Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the Republican leader in the state Senate, is running for Congress from a sealed bunker, refusing to answer even cream-puff questions like this one: “What are your three biggest accomplishments?”
Instead, Kean is relying on his family name alone, which is beloved by those who knew his father, the two-term governor known for his integrity and bipartisanship.
Sadly, Kean Jr. is busy soiling that name today with a vile and factually incorrect attack that accuses his opponent, Rep. Tom Malinowski, of protecting sexual predators of children. It’s the kind of grotesquely unfair charge that degrades our politics. And it’s particularly offensive in light of Kean’s jaw-dropping lack of substance on the issues.
This smear, apparently, is all he has.
The ad concerns Malinowski’s role as Washington director of Human Rights Watch, a globally respected organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for working to rid the world of land mines. During the debate over a 2006 crime bill, Human Rights Watch lobbied to soften the terms of a Megan’s Law provision that was particularly aggressive.
The attack ad claims that Human Rights Watch “strongly opposed the national sex offender registry” and that is simply not true. The Congressional Record of March 8, 2006 (Page H691) includes a letter from Human Rights Watch spelling out its objections, and explicitly stating that it does not oppose the registry.
The objection was over its most extreme provisions, like the requirement that states place even misdemeanor sex offenders on the federal registry for 20 years. In some states, that included those convicted of public urination. In others, it included sex between consenting minors.
“Human Rights Watch did not oppose registration requirements, we just argued that it should apply only those who present an ongoing risk,” says Jennifer Daskal, a law professor at American University who was the chief lobbyist on domestic issues for the organization at the time.
Malinowski and Daskal both say he played no role in forming this policy or advocating for it, that his responsibility was for foreign affairs and national security, while hers was domestic issues. They put both names on all lobbying forms as a routine (granted, a sloppy one).
For this, Kean pronounces him a protector of child sex predators? This Trump-level dishonesty does not come naturally to Kean, who is known in the Statehouse as a gentleman, if a bit timid and ineffective. But ambition can do strange things to people. And this has the whiff of desperation.
This district, the 7th, went for Hillary Clinton by a single point in 2016 but has been trending blue in the Trump era. In 2018 Malinowski, a newcomer to electoral politics, won a surprise victory over Rep. Leonard Lance, a five-term Republican who served in the state Legislature for nearly 20 years before going to Washington.
In Sunday’s debate, Kean presented himself as a moderate, as Lance always did, a man who would seek bipartisan deals in a polarized Washington. But he’s shown no independence from President Trump. He’s endorsed Trump, he attended his rally in Wildwood in January, and he hasn’t offered a peep of protest over Trump’s statements and actions. Still, he says anti-Trump voters should not hold that against him.
“I’m supporting the president,” he said during the debate. “But the real question is who would be in the House seat.”
That’s a tough sell. Politics is a team sport, and a Kean victory would undoubtedly strengthen the hand of Republican leaders in the House, all of whom who support Trump with religious fervor. That puts Kean in a Catch-22.
He says he supports funding for the Hudson tunnel, for example, and eliminating the cap on deductions for state and local taxes, the so-called SALT deduction. But it’s Republican leaders who are blocking those policies, and a Kean victory would strengthen their hand.
As Malinowski said in the debate: “We all know, if he (Kean) is in the majority, who the Speaker would be – Kevin McCarthy, who has said denying us on SALT would be a top priority.”
The same Catch-22 applies to climate change, the pandemic, and race issues. A Kean victory could strengthen Trump’s hand on all those fronts.
Kean has taken no position on most issues, and his campaign would not respond to policy questions, even in writing. The “issues” section on his campaign web site amounts to 400 words, total, most of them platitudes like, “prioritize fiscal responsibilities” without saying how.
In the debate, Kean emphasized health care above all other issues, claiming repeatedly that he has worked in the Legislature to lower costs through bipartisan actions. But that’s not true, either.
New Jersey has managed to lower health premiums, a rare policy victory, thanks mostly to three bills drafted by Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex. One blocked surprise medical bills. Another protected Obamacare from Republican sabotage by establishing a state mandate to buy coverage. And a third helps insurers cover the cost of catastrophic cases, allowing them to lower premiums. Kean opposed all three.
Another example: Kean criticized Malinowski for supporting a bill that would allow Medicare to bargain with big Pharma over drug prices, which is now barred by law, thanks to the lobbying power of the drug industry. That bill would lower drug costs; even the drug companies concede the point, which is why they oppose it.
Kean’s claim on health costs, like his attack on Malinowski, is 100 percent fraudulent.
The attack ad, which is still running, was paid for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, but Kean’s fingerprints are all over it. I asked the campaign’s spokesman, Harrison Nealy, if the RNCC got this information from the Kean campaign, directly or indirectly. “I don’t recall but probably,” he said. “We are in constant discussion with RNCC.”
And, of course, Kean tried to capitalize on the attack ad during the debate, saying Malinowski should have resigned from Human Rights Watch in protest. “How in the world can you work for an organization that advocated against protecting children?” he asked.
For the record, land mines kill or maim more than 22,000 civilians a year, about half of them children, according to UNICEF. Human Rights Watch has been heroic on this issue, as the Nobel committee acknowledged. What exactly has Tom Kean done for children to stack up against that?
This campaign is a disaster. Kean needs to come out of the bunker, answer legitimate questions about his alliance with Trump, and pull down these sleazy ads. Voters deserve nothing less.
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Tom Moran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.