Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) waves to constituents at the start of the Labor Day parade in Mendham.
Photos by Robert Wiener
September 4, 2008
As he challenges the seven-term incumbent in New Jersey’s congressional District 11, Democrat Tom Wyka is realistic about his chances.
“I am running upstream,” Wyka told supporters and NJ Jewish News at an Aug. 26 dinner meeting at the Chatham Township home of Patricia Curley.
He noted that in his first try to topple Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen in 2006, he received only 37 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, Wyka said, “There is a change needed in this country, and I am running because I for one got tired of complaining about it.”
Wyka, who works as an information technology manager for a banking company in Springfield, calls his platform one of “equal opportunity, shared prosperity, and honest government.”
“I realize that a principled politician can probably do more to help people than any other path I could choose,” he said. “If you put the right people in office, they can do quite a bit to move the country in the right direction.”
Democrat Tom Wyka at a dinner meeting in Chatham Township.
Still, for all the talk of change, Frelinghuysen said he believes he and his party are moving the country in the right direction.
“After Sept. 11, the world changed, and while people have their own personal animus against the president, I think most realize that we are in a very dangerous world,” said Frelinghuysen, a supporter of the war in Iraq. He spoke with NJJN as he prepared to join marchers in the Labor Day parade in Mendham. “It doesn’t matter who the president is. We’ve built up our national security and our military and we have better intelligence.”
Frelinghuysen, scion of a famed NJ family, has gotten used to job security in the district, which includes all of Morris County, and parts of Essex , Somerset, Sussex, and Passaic counties. It also happens to include the highest proportion of registered Republicans of any district in the state.
But Wyka said he believes President George Bush’s unpopularity puts the district in play.
“We’ve got an administration that really doesn’t understand what Teddy Roosevelt meant when he used to say, ‘Walk softly, but carry a big stick,’” the candidate said. “All they really know how to do is wield the big stick. I don’t think it’s very smart.”
Wyka also feels the administration should have been more assertive in brokering a Middle East peace.
“Israel has a right to defend itself,” said Wyka. “No one would dispute that. However, the international community has to get involved to diffuse the situation. I think a lot of people on both sides want a peaceful outcome. There is a level of aggression that has to be dealt with, but I think that we have been very much absent.”
Asked what the administration’s role toward Israel should be, Frelinghuysen said, “It is important we work very closely with the Israelis in terms of national defense and collection of intelligence. When push comes to shove, Israel will be there for us.”
On the issue of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, “I think we always ought to have negotiations — not only those that are visible, but there is always a need to be reaching out. It is important we have relationships with the Palestinian leadership, but I don’t think we ought to ever recognize Hamas. But they are trying to change their coloration to some extent; they have a political arm. But I think they are a bona fide terrorist group,” Frelinghuysen argued.
Both men support a diplomatic approach to defusing the potential nuclear threat from Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Ahmadinejad likes to talk a good game, but I don’t know if he is willing to follow through,” said Wyka. “I think he knows what the consequences are. If there is a real threat, we are going to take care of that situation. It is probably time for everybody to cool things off. I understand how people feel, but I really don’t think it is productive to think we are going to knock him off.”
Frelinghuysen cautions, however, that diplomacy must be backed with resolve.
“I have no problem with opening up dialogue with Iran, but we need to recognize that Iran has been involved in state-sponsored terrorism,” he said. “They have done little if anything to assist the firm establishment of the Iraqi government.”
Earmarks, pro and con
The two men disagree strongly over the concept of earmarks — appropriations tacked onto federal budget items by members of Congress that benefit specific institutions in their districts.
While Frelinghuysen has obtained millions of dollars for his district — including some $478,000 for a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community project to be administered in large part by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ — Wyka opposes earmarks on principle.
“I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I can’t argue that there aren’t some good earmarks out there, but these things should be accountable,” he said. “If the only way to get the money is through an earmark, we’ve got a general problem with the system of priorities we have in our country. Those things have to be in the bills. They have to be accountable, up front. It should never be an afterthought.”
Frelinghuysen defends earmarking as a way to deliver specific funding to constituents.
“I am afraid my opponent is basically ignorant of the system,” Frelinghuysen said. “It is Congress that approves the president’s budget. Members of Congress who know their district better than the federal bureaucracy have every right to look after the needs of their constituents. There are no ‘bridges to nowhere’ in my earmarks. I know my district better than my opponent will ever know.”
Asked in their separate interviews to size up their opponents, Wyka said, “Rodney is a nice guy. But I don’t think there is a lot of independent thought there. A lot of people say he is a moderate because he is pro-choice, but that’s about the end of his moderation right there.”
“I am pro-choice. I believe in a woman’s right to choose,” Frelinghuysen agreed.
But he said he had no problem supporting presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, despite their opposition to reproductive rights.
“I do think the Republican Party has people of differing views; I have a big-tent philosophy,” he said.
“I’m running against somebody whose only reason for running is his opposition to the war,” the Republican added. “He doesn’t have an economic platform. He has done nothing for our community. He has served in no way. I can’t see anything recognizable in his resume where he has contributed anything to society.”
Wyka said he was “quite surprised” by Frelinghuysen’s critique.
“My opposition to the broken system of government spending and prioritization, as well as campaign finance and undue influence of lobbyists’ money, and my desire to see more emphasis on the problems of health care, education, and veterans’ issues are all part of a broad agenda that goes beyond the misguided foreign policy supported by Frelinghuysen and this administration,” Wyka said.