifically whether he would support legislation requiring background checks, banning assault rifles, and closing other loopholes, the congressman said, “New Jersey has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country and I have supported those laws,” but, he noted, other states are far more lenient in permitting people to carry handguns, buy assault weapons, and not requiring background checks.
Questioned about what he sees as the most important issue in the election, Wenzel talked about the urgency to raise the minimum wage and charged that Frelinghuysen’s votes in Congress have served corporate executive and stockholders, but not “people who work in lower-end jobs.”
After being introduced to his audience by TBA’s Rabbi Clifford Kulwin as “probably the only gentile in the room,” Frelinghuysen said both of his daughters had attended nursery school at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown “and our granddaughter started there last week. I think our girls knew more about the dreidel than they knew about the cross.”
Responding to a question he is asked frequently, Wenzel confirmed he is not Jewish. He is a member of Saint Ann’s Melkite Catholic Church in Woodland Park and a teacher in its religious school. On that point, Wenzel said, he would not allow his religious views to affect his position on abortion.
“It is the church’s position that abortion is a sin and anathema to the Catholic Church. I personally would not condone it,” he said. “However, we live in a civil society, a secular society, and not everyone adheres to my religious beliefs or your religious beliefs. In my mind the government cannot tell a woman what to do with her body.”
Although that issue did not arise during Frelinghuysen’s appearance, his record on reproductive rights includes voting to outlaw partial-birth abortion except in cases to save a mother’s life, and voting against funding to Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortion services or counseling.
When the subject of climate change was raised, Frelinghuysen differed from several of his fellow Republicans, saying he does believe in the reality of manmade climate change. “Something is happening,” he said. “The disasters seem to have become more acute.”
Though climate change did not come up during his visit to TBA, in a June 5 interview with USA Today, Wenzel described his politics as “moderate-slash-left,” saying that he supports the traditional progressive Democratic values of addressing climate change and other science-based environmental issues.
Both programs were cosponsored by the synagogue and the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.