David Applefield, Christine Conforti, Jim Keady, Stephanie Schmid, and Hassan Shehadeh are running for Congress. Together, our candidates took the first steps toward the 2020 congressional cycle for New Jersey’s 4th district at a roundtable discussion hosted by The Ocean Township Democratic Municipal Club, chaired by Mike Beson. This was the public’s first view into the hopefuls running to unseat Chris Smith (R-NJ).
On Dec. 12, in a room as full as if it were October of election year, the candidates sat front and center with each of their tribes wistfully watching from the crowd. Each candidate briefly introduced themselves before transitioning to written questions from the audience.
In a fitting opening salvo for the moment, Jim Keady said during his introduction:
The question we have to ask is if we get rid of Smith we get rid of Trump, now what? Just getting rid of people that we don’t like, whose policies we don’t like, isn’t enough. We have to be asking critical questions of democrats. What are the policies we’re going to be organizing for and fighting for.
These were appropriate words for the moment as the sentiment swirling in the room focused on the need to unseat Smith. Intertwined with this message is the progressive Bernie-clat flag that he has championed alongside the grassroots movement that he cultivated in NJ-4.
Next was Hassan Shehadeh, a neophyte to the realm of NJ-4 politics who contrasts fellow hopefuls by touting a stern moderate approach with a rebuke of the current political polarization. Looking to illustrate these differences, Shehadeh immediately separates himself:
I might seem a bit different than everybody where my solutions come but I believe in logical solutions. We shouldn’t be pushing too far to the left because as a district we’re not far to the left. We need to to be able to work across party lines. If we’re going to push to one side we’re not going to have anything.
He continues to describe foundational progressive policy points — like Medicare for All — as “building castles in the sky.” In exchange, Shehadeh goes on to overview his platform centered on more traditional policies like mitigating climate change with economic incentives.
After Shehadeh was Stephanie Schmid, the current frontrunner with the most raised funds and the support of the Monmouth County Congressional Vetting Committee. Schmid’s introduction, an interwoven compelling backstory of public service abroad and federal judiciary experience, was of the acumen consummate with a politician. Evident through both her address and previous service is a deep commitment for public wellbeing in the most traditional sense: for the greater good of the commonwealth.
Next was Christine Conforti — another NJ-4 neophyte — a progressive entrepreneur with a background in public service with tenures at both Teach For America and The United Nations. Before this roundtable discussion, Conforti was relatively unknown, due in part to her minimal online presence and limited exposure at public events. However, she was able to lay her campaign’s foundation quite succinctly during her introduction.
Her platform is centered on addressing climate change through holistic approaches that look to remedy the root causes of social issues like wealth and gender inequality while creating sustainable practices for long term climate viability. This was without a doubt a hefty message, but well-received by the crowd.
Last was David Applefield, resident NJ-4 author and fellow political neophyte. Although his introduction was a bit biographical at first, he transitioned into a statement of purpose that illuminated Applefield’s connections to the NJ-4 area as well as his proposed community-based approach to representing.
Before we delve into the meat of the event, here’s a quick recap of each candidate:
- David Applefield: A connector at heart, Applefield looks to apply progressive ideals while empowering each NJ-4 resident with their own voice through a community-based approach.
- Christine Conforti: Remedy contemporary social issues through holistically enacting the Green New Deal to address climate concerns, wealth inequality, and women’s rights.
- Jim Keady: NJ-4 Mainstay, Jim Keady is a progressive Berni-crat championing Medicare for All and College for All.
- Stephanie Schmid: A consummate government professional, Schmid’s approach is best identified as progressive pragmatism; looking to push the ball up the court in ways that are politically palatable during these times of contention.
- Hassan Shehadeh: Progressive ideals, moderate approaches. Implicit in each of Shehadeh’s policies is the viability of accomplishing them within the confines of the current order.
What’s your plan to get universal healthcare coverage for every American?
David Applefield: So I’m going to be a strong advocate for bringing the prices down and bringing the pharmaceutical companies into the discussion along with the insurance companies. Holding them accountable, but also letting them be part of the solution.
Hassan Shehadeh: Health care is a right for everybody. You can’t be living in the United States, one of the world’s most advanced countries, and worry about going to the doctor.
Shehadeh quickly differentiated himself from the energy in the room by shunning a Medicare for All approach in favor of more tempered reforms including transparent pricing and re-examining the health care system at writ, however he did not go into specific examples.
Christine Conforti: My number one issue is health. I think, first and foremost, we have to expand this from fighting who’s paying for health care in a system that does not have very positive health outcomes, to how do we create a system that actually optimizes the health of every single American.
Following her strong rebuke of the current healthcare system — that she asserts would only be fixed by Medicare for All — Conforti provides an insight into how she thinks and differentiates herself from the standard progressive platform.
Christine: So first and foremost this is not just a big pharma insurance issue. It’s why are we all so sick? Why is the cancer rate somewhere around 50 percent for Americans? It’s because we don’t have regulations on chemical companies. We don’t have regulations on pharmaceutical companies. We don’t regulations on fossil fuel companies. Our government is subsidizing the same things that make us sick… the same things that are destroying our environment.
Jim Keady: Our campaign believes that health care is a human right. And, because it’s a human right, we will be organizing for Medicare for All. Medicare for All is the solution. A single payer, universal health care system is what we deserve as Americans here in the United States.
Stephanie Schmid: For me, the most important thing is helping people right now in dire need of assistance: lower prescription drug prices, getting everybody covered, continuing to protect people like myself with preexisting conditions who pay excessively high premiums because we can’t afford to not be covered at any point in our lives.
Supporting both the goal of universal healthcare and the assertion that healthcare is a human right, Schmid’s approach is more tempered, although still direct, in realizing these goals.
Stephanie: Enrolling the non-insured and underinsured into Medicare automatically, eliminating deductables and high premiums, allowing the federal government bargaining power for drugs within medicare, while also preserving private insurance, The Medicare for America Act proves to keep the ball moving up the court while also preserving key elements in private insurance that millions of Americans enjoy.
Briefly, David Applefield asserts support for Medicare with preserving private insurance. He goes on to say that he has a model to provide health care to NJ-4 residents, however he does not elaborate on any specifics of how he will get this done, what plan he supports, or what his local model is.
The Feasibility of Medicare for All
Keady, highlighting the candidates’ differences, responds first. He asserts that Senator Sanders’s tax plan will be sufficient. Providing a stark contrast, Schmid and Shehadeh highlight concerns of cost and political feasibility.
Conforti, who supports Medicare for All, adds the thought of additional value being found in Medicare for All by separating employment from health care — opening the door for increased entrepreneurship and empowering individuals in the workplace. Further, she reiterates her holistic principles by explaining how we can afford such a system by reallocating government subsidies to the health care sector.
Next up, the environment.
Do you support the Green New Deal?
Proposing a blend of progressivism and pragmatism again, Schmid’s views on climate include taking immediate action by reentering the Paris Climate Accord, returning to a global leadership position on the issue, and going carbon neutral by 2050. However, she stops short of fully embracing the Green New Deal.
Schmid illuminates the need not only for responsive policies, but pro-active policies in dealing with climate change by extolling the need for proper funding of Federal Emergency Management Agency and The Federal Flood Insurance program. Continuing, she includes the need for comprehensive infrastructure redevelopment which she wants pursued under the umbrella of renewable energy and electric transport.
Shehadeh describes the Green New Deal as an “undergraduate term paper” stating that within there is nothing to act upon. Instead, he supports direct actions like reentering the Paris Climate Accord, utilizing nuclear energy as a stop gap, and transitioning to clean renewable energy.
Applefield supports the Green New Deal, but also views education as crucial in combating climate change as we have to win hearts and minds to support devise action.
Supporting the Green New Deal as a central tenet of his campaign, Keady goes beyond mere support stressing the importance of unabashed leadership:
In 2004, when I was running for city council, I publicly said that I supported gay marriage. That was at a time when that was not popular, when people were afraid, and when we were concerned about pragmatism. We have to stop being afraid…
So, we look back as Democrats and we ask the question now who supports gay marriage. Every hand in the room is going to go up and you know why we’re able to put those hands up now? Because there were certain people who were not afraid to be ahead of the curve on big bold Democratic issues.
Alongside Keady, Conforti supports the Green New Deal and addresses the need to find actionable ways to bring it to fruition. Going forward, Conforti says the Green New Deal has a symbiotic relationship with measures to promote social justice.
Following everyone’s exposition, the conversation devolved into an attack and defend format with each candidate looking to stress their road as the only one.
How will you look to enact the Green New Deal?
Conforti led the way by drawing a blueprint from the New Deal and passing it in segments. Shehadeh sharply compared passing the Green New Deal to “building sandcastles in the sky,” advocating for a more feasible approach.
Closing this segment, Keady rebuffed Shehadeh with concrete actions that can be made, while echoing what a consortium of scientists say must be done to address climate change:
They call for the rapid shift to renewable energy, leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Short-lived pollutants like methane. They call for preserving and restoring ecosystems like forests and coral reefs. They call for a shift toward a mostly plant-based diet, decreasing meat and dairy consumption. The economy, a carbon-free economy that does not rely on excessive resource extraction. And, they also talk about the need for us to stabilize our population.
How will you look to include newly of-age voters in the upcoming election?
Conforti takes to common sense before strategy saying that you must run a younger candidate on issues that resonate with younger people if you want to reach them. She goes on to stress the importance of reaching these candidates as she feels they are the key — instead flipping Republican voters — to beating Chris Smith.
Christine: I’m here because I disagree that it’s a time for moderation and that it’s possible to persuade the 70 percent of people that need to be persuaded. I just feel that it is a failed strategy. It hasn’t worked before. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing and expecting different results.
Agreeing with Conforti, Schmid shares the sentiment of needing to change the face of leadership to attract new voters. Then, going further into the raw numbers of the district, she clearly describes the uphill battle Democrats face in flipping the district and how they can’t rely on the youth vote in doing so.
Stephanie: Projections for the massive surge in voter turnout that we’re going to see in 2020 give us a win number of somewhere around 176,000 votes to be precise in this district. The reality is that to get to 176,000 votes we need 70 percent of registered Democratic voter turnout, which we have not had in a long time. And we need 70 percent of unaffiliated or Republican voters to come out and choose to vote for somebody other than Chris Smith. And that is a critical point that we all have to think about.
Reiterating his local vision, Applefield argues the need to be local so you can make connections with residents to motivate them to vote.
From a strategy perspective, Shehadeh says we need to run on different issues as the ones that the Democrats have been running on haven’t made any headway in unseating Chris Smith.
Jim: When we look at what young people are passionate about it’s the climate crisis. And they are saying to people that are older than them, whether you’re like me, 48, or some of you are decades beyond that, is we can’t wait for you to come around and feel comfortable with us aggressively dealing with the climate crisis.
Transitioning back to the usual post-question racus, Conforti and Schmid took the opportunity to seize the moment — giving each of them their defining moments of the evening.
Conforti, by pressing Keady to answer why he is a better candidate than herself (as they both have a similar platform) created a niche for herself. Before, due to a combination of both misunderstandings of Conforti’s platform and a lack of public presence, there was a general consensus that she wasn’t a viable candidate.
Next, Schmid assumed the floor to rebuff that past elections have been taking the same approach in pursuing Chris Smith’s seat. Schmid succinctly illustrated the progress made in congressional candidate strategy in NJ-4, and New Jersey writ large, by running candidates with a national security background. Then, she tied it directly into how she fits the correct profile. Not only was Schmid able to dismantle the ‘do nothing’ claim, but she cast herself as the winning strategy.
Stephanie: The 2018 elections are a road map here. Four of five seats in this state flipped. And they left with candidates with national security experience running on issues like getting rid of the state and local income tax deduction cap, talking about expanding health care coverage and lowering costs, and talking about national security issues.
Their names are Mikie Sherrill, Tom Malinowski, and Andy Kim. And in 2016 it was Josh Gottheimer. I know all of them, I’ve consulted with them and there’s a reason why I’m running in this race and it’s because I have the same background. So to say that we’ve been doing something over and over again and it hasn’t worked, it’s wrong.
In a dramatic turn from process and health care oriented questions, Mike Beson presented another crowd-asked question regarding international relations.
Where do you stand on BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) Israel?
BDS Israel is a movement to separate American support from Israel in response to their treatment of the Palisitene people. Read more here.
Hassan: Everybody says Gaza is a concentration camp, which it technically is. You can’t go anywhere. You’re surrounded from everywhere… It’s a human rights issue, you have to give people dignity.
Stephanie: So Boycott, Divest, and Sanction is a policy that absolutely isolates our ally and doesn’t achieve the result that I believe is the best way forward, which is a two-state solution. These policy objectives predate even the Bush administration and go back to the 1960s, and that has been a part of both Democratic and Republican foreign policy, which is that Israel is our ally. We owe them our shared defense and allieship; and boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning an ally is an ineffective policy that won’t achieve what we need, which is peace in the Middle East through a two-state solution that respects the sovereignty and human rights of the Palestine people and Israeli people.
Christine: The whole model for my campaign is that people and planet are greater than profit. And this falls under the fact that people who are suffering, particularly the Palestinians in this area of the region, need to be listened to and need to be addressed, and we need to assert basic human rights principles even if the person or organization committing it is an ally.
Approaching the question from an economic perspective, Applefield enumerates the financial considerations by speaking on the number of Israel companies on the NASDAQ. Further, Applefield preaches for a moderate approach based around conversation.
Jim: I do not, impart because of some of the things that they have in their language like where they talk about Israel not having a right to exist. I for myself, the approach that I take for myself to the Israeli Palestinian issue is aligned with J Street. J Street says with regards to BDS that we disagree with them vehemently on this, this, and this.
However we want them at the table because we have to listen, because voices aren’t being heard, because there are legitimate concerns that are being brought with regards to the settlements in the West Bank. With regard to the apartheid state as it’s been described. So for me, the approach that J Street takes is the one that I think is the route that could potentially lead to peace in that region.
Ending the evening was a discussion about education starting with a question from the crowd.
Keeping consummate with his local approach, Applefield says he supports setting up a fund to assist NJ-4 residents with their student debt while also looking to bring new tech jobs to the region.
Shehadeh asserts that poverty is inextricably linked to poor education and that our current system is not accurately preparing students for college or the real world. Then, he argues for raising educational standards.
Looking at the educational system as an interaction between the student and educator, Conforti leads her policy proposal for education by extolling her support for social-emotional learning. She then says that education needs to move past a one-size-fits-all approach and wants to remove educational funding tied to property taxes.
Championing the progressive banner Keady says he supports College for All and that forgiving college debt it is an investment in the youth.
While acknowledging that college tuition has accelerated at a rate that our paces cost of living, Schmid finds a solution in utilizing trade schools.