By Chris Rotolo |
LINCROFT – Congressional hopeful Josh Welle was eager to cross paths with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith once again.
As Welle explained it during an Oct. 18 League of Women Voters candidate forum held on Brookdale’s campus, it was Smith who helped set the Wall Township High School alum on a path of public service.
“Twenty years ago (Chris Smith) had the foresight to nominate me to the Naval Academy because he saw my leadership potential,” Welle said, sparking some laughter from the audience of about 130 people. The experience is why the Democrat has decided to run to represent New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District, which covers parts of Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer counties, where Smith, a Republican, is currently serving his 19th term.
Welle said he was grateful for Smith’s backing because it allowed him to attend a school that taught him to place country above party and instilled a “focus on mission, purpose and team,” rather than party affiliation.
But that 30 seconds of praise was the only pleasantry Welle or his counterparts – Independents Brian Reynolds and Felicia Stoler, and Libertarian Party candidate Michael Rufo – would offer Smith, who did not appear at the forum. Two other Independent candidates, Edward Stackhouse and Allen Yusufov, were also absent.
Following opening statements, candidates had the chance to express their views on the issues, though, given the location, the Brookdale Community College student center, it was fitting the opening discussion centered on making college more affordable.
Making College More Affordable
Welle and Stoler were in lockstep about incentivizing high school students to pursue a trade school education and learn technical skills, as well as forgiving student loan debts for those college graduates who enter the state department or a federal agency. But Reynolds made a case for driving down the rapidly rising costs of tuition.
Reynolds proposed a pilot program that would grant the top 150 community colleges around the nation a federal endowment that would alleviate such strict budgetary binds and allow the institutes like Brookdale to operate without the use of county monies.
“A program like this would alleviate tax payers of the $80 million a year in taxes and fees we’re currently spending for operating costs, as well as put a huge amount of downward pressure on the cost of college in the area, at schools like Brookdale and others around the state,” Reynolds said.
Fixing the Immigration Process
Reynolds was quick to point out the inefficiencies of both the Republican and Democratic parties in relation to immigration. Earlier this year the Trump administration’s pathway to citizenship proposal – which would have granted amnesty 1.8 million illegal immigrants – was shot down in the Senate in February, and another GOP leadership-backed bill that died in Congress in June after House Republicans abandoned it.
“The problem with immigration is that we have parties in D.C. that aren’t capable of making a decision on it,” Reynolds said. “The answer is, there’s going to be some set of citizens that have to jump through hoops to become legalized, and there’s going to be another set of people who naturally decide to leave on their own because of those hoops. It’s just too many people being held in check by party leadership.”
Stoler piggybacked on Reynolds’ point by noting Welle was the only candidate on stage beholden to a party. “We don’t have to worry about adhering to a party block vote on issues as important as this,” she added.
Welle was staunchly unsupportive of a wall on the southern border, but rather, proposed a partnership between Central American countries to form a “Marshal Plan” that would, in theory, help authorities curb drug crises and gang violence.
“The reason people are coming here is because it’s unsafe where they are right now. We need to invest in partner nations and keep people from fleeing needing to flee here to America,” Welle said.
Want to Fix Health Care? Give Members of Congress The Same Deal
On the topic of health care reform Welle stated what most on hand and the majority of those around the country believe with certainty: “Health care costs are way too high in this country. We all know it. Everyone in this room is paying too much for insurance. You want to fix health care? Give Chris Smith and every Congressman the same health care you have as everyday people. Health care will be fixed overnight,” Welle said.
The Democratic candidate went on to encourage voters in the room to choose a candidate, such as the four on stage, that did not accept campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies, which Welle said perpetuates the high costs of coverage.
Libertarian candidate Michael Rufo said transparency is key in reforming the industry.
“There’s no competition on pricing in the health care field because everything is blind. You don’t know what you pay your doctor, which means doctors don’t have to compete on price,” Rufo said. “We need more transparency in health care. We need to put doctors in a position where they need to compete and negotiate with patients, and ensure that pharmaceutical companies are telling you what they charge, and that everybody gets charged the same.”
Stoler set her sights on failing Medicare and Medicaid systems that she said “don’t work anymore.”
“What we need is a paradigm shift. We need to pay for health care, and not insurance. HMO models are the best practices in health care. They are saving money and saving lives,” said Stoler, a health and wellness professional, highlighting affordable and customizable health care programs like Geisinger Health Plan, Forward Health Group and Kaiser Permanente.
Combating the Opioid Epidemic
All four candidates recognized the opioid epidemic as one of the most severe problems facing New Jersey and the nation at large.
Rufo said the growing cases of addiction and rising death tolls are due to too much government intervention and a failed war on drugs.
“The government has this war on drugs and marijuana, and instead of being able to treat pain with an edible or an oil or by smoking, you have to go to a doctor who prescribes you opioids,” said Rufo, who told a story about a motorcycle accident that left his brother bedridden for months and an emotional wreck when he realized his broken legs had healed, but his battle against a morphine addiction was only just beginning.
Stoler seconded the notion that prescription drugs were at the heart of this issue, and said that throwing users in jail is not the answer.
“I have a colleague whose son was arrested, got clean in jail, and shortly after his release he overdosed and died,” Stoler said. “We need better treatment programs that are going to save lives. What we’re doing now is not working.”
Welle approached the topic from the community level, calling for more social workers in our schools.
“We need to invest in our social worker network, so kids have a place they can feel safe and seek help if they do have a problem,” said Welle, who also said protecting Medicaid was integral for many addicted individuals to locate beds at detoxification and rehabilitation facilities.
This article was first published in the Nov. 1-7, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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