Five Democrats seeking to replace the late Donald Payne in Congress pledged loyalty to Israel as they faced off in a debate May 23 at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
The forum was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ.
Payne, the first and only African-American House member from New Jersey, died March 6 after a battle with colon cancer.
His son, Donald Payne Jr., president of the Newark City Council, is one of three men running to take his father’s seat in District 10 for the duration of the current congressional session, competing with Newark City Council member Ron Rice and Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith.
The three are also running for the full two-year term that begins in January 2013. Joining them on the unusual double June 5 primary ballot will be State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Dist. 34) of Montclair and Cathy Wright of Newark, who introduced herself as “a regular person who is running to represent you regular people.”
A sixth candidate, Iraq War veteran Dennis Flynn of Glen Ridge, did not take part in the debate.
The CRC, representing Jewish interests in Essex and Union counties and other areas within the new district, has been following the race closely.
“None of the four candidates are incumbents. They have not held national office, and only one has had experience at the state level,” wrote Gordon Haas, the CRC’s government affairs chair, in a recent op-ed in NJJN. “None has a record on Israel, stopping Iran’s nuclear capacity, or homeland security. Yet, they all have shown strong commitment to the betterment of their communities and have acted as a voice for the most vulnerable among us — all priority concerns of the Jewish community.”
In opening remarks, three of the five candidates stressed their direct connections with Jewish voters.
Payne reminded his audience that his “relationship with the Jewish community goes back to my early days in Newark, when I became a resident of the Weequahic section and lived there for 50 years.”
Payne said he was born at Beth Israel Hospital and attended after-school programs at the YMHA on Chancellor Avenue until “the sad day when it moved to West Orange and I couldn’t travel that far.”
Rice said he attended the Pingry School in Martinsville, “where my first contact with a number of folks who happened to be of Jewish persuasion occurred for the first time,” and where both minority groups, blacks and Jews, were “subjected to catcalling and the like.”
Smith referenced Israel in his opening remarks. “The peaceful existence of Israel is at the forefront,” he said. “Our strategic partnership with Israel is very important to our survival in the Mideast. The other issue we are presently engaged in is what’s happening in Iran with its nuclear capability.”
In her introduction, Gill said enacting laws protecting women from being trafficked as prostitutes is high on her legislative agenda.
Wright said her top issues are creating jobs, “sustainable green energy,” and tax reform.
“If we are spending all our money on the deficit, we will not have any money to give aid to Israel,” she said.
'Our closest ally'
Asked by Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of NJ Jewish News, what they viewed as the appropriate role of the United States in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Smith said he “would be working with President Obama and his administration for the continued peaceful existence of Israel.”
Wright noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government gives him “more flexibility than ever before; we can now see on the horizon a solution to the conflict.”
Gill said she supported “a two-state solution and negotiated boundaries in order to keep Israel safe,” adding that “there should be no preconditions for negotiations.”
Payne said he, too, advocated a two-state solution, “but not at the compromise of Israel’s security. They have been our closest ally in that area…. They should not have to worry about bombs being lobbed into their nation.”
“Israel is not only our greatest ally, it is our only consistent ally in the Middle East,” said Rice. “I support negotiations, but we have to support Israel’s right to defend itself, and leave no option off the table.”
Options on Iran
The questions posed by Silow-Carroll and Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, reflected the issues important to the CRC and its constituency. In addition to Israel, they included Iran, the economy and social services, violence against women, and services for the elderly.
Asked by Harrison about halting Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Wright said that she “believes in diplomacy before war” and that there should be no “time limit on how long we give sanctions to work.”
Wright said she supports “a nuclear fuel swap program with Iran” and was “encouraged that they are now going to let inspections of their nuclear facilities.
“But in no uncertain terms, I share the same concerns Israel does that Iran may want to get nuclear weapons, and this is something we would have to stop. I believe negotiations and sanctions can accomplish that.”
Gill said, “All options should be on the table,” but added that she needed greater military intelligence information in order “to give you a specific date” as to when negotiations and sanctions can be deemed to have failed.
“We cannot back away from continuing to make sure that Israel is able to protect itself,” said Payne. “Every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself.”
Rice said there are times “we have to push the president to go a little stronger, a little faster. We have a guy, Ahmadinejad,” he said, referring to Iran's president, “who has said the most hateful, disgusting things about Israel. That man knows exactly what he is doing with his nuclear capability.”
“I have great confidence in President Obama's ability to navigate this situation,” said Smith. “President Obama showed great strength and courage in using the intelligence system and captured our greatest present-day menace,” Osama bin Laden.
“I think the president will navigate this correctly.
The candidates were also asked whom they turned to for advice on the Middle East.
Gill said she receives “information from all sides…. I go around. I talk. I find nuances, but at the core is Israel must be safe. At the core, Israel is our ally, and Israel must be protected.”
Payne said he recently consulted with U.S. Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, New York Democrats active in Jewish and Israel affairs.
Rice said he turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Dist. 9) for information and advice.
“As congresspeople we have to actually go to the source,” Rice, said, pledging that if elected, “I will go to Israel, and I will also go to Palestine. I will also go to Syria, and I will go to other places that we need to go to. Yes, even Syria.”
Rice also promised “to use the bully pulpit of a congressional seat to foster better African American-Jewish relations.”
Smith said he gets advice on the Middle East “from the best minds,” a list that includes “think tanks, AIPAC, and people in this room” as well as and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
Attending the event were lay and professional leaders of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central NJ, aides to local politicians, and Jewish community professionals.
Wright said her position “is based on what I've seen and what I've read.” She said it is very important that Israel is secure….
“Iran is not a regional power and the United States has to get into a better place with Arab countries, and I think the Arab Spring that has been going on is something that is going to foster democracies in a lot of the Arab world.”
David Lentz, chair of the CRC, moderated the 90-minute forum.