PRINCETON – Civil liberties took center stage Thursday night as a good-government group which is synonymous with championing the cause hosted its first candidate debate.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey invited the five candidates vying for an opportunity to serve in Washington D.C. discussing advocating the relaxation of marijuana laws, fixing the criminal justice system and changing U.S. immigration practices.
CD 12, the good-government group notes, is home to 2,155 card-carrying members. It’s also home to outgoing U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12), who the ACLU-NJ’s executive director, Udi Ofer, proudly declared is “a champion of our Constitution” and a friend of the agency.
“This is actually the first time the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is hosting a candidate debate,” he said. “I cannot think of a better way to begin this new tradition than to host this debate here in Congressional District 12.”
The group has recognized Holt for his staunch support of civil liberties and constitutional safeguards in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which the ACLU argues – many times in the courtroom – ushered an unprecedented overreach of the federal government.
And at the sold-out event inside the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton the four Democratic and on GOP congressional hopefuls squared off, expressing many of the same viewpoints but differing where the sole Republican hopeful, Dr. Alieta Eck, tacked right where the remaining four stood firm left.
“I think [voter] ID laws are good,” Eck said before the audience of about 150.
“Why would you not want someone to have an ID to do something as such an important thing as voting?” Eck asked, after stating individuals attending the Democratic National Convention are required to show identification.
Eck, who had no shortage of applause when throughout the debate while delivering answers, was hit with some groans from the crowd for the first time during the event.
“Every single one of [the voter ID laws] is sponsored by a Republican,” responded Princeton plasma physicist Andrew Zwicker. “If that is not a clear, clear sign of voter disenchantment, I don’t know what is. This is clearly about disenchantment.”
Fellow Democrats Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and Sen. Linda Greenstein agreed.
But it wasn’t all traditional right versus left when it came to the first debate Eck was given an opportunity to take the stage with her challengers.
Marijuana legalization? Dems said yes and Eck argued decriminalization. Gay marriage and LGBT rights? On board and in favor of gay marriage, said the Dems. Eck, religious concerns but the government shouldn’t be in the bedroom, she said. Prolife or prochoice? Dems: Prochoice. Eck? Prolife, but says Roe vs. Wade is law of the land and health of the women undergoing abortions should be protected.
The Republican who ran an unsuccessful primary bid for U.S. Senate was also quick to call her colleagues out when she thought they were in violation of what they purport to want to defend.
“I find it fascinating that all of my colleagues are greatly in favor of the Affordable Care Act,” said Eck while the congressional hopefuls were discussing the Patriot Act being, as Zwicker put it, “One of the most insanely unconstitutional things.”
But on the unconstitutional message, Eck called out the Democrats for support the ACA while speaking out against the post Sept. 11 Patriot Act.
“I find it a total violation,” she said. “When you talk about spying on individual citizens, this is one thing I find totally abhorrent.”
Any common ground? It was mixed bag.
Death penalty? Eck and Greenstein in favor. The others oppose it.
Edward Snowden “returning home” and given clemency? Zwicker and Eck: Bring him home, he should be acknowledged for unveiling government overreach. Greenstein, Watson Coleman and Chivukula: Bring him home and given him a fair hearing, but not quite prepared to label him a hero.