Can we agree on ANYTHING? A NJ Democrat and Republican debate the state of 2022 politics

Asbury Park Press, November 2, 2022

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New Jersey state Sens. Vin Gopal and Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr. are a bit of an anomaly in this polarized political world: two representatives from different parties who like and respect each other.

How do Gopal, a committed Democrat, and O'Scanlon, a proud Republican, find ways to get along?

"It starts with civility and understanding," Gopal said. "We can have strong disagreements and that is OK. We deal with it with civility. We know that government has to function."

O'Scanlon noted that, while there are plenty of areas where the two disagree, there are others where they have found common ground. They have sponsored more than 100 bills together.

"When we come together, it really works," O'Scanlon said. Finding common ground "greatly increases everybody's credibility," and also "increases the likelihood you're going to get things done."

Gopal and O'Scanlon came together to discuss their friendship, their legislative style and their stance on several important issues during an online forum, "Can We Agree on Anything?" moderated by Dustin Racioppi, politics and government editor for the Atlantic Region of USA TODAY Network.

The two legislators, who each represent parts of Monmouth County, discussed everything from permitting residents to grow their own marijuana to vaccine mandates and brewery regulations. You can watch the whole form on YouTube.

Here's their take on several big issues facing New Jersey.

Vin Gopal

Marijuana home-grow

"The number one thing we have to do is allow folks in New Jersey to have some kind of home-grow options," Gopal said, stressing that growing weed at home should be allowed, in particular, for those with medical conditions that marijuana can improve. "To arrest somebody and go to jail for growing some plants is insane."

O'Scanlon agreed.

"For government to say, 'you can’t create this substance in your house.' We let people brew beer, with really no oversight, we let people make wine," O'Scanlon said. "If you are a conservative Republican, you can’t have that dichotomy where government insists it is the be all and and all, and it’s not only not going to permit you to do it, it’s going to arrest you if you do it."

Should vaccines for COVID-19 be required for schoolchildren?

Both O'Scanlon and Gopal say "no."

"The threat of covid to children’s health is dramatically lower than people of older age," O'Scanlon said. "It’s got to be a non-starter. It’s not backed by the science."

Declan O'Scanlon

Both O'Scanlon and Gopal say "no."

"The threat of covid to children’s health is dramatically lower than people of older age," O'Scanlon said. "It’s got to be a non-starter. It’s not backed by the science." 

Instead, the decision to vaccinate a child for COVID-19 should be made by the children's parents or guardian, he said."I am completely opposed to any mandate for vaccinating children," Gopal said. "I think there is absolutely no reason for any type of vaccine mandate." He said mandating COVID vaccines for kids "would be a terrible thing as far as political civility. ... People have very strong feelings on this."O'Scanlon said Gov. Phil Murphy could defuse public concern about mandated covid vaccines by making a statement that such jabs will not be required."I think we should be working now to make our voices heard," he said.

Regulating New Jersey breweries

Gopal and O'Scanlon agree that recent regulations (onsite events are restricted to 25 a year, while off-site events like beer festivals are capped at 12) are unfair and should be changed.

"To limit the number of events they can do, that doesn’t make sense," Gopal said. He said while breweries should not be operated like restaurants or bars, he says they should be able to offer more food options than those allowed under state law.

"We should encourage opportunities for food and snacks there," he said, adding it's important for people to have some food options while drinking.

O'Scanlon said restaurants and bars were able to flourish before the pandemic when breweries were operating under fewer restrictions than they are now.

"What we want to do is, reinstate the breweries ability to operate the way they have been operating for years and still have the restaurants survive and thrive as they have been for years," he said.

Judicial vacancies

O'Scanlon and Gopal agreed that New Jersey has a crisis with the number of judicial vacancies, but noted there is only one vacancy in Monmouth County, and that is likely to be filled soon.

"It’s critically important. Justice delayed is justice denied," O'Scanlon said. "It’s inexcusable this has been allowed to happen. ... There are counties with six to eight vacancies. The system is just grinding to a halt."

Gopal said it's unfortunate that "some of our colleagues, on both sides of the aisle," have stalled judicial appointments for months. Gov. Murphy's nomination of Rachel Wainer Apter, a Democrat and the director of the state’s civil rights division, to the state Supreme Court was blocked for 18 months by state Sen. Holly Schepisi.

A compromise between Schepisi and the governor was reached in September, allowing Wainer Apter's nomination to move forward; she was confirmed last month. O'Scanlon faulted the Murphy administration's "failure to engage," saying the compromise could have been reached much sooner.

"There is no excuse for a supreme court justice to be blocked for 18 months," Gopal said. He pointed to Monmouth County, where he said, "we are proud not just of the diversity of the candidates, but also their qualifications."

"We work well together. When we disagree, we talk to each other, we try to navigate it," Gopal said. "I don’t think it’s good for government, obviously," to have so many judicial vacancies.

What do they think of Gov. Murphy's new hair style?

"It's haphazard and joyful," O'Scanlon said, adding, "I disagree with the governor on many things, (but) he is usually a happy guy when I see him." He contended, though, that Murphy's chief of staff, George Helmy, "has much better hair than the governor."

"Who am I to judge?" Gopal joked. Describing his own hair, he said, "I am fading in a lot of places here."

He noted that while he has had many "strong disagreements" with Murphy, the governor is "always civil. He is always respectful."

"I am not a fan of the Trump, Chris Christie mantra of screaming down people, yelling at teachers," Gopal said. "I think that’s why we are in the situation we are in."