By Jamie Lynn Connors
State Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist) and Democratic challenger Rupande Mehta differed over women’s healthcare and the government’s handling of COVID-19 in a virtual debate on Friday.
Mehta took the first shot, criticizing the incumbent for voting against state funding for Planned Parenthood.
“I have been a women’s advocate my entire life,” said Mehta, who described herself as a survivor of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. “We need an independent voice in the Senate that…will fight for women, instead of slashing their health care and opposing equal pay, because your party bosses told them to do so.”
Bucco defended his reputation by voicing his support for the 2018 Diane B. Allen Bill Equal Pay Act, and legislation requiring insurance companies to pay claims submitted by women under 40 for breast cancer testing.
The hour-long debate was hosted by the League of Woman Voters of New Jersey and the Morris County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Video replay of Bucco/Mehta debate, Oct. 23, 2020:
Bucco, an attorney who served in the state Assembly starting in 2010, was appointed to the Senate seat of his late father, Tony Bucco, in September 2019. Now he is campaigning to keep that seat.
Mehta, who was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and became a U.S. citizen in 2017, thinks Bucco should not get too comfortable.
“This election is not about Democratic or Republican, this election is about sensible leadership,” said Mehta, an analytical specialist and former domestic violence liaison. “Leadership that is elected, not inherited.”
Although he expressed pride in following in his father’s footsteps, Bucco also addressed the difficulties of this path.
“As a result of [my father’s] passing, I’m forced to run again this year in order to fulfill his unexpired term.”
District 25 covers parts of Morris and Somerset County. Bucco, 58, lives in Boonton Township; Mehta, 40, in Denville.
When the discussion transitioned to health insurance, the candidates stepped it up a notch.
Mehta said she wants to expand the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. That did not sit well with the incumbent.
“My opponent just doesn’t get it,” Bucco said.
“She supports taxpayer-funded insurance, whereas I think in New Jersey, which is so unaffordable as it is, we need to…look at the regulations, so that people can better adjust their insurance policies to suit their needs,” said the father of six. “We need to make health insurance affordable so that people can afford to get it and use it.”
Mehta said expanding Obamacare is more important than ever during the COVID-19 crisis.
“If we don’t take a stand in the midst of a global pandemic, when are we going to agree that people deserve health care that is quality, and…available at a low cost?” said Mehta, who has a young daughter.
Both candidates agreed the pandemic is of high concern.
Mehta said she listens to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and is sure that wearing masks will slow the spread of the virus.
“This virus does not care if you’re a Democrat or Republican. It is nasty and it is deadly,” warned Mehta, who said she leans more Independent than Democratic. “The only way to successfully move forward is to prioritize science.”
She also expressed disappointment in President Trump for the lack of masks at his campaign rallies, and put some blame on her opponent for “refus[ing] to say a word” as he pushes to reopen the economy.
Bucco bristled at her remarks, saying he is cautious as a cancer survivor and a frequent visitor to his elderly mother, who has Parkinson’s Disease.
“I just find it disingenuous and I find it appalling that you could take that type of approach and say those things when you have no idea what the true facts are,” he fired back.
The candidates both oppose defunding of police. Mehta said she supports regionalizing administrative positions among schools, while Bucco said he favors shared services among school districts.
Bucco and Mehta are set to face-off again at 7 o’clock tonight, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, at a livestreamed debate hosted by the NJ Globe.