An overflow crowd of more than 800 jammed into the Young Israel of East Brunswick Oct. 18 to hear the two congressional candidates in New Jersey’s tight and contentious 12th District race.
The hour-long debate, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, pitted the incumbent, Democrat Rush Holt, against Republican contender Scott Sipprelle.
In a debate largely centered on the economy and unemployment, the two also voiced support for an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for the Jewish state’s right to live in security and peace.
Sipprelle, a venture capitalist from Princeton, has made a point of highlighting Holt’s support of the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street and Holt’s signature on the “Gaza 54” letter urging Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in order to allow in more humanitarian aid.
Sipprelle told the audience it was a “pressure letter” that interfered with Israel’s right to defend itself. He also said America’s weakened economic position and spiraling national debt “empowers Israel’s enemies,” particularly Iran.
The Republican also brought up Holt’s absence during a vote condemning the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of atrocities against civilians in Gaza.
Holt, a 12-year incumbent from Hopewell, took umbrage, snapping, “I just will not be lectured to by somebody who is a Johnny-come-lately to the Israel issue.”
“I have had Israel in my heart my whole life,” said Holt. “My daughter lived in Israel.”
Holt said he not only publicly condemned the Goldstone Report, he brought the matter up with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
As proof of his longtime support of Israel, Holt said he was a cosponsor and author of a bill imposing sanctions on Iran and had visited Israel many times. As chair of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, he led a three-person congressional delegation in September that met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Jordan.
He said Netanyahu wanted him to convey to the American people that much of the letter calling for more humanitarian aid “is in keeping with Israel’s policy.”
Both candidates have been working hard to shore up support in the Jewish community. Sipprelle appeared two weeks ago at two Orthodox day schools. Weeks before, Holt met with representatives of the Orthodox Union and Orthodox community. Both candidates have been holding parlor meetings in Monroe’s heavily Jewish adult communities.
The large turnout backed up traffic almost a half-mile as the East Brunswick synagogue parking lot filled more than two hours before the start of the debate. Drivers were handed a map directing them to two local churches blocks away or the East Brunswick Jewish Center, for additional parking.
During the debate, both candidates continuously steered off-topic in trying to score points against each other, prompting debate moderator Eric Scott, news director of New Jersey 101.5, to cut them off or press for specifics at several points.
The audience, many of whom came wearing Holt or Sipprelle buttons, at times ignored Scott’s admonition not to applaud.
A large portion of the debate centered on the economy and high unemployment rate, with Sipprelle often linking Holt with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
When asked how long he expected the recession to last, Sipprelle responded with the question, “How long until we replace Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House?” That drew loud applause, which was quickly met with equally loud booing.
A Monmouth University poll taken Oct. 9-12 showed Holt leading 51 to 46 percent among likely voters in the district, which spans Mercer, Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties.
The two candidates also clashed over the $860 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill, which Holt said was necessary and “helped stop the slide” that by 2008 had erased the gains of the 1990s and put the American economy into “a deep hole.” He called Sipprelle part of "the world of excessive greed” that drove the country to the economic brink.
Sipprelle said the act added five trillion dollars to the national debt. “The policies of Nancy Pelosi and Rush Holt have stuck a knife in the back of job creation,” he charged.
Sipprelle also advocated for consumer-based health insurance allowing companies to compete for consumers across state lines.
Holt said the recent health care bill passed by Congress was necessary to assist families who have been cut off by their insurance companies for such reasons as a sick child or because they reached a lifetime cap.
Linda Schmidt of East Brunswick was among those who came hoping to learn more about the candidates and their positions but was left “confused and disappointed" at the behavior of the candidates and the audience.
“I really would like to know more,” she said.