C ongressional candidates Mikie Sherrill and Jay Webber agreed on the need for strong support for Israel while clashing on the NRA during an Oct. 9 forum, sponsored by Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-West NJ, held at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The two are locked in a tight race for the 11th district’s open House seat, which has been held by retiring Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen since 1994.
The contest has received national attention because of formidable fund-raising by Sherrill, a Democrat from Montclair, who has raised a total of $7 million, according to her campaign. Sherrill served as a helicopter pilot and a Russian policy officer during the 10 years she spent on active duty in the U.S. Navy. After earning a law degree from Georgetown University, she also worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office.
Webber, her Republican opponent, has represented New Jersey’s 26th legislative district in the General Assembly since 2008. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he lives in Morris Plains and practices employment law.
This was the second of two candidate forums hosted by federation ahead of the much-hyped mid-term elections on Nov. 6. The previous day, at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) and Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski each tried to present themselves as the candidate of choice for the Jewish community.
A Monmouth University poll released just before Tuesday’s forum gave Sherrill a slim lead in the race; President Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by less than a percentage point. The seat is viewed as one that Democrats could flip as they seek to capture two dozen seats now held by Republicans to retake the majority in the House.
During the forum, attended by more than 400 people, the candidates did not appear on stage together. Rather, each took a turn answering the same questions posed by moderators Rabbi David Levy, New Jersey regional director of American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Linda Scherzer, the director of federation’s Community Relations Committee.
Both candidates saluted Israel as a key partner for peace in the Middle East and emphasized the importance of the United States providing financial support to Israel’s military.
When asked about recent incidents of anti-Semitism in New Jersey — swastikas were found at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School and white supremacist groups have posted hateful fliers in Basking Ridge, Long Branch, Watchung, and Asbury Park, among other towns — Sherrill blamed Trump for creating an environment of tacit approval for such sentiments.
“To think that we are now coming to a point where we see the growing rise of anti-Semitism in the country is hard to believe in this day and age. And I think a lot of that starts at the top,” Sherrill said. “So it’s important that we speak out when we see our leaders having some sort of moral equivalency between Nazis and the protesters who stood against them in Charlottesville.”
Webber was critical of Rutgers University President Robert Barchi when a moderator asked about how colleges are dealing with controversies over Israel. Barchi “has not done a good enough job of being an individual who has provided a place where freedom of expression and thought can be pursued,” Webber said.
But the candidates disagreed sharply when Randolph High School student Darcy Schleifstein asked about the NRA and gun violence. Webber said “vigilance” by parents and officials was the best way to prevent school shootings, and he defended the NRA as “a group that has every right to speak and participate in our public life, just like the National Organization [for] Women does or the March for Our Lives group does. It is a group of citizens who gets together and wants to defend a right they think is important. And why we would marginalize them is beyond me.”
Explaining her opposition to the NRA, Sherrill spoke about her father, a hunter and lifetime member of the NRA, who taught her how to shoot. “There was evidently a time, before my time, when [the NRA] stood for things like sportsmanship and gun safety, and I can assure you it no longer stands for that. It is a gun manufacturing lobby, and it is the reason we don’t see better common-sense gun safety legislation.”
Both candidates were given the opportunity to set the record straight about campaign attacks they viewed as unfair. Webber initially saluted Sherrill for her “honorable record of service,” before criticizing his opponent for running “a decidedly dishonorable campaign,” he said, by misrepresenting some of his votes in the state legislature, such as his opposition to a bill regarding equal pay for women. “I married a Harvard-trained lawyer,” he said. “You think I can go home and not support equal pay for equal work? You’re crazy.”
Sherrill, for her part, disputed a campaign attack that claimed she advocated abolishing ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “I never said I wanted to abolish ICE,” she said. She also accused Webber of misrepresenting her position on Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Republican has claimed that Sherrill is committed to the House minority leader, though Sherrill is one of more than 20 Democratic candidates who have vowed that, if elected, they will move to replace Pelosi.