House candidates square off in N.J.'s First District

Among those at Tuesday night's primary debate for the First Congressional District were (from left) Democrats State Sen. Donald Norcross, Frank Broomell Jr., and Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor, as well as Republican candidate Claire Gustafson. The primary is scheduled for June 3, with two elections on Nov. 7
Among those at Tuesday night's primary debate for the First Congressional District were (from left) Democrats State Sen. Donald Norcross, Frank Broomell Jr., and Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor, as well as Republican candidate Claire Gustafson. The primary is scheduled for June 3, with two elections on Nov. 7 (JOHN COSTELLO / For The Inquirer)
Posted: May 15, 2014

Candidates in New Jersey's First Congressional District debated Tuesday night, politely and along party lines, on a range of topics including health care, jobs, immigration, and voter-ID laws.

The race to replace Rep. Robert E. Andrews, who left office suddenly in February, begins with a primary June 3 and then concurrent special and general elections Nov. 7.

On Tuesday, two of four Republican candidates and all three Democrats sat side by side onstage in the Lawnside School gymnasium in front of about 300 people.

State Sen. Donald Norcross of Camden County; Frank Broomell Jr., a Marine and Sicklerville native; and Frank Minor, mayor of Logan Township for the last 11 years, are running for the Democrats. Norcross has the party's backing.

The Republicans present were real estate broker Gerard McManus of Winslow Township and Claire Gustafson of Collingswood, a small-business owner.

Garry Cobb, a former Eagle and a WIP radio personality, has the Camden County Republican Party's endorsement but did not attend the debate. Nor did a fourth GOP candidate, Lee Lucas.

The debate, sponsored by the Camden County East chapter of the NAACP, allowed for introductions and then a series of questions, most concerning the Democratic platform, from the audience and moderators. Candidates had 90 seconds to answer each question.

Gustafson, the only woman on stage, said she would be the first woman nominated by either party in the district to compete for Congress. "Let's make history together," she said, saying she knew how to win as a Republican in Democratic areas and had served as vice president of the Collingswood school board.

"I've been a wife, I've been a mother, I'm a grandmother. . . . I'm an independent Republican. I'm conservative and I'm compassionate," she said.

Minor said that as mayor, he had brought nearly 60 companies to Logan in the last five years, creating hundreds of jobs. He directed a slight jab at Norcross - who has touted his part in passing the Economic Opportunity Act, which provides tax incentives to companies - saying, "We need someone who has a track record of bringing jobs, not just legislation."

Norcross noted his role in bringing Lawnside a new grocery and senior housing. "Many people like to talk a lot in politics. I've listened to my constituents and, more importantly, I've done real things," he said to applause.

Broomell, who served in Afghanistan, said his Marine background and youth - at 27, he is the youngest of the candidates - made him unique. "I will stand on the House floor for hours on end if need be," he said.

McManus said he would bring to Washington his conservative positions, including support for the fair-tax law, which would replace all federal income taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, with a single consumption tax on retail sales.

On traditionally partisan issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and increasing the minimum wage, Democrats and Republicans split along party lines.

Many questions centered on what candidates would do to bring jobs and economic development to South Jersey, specifically Camden. Minor said he would seek federal funding for infrastructure projects. "Bridges and roads are crumbling right before us," he said.

McManus said he wanted to look widely for economic opportunity, including bringing the natural gas industry to the district.

Norcross touted the increase to New Jersey's minimum wage and said he would push for an increase nationally. "We're living in a world where disparity between rich and poor is as large as it's ever been. We need to raise the floor; we need to raise minimum wage," he said.

On jobs, Minor said the country needed better youth training. "There are some kids who are not college material, who are better with their hands. We need to strengthen the ability to train and help those men and women," he said.

Broomell was the only candidate who spoke in support of legalizing marijuana, saying he believed it would reduce crime and provide the state more tax revenue.

Norcross said the state was "not quite ready," but added New Jersey "needs to get medical marijuana right."

Minor staunchly defended public education, saying he is against "siphoning away from public schools to pay for charters." Norcross, who supported the Urban Hope Act, which introduced "Renaissance" schools to New Jersey, defended school choice. "That's giving parents the ability to choose where a student can go to school - and that's a fundamental right, to make sure our children have the best public education possible," he said.

Gustafson called on voters to support her as a newcomer. "The House of Representatives should not be a millionaires' club, and your candidate should not be handpicked by party bosses," she said.

Broomell advocated for better support for servicemen and women. "We need to make sure we're not sending forces into harm's way without good reason," he said. "And as men and women begin to take that uniform off, we need to make sure they're looked after as they come home."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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