Candidates field queries on Israel, debt, Medicaid

Candidates field queries on Israel, debt, Medicaid

Upendra J. Chivukula
Upendra J. Chivukula

On June 3, Democratic primary voters in New Jersey’s congressional District 12 will be asked to choose from among four candidates hoping to succeed Democrat Rep. Rush Holt, who was first elected in 1998 and will retire at the end of his term. 

The candidates are Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (Dist. 15), Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (Dist. 17), State Sen. Linda Greenstein (Dist. 14), and Dr. Andrew Zwicker

The Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ sent the candidates a questionnaire on issues of concern to Jewish constituents in the district, which includes portions of Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties as well as Trenton. 

Below are responses in whole or in part received from the candidates. (Zwicker, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, responded that he felt there was insufficient time to answer the questions in a thoughtful manner.) 

The questions:

Iranian threat: The threat of Iran’s nuclear ambition is of great concern to the Jewish community and the international community. Do you share this concern, and what is your strategy for stopping Iran from having weaponized nuclear capacity? What steps will you take to prevent this from occurring?

U.S.-Israel relations: What do you feel is the appropriate role for the United States in its relations between Israel and its neighbors, especially when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What role would you hope to play as a member of Congress?

Middle East: With the changing landscape in the Middle East, what do you see as the biggest challenge to United States interests in the Middle East? What role do you see the U.S. playing in Syria and Egypt? How do we ensure the security of the United States and Israel?

Charitable deductions: There has been some discussion about changing the charitable contribution deduction. Do you support the existing deductions or do you think they should be changed, and if so, how?

Medicaid: The health and human service agencies of the Jewish federations receive a substantial amount of their revenue from Medicaid. Would you seek to change Medicaid? If so, how? What would the impact be on state governments and nonprofits?

Medicare and Social Security: While the baby boomers continue to age and retire, how do you plan to keep Medicare and Social Security solvent for future generations?

National debt: The national debt is over $1 trillion and has grown significantly in recent years due to rising annual deficits, while unemployment remains high at 7.6 percent. What is your strategy for solving these two problems?

The responses:


Iranian threat: I am concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the globe, and especially in unstable regions like Iran. I believe the United States must work with the international community to do everything it can to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Currently, the internal politics of Iran offers a historic opportunity to resolve this issue through peaceful multilateral diplomacy — we must take advantage of this opportunity. Without question, sanctions have assisted with bringing Iran to the negotiating table, but now is the time to show good faith.

I will not support additional sanctions — such as those supported by Ted Cruz — while the negotiations are ongoing. I will support additional sanctions as required should the negotiations break down. America must also continue to work with allies in the region, such as Israel and other intergovernmental organizations, to deter an aggressive or expansionist Iran.

U.S.-Israel relations: The United States will continue to play a critical role in securing peace between Israel and Palestine. The U.S. must work to achieve a lasting solution to the conflict, one which ensures secure borders and a secure capital for the Jewish State of Israel. To do this, America must promote the moderates and reject religious extremism — violence and terrorism targeted at civilians can never be tolerated or excused and will always be a fundamental roadblock to peace.

As a congressman, I would continue to visit the region (I have had the opportunity to visit Israel twice before) and will work with leaders both in Israel and in the United States to support a secure resolution. I will work to educate and involve fellow lawmakers on the issues and the history of the region and will continue to have an open door to all constituents wishing to share their perspectives.

Middle East: The U.S. must continue to play a role in supporting the security of Israel, the most robust democracy in the Middle East. This should be done through direct aid to Israel, but also through a coherent approach to stability and security across the region. The U.S. cannot ignore the destabilizing effect of turmoil in Israel’s neighboring countries of Syria and Egypt. We must continue to work multilaterally to support moderate forces in both countries to promote security and stability.

We must also understand the destabilizing role Russia is having in the region, as they continue to recklessly provide both military and financial support to the Assad regime and the Iranians. I believe we must confront the Putin administration directly, as I see the destabilizing threat of Syria and Iran as two of the most important security issues in the Middle East outside of Israel.

Charitable deductions: I believe all donations to charitable causes should be tax-free.

Medicaid: Medicare and Medicaid must be protected from Tea Party raids. We cannot balance our budget off the backs of vulnerable people relying on Medicaid, or our seniors relying on Medicare. There may be room to reform these systems to find efficiencies and provide better services, but it cannot come at a cost to patient care. All changes must be carefully considered, in consultation with our partners, such as the Jewish federations.

Medicare and Social Security: The idea that Social Security and Medicare are inherently insolvent is a myth perpetuated by the Tea Party. I do not support cuts to these programs and will fight against them passionately in Congress. As a scientist, like former Congressman Rush Holt, I deal with facts and numbers. The fact is that if payroll tax is raised to former levels on millionaires — the wealthiest 2 percent — then Social Security and Medicare will be funded for the next 75 years.

On climate change, Medicare and Social Security, voter ID laws, and foreign affairs — I plan to teach the Tea Party a thing or two about facts.

National debt: Our debt and our economy are linked, but not in the way Tea Party Republicans claim. We will not fix the economy by slashing programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance; that will only make things worse by pulling more money out of the economy and pushing us again toward recession. There is room, however, to cut unnecessary defense spending, to pull out of Afghanistan, and to stop fighting wars of choice like Iraq.

Getting the economy back on track should be a first-order issue, and it will assist with the budget situation; when people have good jobs and businesses are doing well, then the government will have more people paying taxes and less people who need to rely on government services. To get back on track, we need to direct our investment toward job creation. We need to invest in targeted education and retraining, we need to invest in infrastructure and high-tech development, and we need to raise the minimum wage. 


Iranian threat: Ensuring the Jewish community’s security means protecting the democratic values that not only we in the United States value, but Israel as well. Israel is an important ally and friend, and our commitment to their well-being and safety includes disarming Iran’s nuclear weapons and ending any proposed threat of nuclear proliferation.

Iran’s relentless effort to launch a nuclear program is of great concern to the international community. Not only is the disarmament of Iran beneficial for the security of the entire international community, especially in the Middle East region, but also to our friend Israel. At a time when the world is calling for the disarmament of nuclear weapons, the United States cannot stand by while its closest ally in the Middle East region faces such a dire threat. Instead, the United States must be proactive and vocal on a stance that prohibits Iran’s access to nuclear weapons. Additionally, the United States must play a leadership role in preventing Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons or coming close to breakout capacity.

Congress created a robust economic sanctions program that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the interim agreement weakened our leverage to ensure Iran meets its obligations under Security Council resolutions. I support the administration’s efforts toward a peaceful conclusion to threats posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and also President Obama’s commitment to keep all options on the table. In Congress, I would support steps including establishing mechanisms immediately triggering restoration of tough sanctions should Iran not abide by its agreements, and would work with colleagues and the administration to ensure Israel has the defense capabilities to address existential threats.

U.S.-Israel relations: Israel and America have been friends and allies since the state's creation. Because of shared ideals and security interests, we have a significant stake in working with Israel to ensure its sovereignty and ability to live in peace with its neighbors. More than the fact that Israel is a thriving democracy in a sea of authoritarian regimes, our peoples share an ethos, a pioneering spirit that anything is possible, that we can shape a bright future for our children born of that freedom and pioneering spirit.

As a nation, we have an important role to play in the peacemaking process, and I would hope to influence structuring a realistic peacemaking process that brings all parties to the negotiating table — a diplomatic process based on established guarantees that the parties follow through on agreements made.

Peace between Israel and its neighbors is first and foremost important for the people of the region and future generations of its children. Too many precious lives have been lost and for the children’s sake, it’s time for the parties to end the conflict and acknowledge that forcing a peace agreement will not solve the rest of the region’s problems.

Middle East: With its rich religious and cultural history, Israel is an important land to Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other faiths who accept the sanctity of Israel. In the United States, even those Americans not swayed by the religious significance of Israel acknowledge that Israel is a beacon for democracy in a region where democratic values are not the norm.

The relationship with Israel is crucial as they have been a partner in our efforts to gather military intelligence to thwart terroristic plans. The Middle East continues to see air strikes, rocket bombs, and violent citizen casualties. Regardless of whether these recurring attacks arise out of conflicts with Palestine, Syria, or Egypt, the Israeli people need our support and protection.

The biggest challenge is the perception that America is no longer the leader in maintaining regional stability while promoting human rights and structural reforms giving the people a stake in growing their economy and creating viable livelihoods. We have a strategic interest in thwarting the Assad regime and its allies. Hundreds of thousands have died in Syria's civil war. International security experts argue we have other choices than do nothing or send in ground troops, proposing actions far short of intensive military intervention that favor moderates and making sure humanitarian supplies are delivered to those in need. Clearly this is difficult, with evidence that Assad's opposition is increasingly controlled by militant fundamentalists. Ensuring that aid actually gets where it's needed is a thorny problem. We should coordinate diplomatic and intelligence infrastructures to get a clearer understanding of trends before they blow out of control and hinder our ability to safeguard our own and Israel's strategic interests. We know conflicts in the region are deep, complex, and highly emotional, but we have a responsibility to follow through on promises we've made dating to 1948.

Charitable deduction: N/A

Medicaid: The Jewish federations have been national leaders in advocating for support systems and lifesaving community programs such as Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities that allow for quality of life regardless of economic status and age — programs that in fact make real our founders' dictum of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I applaud the federations’ focus and fully support protecting and preserving Medicaid as a critical safety net for individuals. I would strenuously resist any congressional proposals to cut its funding. As a state assemblywoman, these priorities have been underscored in my votes and my leadership and are specifically reflected in a successful effort to fully fund New Jersey’s Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled program providing prescription assistance here in New Jersey, no matter how many times my Republican counterparts have tried to dismantle these critical programs.

Medicare and Social Security: I fully believe that Medicare and Social Security should be protected as well as strengthened and expanded to ensure their long-term solvency. They are one of our nation’s most important income security programs and for many retirees, they are the sole secure source of income. I fully support current proposals to expand benefits by “scrapping the cap” as one way to help ensure Social Security's solvency — that is, having the wealthiest Americans pay the same rate of Social Security taxes everyone pays on income above their first $110,000 earned, which is where those taxes are capped now. We must keep our promise to current retirees and baby boomers who have worked hard and paid their share into the social safety net for decades. For them, benefits must not be cut.

National debt: One of our primary concerns should be in creating good, secure jobs — with major public/private investments in jobs that repair our outdated and in many respects dangerous infrastructures, i.e. building bridges, repaving roads, and repairing disintegrating schools. Such an infrastructure program should be designed to facilitate commerce in the 21st century. It is more than just roads, but building human capital that will advance new ideas, create new businesses (that in turn create new jobs), and give workers flexible skills. Further, there are many jobs that are available that are going unfilled for a variety of reasons. We need to find ways of matching workers to those positions. More importantly, these jobs must be paid at a living wage, not our current minimum wage. I led the successful “raise the wage” campaign in New Jersey alongside gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono. That is a fight I would be proud to continue in Washington. 


Iranian threat: We must prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability. Iran is one of the biggest threats to the security of Israel, the Middle East, and the entire world. If Iran gets nuclear capability, it will be an immediate threat and destabilizing force to the region. I support the strongest possible sanctions to complement vigorous diplomacy. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, authored by Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez, aims to strengthen American diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. This legislation codifies President Obama’s pledge that new sanctions will be forthcoming if a final agreement cannot be reached. Any deal must make it impossible for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

U.S.-Israel relations: As a member of Congress, I will do everything in my power to ensure that the alliance between Israel and the United States remains indestructible because that bond is integral to both countries. Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and must remain strong, secure and independent. Fore a durable peace, the issues must be decided by the two main parties (Palestinians and Israelis), not forced on them by third parties. The role of the U.S. is to support the peace process, not to impose a solution, diplomatic or otherwise. There can be no pre-conditions to these talks, except that Palestinians must acknowledge that Israel has a right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people. I will do everything I can to support the peace process.

Middle East: The biggest challenge facing the US in the Middle East is ensuring that Iran does not develop weaponized nuclear capabilities. We must work to foster peace in Syria to put an end to sectarian violence and to minimize instability in the region. Egypt is important to us because of its leadership in the Arab world, and its willingness to establish a peaceful relationship with Israel. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt negotiated in 1979 has ensured peace on Israel’s southern border and must be maintained and enforced. The present military government of Egypt is cracking down on Hamas, while the earlier Muslim Brotherhood regime protected them. It is in the interests of both the United States and Israel to cooperate with Egyptian security forces to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza to be used against Israeli civilian populations. America must continue full funding of the annual $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel. This is the most tangible support that the U.S. gives to Israel and helps Israel maintain its qualitative military edge.

Charitable deductions: We need to ensure that we are fostering a culture of charitable giving, not stifling it. I believe it is important for charitable contributions to stay deductible at a robust level so that we do not see a dip in charitable giving.

Medicaid: I believe Medicaid is an important program, and I will work to protect it from all attacks and cutbacks. Along with Social Security and Medicare, it is a cornerstone program that provides security to many of our citizens, and I want to ensure it remains robust and effective and available for citizens in need of its services.

Medicare and Social Security: I will oppose any attack or cut to Social Security and Medicare, essential programs that ensure that our seniors have security in their retirement, and I will fight day in and day out to fully fund these programs. One path to solvency that I support is raising the Social Security income cap, which currently is only $117,000. If we raised this cap, we could fully fund the program for generations to come.

National debt: I believe that tax fairness is the cornerstone of debt reduction. I support the president's plan to eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies and explore capping the values of some itemized deductions. As for job creation, we need to continue to invest in robust job training programs to modernize our workforce, we must continue to invest in education to ensure that our students get the proper primary and secondary educational experiences to prepare them to enter the current global workforce, we must recommit to fostering innovation by prioritizing funding for research and development and supporting tax credit programs for America’s innovators, and we must invest in new and burgeoning technology and science industries to ensure that our workers can stay competitive in the new global marketplace.

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