Rep. Mikie Sherrill and her Republican challenger, Rosemary Becchi, shared a rare moment of agreement Sunday night as they lamented the gender gap in politics and called for more women to run for office.
But the two women vying to represent New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District found little common ground elsewhere during their first debate, offering sharply divergent views on policy ahead of a Nov. 3 election already underway with mail-in balloting.
Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, flipped the traditionally Republican seat in 2018. On Sunday, she criticized her opponent for campaigning on a platform of “fear and dissension” that would take away health care from millions, pander to gun lobbyists and favor corporations over people.
Becchi, a tax lawyer and lobbyist, repeatedly accused Sherrill of “voting with Nancy Pelosi 99% of the time” and blamed her for not securing enough coronavirus relief funding for her district. She said the congresswoman supported “radical” ideas like defunding the police.
“She promised you she was going to Washington to be a different kind of Democrat, and she hasn’t been,” Becchi said. “She has been nothing more than a rubber stamp for [Pelosi’s] policies.”
The 11th District covers Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway Township and much of the rest of Morris County and also stretches into parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex counties, including sections of Montclair, Wayne and Sparta.
Sherrill, who did not vote for Pelosi to retake the House speakership in 2019, pushed back against that characterization and said only 78 of her 900 votes have matched Pelosi’s. She in turn took aim at Becchi’s lobbying work, accusing her of helping clients get around antiterrorist legislation and environmental regulations.
“I’m very proud of my time in Congress, and I’ve committed to this district to work incredibly hard on bipartisan legislation,” Sherrill said. “I don’t put labels on what I do, but I can guarantee that 100% of my votes have been for the people of New Jersey.”
The congresswoman defended her co-sponsorship of the Justice in Policing Act, which would make it easier to sue police for alleged misconduct. Becchi said the legislation would allow “criminals” to potentially bankrupt officers for doing their jobs.
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Becchi distanced herself Sunday from a controversial mailer that accused Sherrill of turning her back on law enforcement and showed Sherrill’s name beside a burning American flag in a Molotov cocktail. Sherrill called her challenger’s refusal to disavow the mailer, sent by a super PAC on Becchi’s behalf, “incredibly offensive.”
The candidates took traditional stances on abortion and gun rights. Becchi, the pro-life mother of a daughter who was born without her esophagus attached to her stomach, said she “wouldn’t change anything about her or about my life with her.” Sherrill spoke of the importance of fully funding Planned Parenthood and providing access to maternal health care.
Sherrill confronted Becchi over her A rating from the National Rifle Association, describing her opposition to magazine capacity limits and other gun control measures as “completely out of line with the views and values of the 11th District.” Becchi denied that her position is “extreme” and said she recognizes the need to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and the mentally ill.
Debate over the Affordable Care Act also hewed to party lines, though Becchi expressed her desire to keep the law’s coverage of preexisting conditions. She called for more transparency and competition in health care but argued against a government-run health care system. Sherrill noted that Republicans have not presented an alternative plan.
The pandemic was a recurring topic throughout the hourlong debate, sponsored by the New Jersey Globe website. Becchi said she did not want to keep families on lockdown and pushed for more urgency in reviving the economy. Sherrill blamed President Donald Trump for failing to contain the virus.
The congresswoman also questioned the behavior of her opponent, saying her office has received complaints about Becchi’s campaign holding large gatherings without masks and knocking on doors without masks. Becchi said her campaign workers have maintained social distancing and adhered to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sherrill and Becchi will next meet on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. for a virtual debate sponsored by InsiderNJ.
Svetlana Shkolnikova covers local news and Superior Court in Morris County for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from criminal trials to local lawsuits and insightful analysis, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.