Too Close to Call in Southern Jersey

Who will represent New Jersey’s 3rd District in the 117th Congress? This is one of the House of Representatives races being closely watched by political observers this year. The district is sprawling and politically diverse, including most of deep red Ocean County and all of Burlington County, which includes a large chunk of the increasingly dense and Democratic-leaning Philadelphia suburbs. Its northeastern tip is Toms River, a 100,000-person town that is home to a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish community.

The congressional seat has mostly been held by Republicans, but in 2018, Democrat Rep. Andy Kim, a former Obama administration national security advisor, rode a blue wave to defeat then-incumbent Tom MacArthur by little more than 4,000 votes.

Rep. Kim, who is one of Congress’ younger members at 38 years old, and its only one of Korean descent, spent much of his freshman term focused on health care and defense issues, and since its formation has served on the House’s committee for the coronavirus crisis.

His opponent in what is tagged by all reports as a “toss-up” race is Republican David Richter, 54. After several years as a practicing attorney, Mr. Richter spent more than two decades as CEO of Hill International, a global construction management firm.

Both candidates offered answers to questions on key election topics and matters of specific concern to the Jewish community. Mr. Richter’s interview was conducted in person at his campaign headquarters in Toms River, and his responses were edited for brevity and clarity. Rep. Kim gave written responses to questions that were sent to his campaign staff.

Interview with Mr. David Richter

You have clearly aligned yourself with President Donald Trump. While it is understandable that strategists see rallying the Ocean County’s deep red base as the clearest path to victory, are you concerned that this approach could leave you with a polarized constituency? Would there perhaps be more merit to seeking a more pragmatic local issue-based message similar that could unite more of the district?

My support for President Trump is not part of a campaign strategy. I support the President. I support his agenda in office: cutting wasteful government spending, cutting taxes, promoting deregulation, putting strong conservative judges in the courts, especially the Supreme Court. I think he’s done a great job in office and that’s why I support him.

And I promised myself and a lot of other people, including my wife, that I wouldn’t make those kind of political calculations in office. I would stand up for what I believe in. I’ve done that during the campaign, and I expect I will continue to in Congress.

There’s no question that Trump is a polarizing figure. You either love him or hate him. In this district, fortunately, there are a lot of people that love him and appreciate his leadership, and I think he’s going to win here pretty handily.

If successful, you would most likely be part of a minority caucus. This being the case, do you see yourself as someone who can be pragmatic and work with Democrats to deliver on your district’s priorities?

First of all, I don’t expect to be part of the minority. I see a lot of signs that the Republicans could retake the House.

But irrespective of that, the fact is, when you’re a part of a legislative body, you have to work with the other side. It’s the only way you can get things passed. Right now, we have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate. Passing highly partisan bills in one chamber or the other is a waste of time, because the other chamber’s not going to approve it.

But there are a lot of areas where the parties can work together. And one of the principal things that I’ve taken a position on — in particular given my background — is a larger investment by the federal government in infrastructure. I’m a civil engineer; I’ve worked in the construction industry for more than two decades. I know how to get infrastructure built. I know the value of it. We need more and to do that we need more dollars coming from the federal government.

South Jersey and the Jersey Shore gets especially hard-hit. New Jersey is the fiftieth state in the country, dead last, for how much money we get back from the federal government relative to the tax dollars that we send to Washington. When that money does come back, it generally goes to North Jersey.

We need more money for roads, highways, bridges, coastal restoration and environmental protection. We’ve got the only joint base in the country that serves the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. It’s the largest employer in the district, and we need more investment in that. So I’m going to be an advocate for higher military spending, which I think is going to benefit the district.

There are a tremendous number of other ways that Democrats and Republicans can work together in Congress to get things accomplished. People expect the government to work, and to work on their behalf, and I’ll hopefully be a part of that.

While most of the GOP congressional caucus supports robust protections for religious liberty, even when the party held the majority, nothing was done legislatively on this front. Do you think there is more that Congress should be doing to protect religious liberties?

Absolutely. It’s in the First Amendment for a reason. It’s the foundation upon which this country was built.

I think President Trump has done a good job. I think he’s put judges on the courts, including the Supreme Court, who will stand up for and protect religious liberty. We have an incredibly diverse country. And we need to make sure that everybody has the right to practice their religion free from government interference.

And as someone who has a Jewish heritage myself, that’s important to me. I never felt like part of the majority; I felt like part of the minority. And this district has a very strong Jewish presence particularly, and that’s important.

I want to fight not just for Jewish people but for all people who want to express their religion free from interference by the government, free from coercion by the government in how they practice that religion. And I see, frankly, both parties doing a good job at it. I think the Republican Party does a better job. But there’s always more that can be done.

Should Joe Biden win the presidency, it is likely the Equality Act is something that could become law. Would you support amendments to tack on meaningful protections for religious objectors to what the Equality Act stands for, and do you see yourself as somebody who could work with the other side of the aisle to possibility get that done?

I consider myself a very strong advocate for equal rights, for everybody. I am a supporter of the Equality Act, including a provision relating to religious liberty. I think that’s something that will pass, and I look forward to being a supporter of it.

Congress’ latest attempt at the new coronavirus relief package contains a two-year program of tax credit for scholarships used for private schools, sort of an emergency way to save the original School Choice Act. The future of the whole bill seems very uncertain right now, but in general, do you support these types of legislation to promote school choice at the federal level?

I’m a big promoter of school choice. In fact, I’m surprised that a lot of liberals who believe that monopolies are a bad thing, for some reason think they’re a good thing when government’s doing it. We have a near-monopoly on public education in this country by the government.

I think that parents and students should have the right to choose their school. We have a lot of terrible schools in this country, particularly in inner cities, but elsewhere as well. I think that one of the worst things that we’ve done to African-Americans in this country is we give them very poor public education.

And I’m an advocate for charter schools. I’m an advocate for school choice generally; even among religious schools, whether it’s Catholic or Hebrew schools — or anything else — that educate our children and can do it well. There’s no question that we need to break the lock on education by the government, and by the teachers’ unions, and make sure that parents and students have the best education possible, and that doesn’t have to come at a government-owned school.

The level of sanction pressure on Iran is likely to be an issue in Congress for the foreseeable future. If Joe Biden is elected, he has said he will rejoin the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal). How do you see what America’s role should be vis-à-vis Iran?

I think the JCPOA was a disaster for this country. It was bad for the U.S.; it was bad for Israel. I think that President Trump did the right thing in withdrawing us from that agreement.

Andy Kim was part of the Obama administration when this was being put in place and was a key advisor because he was in charge of Iraq. And Andy Kim was a disaster for this country.

He not only allowed and helped put the JCPOA in place; he was also in charge of Iraq policy as ISIS was growing and becoming a dominant force in Iraq and Syria. President Obama claimed that there was really a mistake by his intelligence team, not letting him know what the reality was on the ground. And guess who was in charge of that intelligence team: Andy Kim.

All the JCPOA did was make it easier for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and give them hundreds of millions of dollars at the same time. Iran is not our friend. I think that what President Trump did in taking out Qassem Soleimani was the right thing to do. He was the leader of the greatest effort in state-sponsored terrorism in the world. I think that showing strength on the issue is also why Iran had a very minor response to that. Democrats were claiming that Trump was getting us into a war, but obviously that didn’t happen, nor did I expect it to happen. The way you avoid war is through strength, not through weakness. And the President has demonstrated that strength time and time again.

I am sure you’re aware of some of the tensions that have arisen here in Toms River regarding the Orthodox community’s growth. The federal Department of Justice has been very strong in pushing the township to resolve certain zoning issues, mostly having to do with houses of worship. Do you support what the Justice Department is doing, and do you think that the township has navigated its issues correctly?

I think the President is very cognizant of these kinds of issues, and that’s why the Justice Department is involved in making sure that certain municipalities, certain local political organizations, are doing the right thing.

There’s no question that you can’t use zoning as a weapon against a religious minority, and I think there’s also no question that that has happened. And I think the Justice Department’s taking the appropriate steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.

And that’s why we have a federal government, because sometimes, when you go back to the ’50s and ’60s, local authorities want to do what they want to do, but we’re all Americans and we all have constitutional protections.

You’ve got a very active and growing Orthodox Jewish community in Ocean County, and there’s certain people that want to react poorly to that. And fortunately, we have a Justice Department that’s doing the right thing, and I support that fully.

Any closing message?

The most important issues that I’m talking about right now and the most important things that I’m hearing from voters is, No. 1, the economy and jobs. The economy was doing phenomenal for the last three and a half years, before COVID, and in the last six months we’ve seen just tremendous losses. We need to get the economy moving again. We need to create jobs. There’s still a lot of people out of work. And that’s my No. 1 focus.

Secondly, what’s important is to address the level of violence and criminality that’s occurring across the country over the last few months. We’ve lost respect for the rule of law. And I think that when law and order is an issue in an election, people come out and they vote Republican. Because people want to go to live their lives and feel safe.

I think what you’re seeing firsthand is the effects of liberal policy in managing cities, cities that have been in complete Democratic control for decades. And what you see there is a total lack of respect for law enforcement, a total lack of respect for the rule of law.

And to hear somebody like Nancy Pelosi, who’s the Speaker of the House of Representatives, call federal law enforcement officers who are there to protect a federal courthouse that’s being attacked, potentially destroyed, “stormtroopers” is just outrageous.

And it wasn’t that long ago, in January, when President Trump gave the State of the Union speech, and [Pelosi] made a big show of — immediately after he was finished — ripping up his speech.

That level of disrespect coming from the left is outrageous, and hopefully, the voters will demonstrate exactly which party they feel more closely aligned with. And I have every expectation — because I’m out there on the campaign trail, I’m talking to voters — that they’ve had enough, and that they’re going to be going Republican, including some first-time Republican voters. You’ve got a Democratic Party that is very rapidly heading toward socialism and anarchy as their two twin platforms. And the average voter just doesn’t want that at all.

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Interview with Congressman Andy Kim

You joined Congress at a time of very high polarization which has gotten no better since. Do you see a way forward to a less vitriolic and more effective Congress and American government in general?

In order for our country to have the progress that we need, we have to be able to find a way to bridge the divides that are pulling us apart. As tough as that sounds, I know it is possible, as I worked in government before where we were guided by our service to the nation and the merits of ideas rather than partisan politics. I worked under both the Bush and Obama administrations as a career public servant. I swore my oath to the country and Constitution, not to a political party. When I served as a civilian advisor to Generals Petraeus and Allen in Afghanistan, no one there asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican. We all worked together to keep our nation safe. I’ve taken that service mindset to Congress and worked with both parties to do what we were elected to do — make the lives of our constituents and their families better.

I think that example starts right here at home. I’m proud to have held 25 town halls since being sworn in, and I’ve started each and every one of them by reminding folks that whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, and whether you voted for me or not, you’re my boss. I think it’s important to hear directly from the communities I represent about the issues that matter most to them and to lead those conversations with civility, respect and a commitment to service in mind. It is this vision of public service that I believe will give us the best hope. No matter our disagreements, we should engage each other with civility. I believe deeply in the vision for our country, and I am trying to live this vision out with the work I’m doing as I was named as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress.

What further action do you feel is most important for Congress to take in addressing both the health and economic ramifications of the COVID pandemic?

As the only member from New Jersey on the bipartisan Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, I am working every day to ensure the nation’s response to the coronavirus crisis and its economic consequences is as effective as humanly possible. That means fighting for a robust national testing program, working to support our first responders, and securing the resources our communities need to recover. I’m also the only member of Congress from New Jersey on the Small Business Committee, and I made it a personal mission to do everything possible to help small businesses get back on their feet and to survive this crisis. I am fighting for workers to have better-paying jobs, to secure additional support for small businesses, and to ensure our seniors have the ability to retire with peace of mind. I’ve visited dozens of small businesses in every corner of our community over the last few weeks; what they’re looking for are concrete plans and long-term support, and that’s exactly what I’m working to deliver. I’m proud that my efforts during these tough times were recognized when the United States Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed me for reelection for my pro-business work in Congress.

Since leaving the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), the Trump administration has placed a great deal of pressure on Iran through renewed sanctions. Likewise, many feel that little was lost by U.S. abandonment of the deal since Iran’s nuclear development was continuing secretly even while the deal was fully in place. Former Vice President Biden has said that he would rejoin the JCPOA if elected. Would you support this move and why?

I spent years of my life working as a national security official trying to counter the dangerous violence, terror, and exportation of violence perpetrated by the Iranian regime. Drawing from that experience, the most effective forms of pressure on the Iranian regime were through multilateral efforts that brought together a coalition of nations united in their condemnation of Iranian actions. The go-it-alone approach we are engaged in right now has not led to the kind of breakthrough that was originally touted, and I would support an effort to rebuild an international coalition to stand up to Iran. Given the changes in circumstances over the last four years, the next administration will not be able to simply rejoin the JCPOA as much of it has been unwound. Complex negotiations will need to be done to reestablish an international coalition, and I would support efforts to push for more stringent measures to counter Iran’s use of militias, the Quds Force, and ballistic missile technology and development.

You voted for the Equality Act. Nearly all traditional religious groups feel that this bill would threaten their ability to operate in keeping with their beliefs if passed as is. Would you be willing to support meaningful protections for religious traditionalists as an amendment to this bill?

I believe this legislation is important to help ensure that every American, including those in [the community the Equality Act is focused on protecting], should be protected against discrimination in all its forms.

One of your legislative priorities is education. There are currently two major school choice bills in Congress, one a bipartisan one that is connected to the next phase of coronavirus relief efforts, the other a broader bill that would create federal tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds. Where do you stand in general on the subject of school choice and would you support either of the pending bills?

I believe every child deserves access to a quality education, not just a select few. Our nation’s education system has been chronically underfunded, and this problem has only worsened due to the pandemic. My focus right now is to ensure that all schools have the resources and funding they need to adapt due to the pandemic and to reopen safely. I am interested in supporting comprehensive, not piecemeal, proposals that will prevent schools from having to choose between health and education. In the next stimulus, I will be looking for robust funding for the educational needs for states, emergency support for school meal providers, and leave protections for parents affected by their children’s school closures. I’m open to any policy that would improve our nation’s education system, but as with many ideas that can sound good in theory, we must ensure that they will not fall short in practice.

While not a federal issue, you are aware of the tensions that existed between Toms River’s growing Orthodox Jewish community and some elements of the town’s general population. The issue most recently played out in debates over zoning for houses of worship — which, despite pressure from the DOJ, have yet to be resolved. What is your opinion on how local officials have handled the situation so far and what path would you like to see going forward?

The rise of anti-Semitism in our communities is disturbing and is not reflective of the values that make New Jersey a great place to live. I fear that this division and hate could get even worse if we do not take strong action to counter. As a member of Congress, I have brought Jewish community and other local leaders together to discuss ways we can combat anti-Semitism. I’ve visited the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshivah in Lakewood to meet with members of the Jewish community to hear from them directly how this rise in hate has had an impact. I will continue to work with local leaders and members to create a more inclusive community, free of hate, that truly welcomes all.

Any closing messages?

Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Israel for a bipartisan visit that reinforced the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Israel. I had a chance to stand at the Western Wall on the night of the Ninth of Av as thousands gathered to remember the destruction of the Temples. I had a chance to meet with Defense officials and see the Iron Dome project I fought to provide funding for, and I spoke with business and technology leaders about the work being done to spur innovation and commerce. As a former diplomat that worked in the Middle East before, I have a deep knowledge of many of the security issues facing Israel, but this visit helped me gain a deeper more personal understanding of how critical the U.S. relationship with Israel is. This relationship and alliance is unbreakable and should continue as the cornerstone of our policy in the Middle East, but the relationship is more than about strategic security and geopolitics. It runs through our very communities, our neighbors, and our families. It hits at our values, our beliefs, and our faith. It has been and always will be a priority to us all. n