Democrats, too, face contested primary in N.J. Third District

Howard Kleinhendler, challenging Belgard.
Howard Kleinhendler, challenging Belgard.
Posted: April 08, 2014

While Republicans grapple with déjà vu in the primaries for New Jersey's Third Congressional District, Democrats are gearing up for an unexpected fight between their newly anointed candidate and a nominee they tapped for a race four years ago.

The seat was put in play when former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan decided last year not to run for reelection, putting the competition to replace him among the most-watched races nationally. The moderate-leaning district encompasses most of Burlington County and part of Ocean County.

Last week, Howard Kleinhendler, a Manhattan law firm partner from Lakewood who ran unsuccessfully against longtime Republican Rep. Chris Smith in 2010, filed as a challenger in the June 3 Democratic primary.

He will face Aimee Belgard, the candidate endorsed by the Burlington and Ocean County Democratic Committees. Belgard, a general practice lawyer from Edgewater Park, is a Burlington County freeholder who served as a township committee member in her hometown.

Kleinhendler, 50, called himself the better choice for Congress because of his previous run. He said Belgard has "not really dealt with the issues," while he had articulated strong opinions on several, including the Affordable Care Act, which the Republicans plan to attack vigorously in their campaign. Kleinhendler opposes the mandate on small businesses to offer health-care policies but would provide tax incentives. He also said he would push to get the public option back on the table, to let people buy a Medicare plan from the government.

In a November interview on Dom Giordano's talk show on WPHT-AM (1210), Belgard said she wanted to "fix what's broken" in the Affordable Care Act, but declined to be more specific. She said that it was "very early in the campaign" and that she was still talking to constituents to learn their needs.

Belgard, 39, declined to make herself available for a phone interview with The Inquirer last week, but she answered questions via e-mail Friday.

"I'm running for Congress because I want to make a difference in the lives of my neighbors, my community and this country," she wrote. "I'm focused on growing the middle-class, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and standing up for women and our veterans."

She also provided a few more details on how she would change Obamacare. "I want to ensure that the Affordable Care Act is working for small businesses, not hurting them, and I will work to ensure that we keep costs down by increasing transparency so that consumers know exactly what they're paying for," she wrote.

The Republicans have endorsed Tom MacArthur, a former Randolph mayor and former insurance company executive who recently moved from North Jersey to Toms River, Ocean County. He'll be opposed by Steve Lonegan, a tea party favorite and perennial candidate who once again has decided to challenge the party establishment. Lonegan, a retired Bogota mayor who recently moved to Lavallette, lost to Cory Booker in the special U.S. Senate race in October, and previously ran twice for governor.

Bruce Todd, a Larouche Democrat who favors banking-law reform, nuclear power, and the impeachment of President Obama, also is running in the Democratic primary. Todd, 64, a retired union millworker from Waretown, Ocean County, ran for lieutenant governor last year and for a congressional seat and state Assembly in the '70s, when he was affiliated with the U.S. Labor Party, he said.

He is running, he said, because he is "very upset at the direction the country is going in . . .. I felt it was time; I had to do something."

Kleinhendler said he entered the race because he believes he can win the hotly contested seat for the Democrats. In Kleinhendler's first foray into politics in 2010, the Burlington and Ocean County Democrats endorsed him. He attributed winning only 29 percent of the vote to the popularity of the incumbent in a year when Republicans won 120 congressional seats.

That race was in the heavily Republican Fourth District, which then included parts of Burlington, Ocean, Monmouth, and Mercer. After redistricting, 15 towns in Burlington and Ocean Counties were moved to the Third District, which Kleinhendler said was more of a toss-up, having had Republican and Democratic representatives in recent years. In those towns, he said, he got 40 percent of the vote.

He also ran for state Assembly in 2011.

Kleinhendler, a corporate lawyer who has represented fraud victims of former stockbroker and financial adviser Bernie Madoff, said he was denied an interview this time with the Burlington County Democratic Committee, which selected Belgard a few weeks after Runyan announced his decision without talking to potential candidates.

"That's not the democratic process," he said.

Though he had the chance to appear before the Ocean County Democrats, along with Belgard and Jack Fanous, another applicant, he said "the die had already been cast," and the two committees had united behind Belgard.

Joe Andl, chairman of the Burlington County Democrats, said the committee went with Belgard because she began exploring a run in October and then decided in November to announce her decision. Acknowledging that the committee's December endorsement vote was unusually early, he said, "Aimee is the best candidate for the job, the hardest worker the Democratic Party will find. She's an elected official and has run in a countywide race before and knows the issues that concern families and everyday working people."

In November 2012, Belgard and Joanne Schwartz won highly competitive races for seats on the Burlington County Freeholder Board, long dominated by Republicans.

Kleinhendler and Todd said they hoped for an opportunity to debate Belgard.

Belgard's e-mail response was, "Right now I'm focused on my own campaign, traveling through the district sharing my ideas and talking with voters . . . . There will be plenty of time and opportunity for a robust discussion of all the issues between now and Election Day."

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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