NEW YORK– Linda Stender, the Democratic challenger in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, seems to represent both what’s right and what’s wrong about her party as it faces the pivotal midterm elections. Bringing to mind Elizabeth Edwards far more than Hillary Clinton—down-to-earth warmth overlaying a kind of no-nonsense toughness—she may have what it takes to beat incumbent Mike Ferguson, if she can keep him from controlling the terms of the debate. That’s a big “if,” because it’s precisely what the Dems have still failed to do, even in these days of widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction with Bush and the Republicans.
The 7th District, which stretches across the middle of the state from west of Newark to the Pennsylvania border, is the site of the only New Jersey House race viewed as competitive, and Linda Stender the only candidate in the state to get support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which aims to unseat vulnerable Republicans.
Stender, a deputy speaker of New Jersey’s state assembly and a former town mayor, has joined other challengers in affluent districts in avoiding certain traditional Democratic concerns—especially social programs for the poor—while running strongly against the Iraq war and for reproductive rights and stem cell research. The latter, a surprise stand-out issue in this election, is doubly important in New Jersey, which is seeking to position itself as a center for the biotech and biomedical research industries. A Stender campaign ad features a fourteen year old with juvenile diabetes who says: “I tried to talk to Congressman Michael Ferguson three times over the past four years, but his aides told my parents that we cannot even discuss embryonic stem cell research because the Congressman is pro life. Am I not a life?” (Stender also got national attention—including a spot on Larry King—by urging a boycott of Ann Coulter’s latest book in response to her attack on 9/11 widows.)
Ferguson, a slick young Bush-era Republican whose hard-line pro-life position is somewhat out of step with his suburban constituency, is vulnerable on these social issues, as well as on his steadfast support of the Iraq war and loyalty to the president. He also has ethics problems—close ties to Tom DeLay, and a record-high fine from the FEC for campaign finance violations. But Ferguson maintains a narrowing lead in a district that has long been solidly Republican.
After long refusing to debate Stender, Ferguson finally relented, and the Democrat and Republican (along with two other candidates of varying libertarian stripes) faced off last Sunday in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The audience of some 250 that jammed into a room at Raritan Valley Community College seemed to justify the incumbent’s reluctance: it was Stender’s crowd, apparently by a large majority.
But for most of the debate, Ferguson managed to keep on-message about his ace-in-the-hole issue, taxes–the question that may, in the end, matter most in a district where the average annual household income is $90,000, and a state where property taxes are notoriously high. Stender was less than successful at warding off Ferguson’s attacks on her record in Trenton, where, he claimed, she spent too much money and voted to raise taxes “67 times.”
Only at the end of the debate, in her closing statement, did Stender pull it all together, bringing cheers from the audience in a finale well worth quoting in its entirety as a platform any Democrat ought to be able to run on this year:
“We face very serious issues in this country and this is a very serious time for us. Time to decide whether we are going to change the course or stay the course. I find it interesting that my opponent has been running against me as if he is the challenger. If he wants to talk about spending, let’s talk about the $350 billion that he has voted for Iraq. Let’s talk about the millions for Halliburton. Let’s talk about the millions that have just plain disappeared. He talks about his tax cuts. His tax cuts have raised our property taxes because he’s not paying for education and benefits for veterans and quality of life and making us safe and secure. It’s time we had a plan for bringing our troops home. Time we implemented the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. It’s time we had an energy policy that would make us independent. Time we supported stem cell research and a woman’s right to choose, to trust her to make her own decisions about health care. Time for a change. This is what this election is about and I am asking for your vote.”