GALLOWAY, N.J. — A conservative Democrat and pro-Donald Trump Republican competing in a closely watched, open New Jersey House race went head to head Wednesday in a debate, clashing anew over the GOP candidate's lightning-rod comments on diversity.
Democratic state Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Republican attorney Seth Grossman sparred in the roughly hourlong debate at Stockton University, where the audience flouted warnings about not interrupting and cheered or booed anyway.
The 2nd District contest is among the most closely watched in the country, primarily because it's a Republican-controlled district that surveys show is likely to flip to Democrats on Nov. 6.
The exchange over diversity was one of a handful that roused the audience to intervene despite repeated warnings from the moderator to hold off.
It started when one of the questioners asked Grossman how he would work to represent the different racial groups in the southern New Jersey district.
Grossman, an attorney who won a four-way primary in June on a staunchly pro-Trump platform, pointed out that he served as a councilman in racially diverse Atlantic City and called the question "insulting."
Van Drew responded by bringing up a video from the primary campaign showing Grossman calling diversity a "bunch of crap" that surfaced in a Philly.com report. The two-minute clip showed Grossman saying diversity has become an "excuse by Democrats, communists and socialists, basically," to argue that people are not created equal.
Van Drew also referred to a social media post that Grossman shared in 2014 that disparaged black people. Word of the post led to the National Republican Campaign Committee dropping its support for Grossman.
"It's always in my nature to want to be nice and not be confrontational ... but Mr. Grossman you did say diversity is a bunch of crap. You did share a white skinhead periodical with people," Van Drew said. He was cut off by the audience calling out. Someone said "That's disgusting," and another person said "shut up." ''You shut up," said another voice in the crowd.
Grossman defended sharing the article by saying that it had been shared with him by former GOP Rep. Allen West, who is black, and that he didn't read the whole 2,500-word piece.
On diversity, he seemed to double-down on his opposition to affirmative action.
"The idea of diversity, why not read the rest of the statement. I said in America when you're looking for a job, a scholarship, I wonder how many people here could have gotten into Harvard if we didn't have these diversity quotas."
It wasn't the only exchange that got the crowd going.
The moderators asked whether climate change was a serious problem and what should be done about it. Van Drew said the scientists believe it's a problem, and he said he's talked to fishermen in the seaside district who have noticed sea-level rise and other changes as well.
"Just ignoring it is a mistake," Van Drew said.
Grossman disagreed that there's a consensus.
"Climate's been changing for 5 billion years. Go ask, Noah," he said.
Some in the crowd applauded. Others booed.