New Jersey state Sen. Edward Durr sensed something familiar when Republican Mayra Flores swept to victory last week in a South Texas congressional district that Democrats had taken for granted.
Seven months earlier, Mr. Durr, a furniture truck driver, made headlines by toppling state Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney — a key power broker in Trenton who’d held the post for 12 years — with a low-budget campaign that focused on COVID-19 restrictions and the impact on small businesses.
“The nucleus of it was the Democrats weren’t listening. We listened, we went out and reached out to the people and listened to them,” Mr. Durr, a first-time officeholder, told The Washington Times.
“They’re still not listening and that’s point evidence —[Ms. Flores] wins in a Democratic district. They weren’t listening and I don’t think they’ll be listening this November.”
Ms. Flores’ win in a special election for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela is being seen as a canary in the coal mine as Republicans try to retake the House in Washington, although signs of a potential red wave started last year.
While most observers were focused on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s closer-than-expected win for reelection in November, Mr. Durr quietly took out the state’s second-ranking Democrat. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in a state that has been trending blue.
Months into the job, Mr. Durr said his constituents are concerned about high consumer costs — a major topic as inflation rips through the economy — though he still gets an earful about the potential return of COVID-19 mandates, an issue that animated his campaign last fall.
Mr. Durr sponsored a bill that would require the state Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs to help military members discharged due to their COVID-19 vaccination status have their designations “changed and recorded as honorable.” Another bill takes aim at mandates that would require the masking of minors without parental consent.
“As far as COVID goes, I think there was an overreach of our government,” Mr. Durr said. “I believe the parent has a right to decide whether their kid wears a mask or gets an injection.”
He’s leaned into other national debates on parental choice, including the extent of sex education that is appropriate in younger grades. He introduced legislation that would ban instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to the 6th grade. It would require parental consent for students in grades 7-12 for lessons that incorporate those topics.
“They don’t even teach cursive writing anymore, which is sad. Get back to the basics of what they should be teaching,” Mr. Durr said.
Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, said Republicans are trying to score political points by attacking a curriculum that emphasizes inclusivity. But he admitted that a handful of sample lesson plans in the state did not “reflect the spirit of the standards.” The governor asked education officials to take another look at the standards.
No stranger to taking on powerful New Jersey Democrats, Mr. Durr recently sparred with the governor over the best approach to gun violence in the wake of horrific mass shootings.
Mr. Durr told a YouTube interviewer last year that what motivated him to run for office, more than anything, was being unable to get a concealed carry permit in a state that has very strict gun laws. Now in office, he’s sponsored a bundle of gun bills that would remove capacity limits for ammunition magazines and get rid of the 30-day waiting period between purchases of handguns.
Mr. Murphy chastised Mr. Durr by name in the wake of the school tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, and dared the legislature to vote on bills that would relax New Jersey’s limits on firearms.
“Let the people of New Jersey see who votes yes to high-capacity ammunition magazines, as Sen. Ed Durr wants,” the governor said.
Mr. Murphy also criticized Mr. Durr for his push to make it easier to qualify for concealed carry and a bill that would repeal a state red-flag law that allows guns to be seized in some circumstances.
Mr. Durr said he’s fine with holding votes.
“I think they should be put up for a vote, I think people should know where their lawmakers stand on issues,” he said.
To address violence, Mr. Durr said he wants to focus on individuals who wield guns irresponsibly and that mental health care reform should be the focus instead of limits on law-abiding gun owners.
“I think we’re not providing enough facilities or treatment, counselors, there’s not enough,” he said. “We’re not funding it properly.”
Mr. Durr resonated with voters last year with only a few thousand dollars in campaign funding and a smartphone to record his ads.
But getting anyone to listen to his ideas in Trenton will be a challenge. Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, so getting any of his bills out of committee is a huge task.
“He is stranded in the farthest reaches of the back benches. Such is the lot of GOP members, especially those who unseat one of the Lord Proprietors of the state of New Jersey,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Mr. Durr said the reluctance to give Republican bills a hearing is holding back bipartisan measures. He said a prime example is “Billy Cray’s Law,” a bill he sponsored that would require adult group homes to give residents the choice to install electronic monitoring devices in common areas. It also provides residents the option to get electronic monitoring in their rooms. The bill is named in memory of a man who died in an adult home after being attacked by another resident.
Some groups have expressed privacy concerns, but Mr. Durr said the bill would promote choice among residents of the homes and would attract wide support if Democrats brought it forward.
He said he will advocate for all of his bills despite the long odds.
“I am going to continue to hammer at the door. I continually hear from people saying, ‘This is New Jersey and it’s never going to happen.’ I was told I was never going to be a senator. If you keep trying, there’s a possibility of anything happening. But you gotta try,” he said.
Mr. Durr generated national headlines with his win last year, with pundits dubbing it the upset of the year, even as Mr. Youngkin defeated former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who wanted his old job back.
Mr. Durr’s first task as a senator was reconfiguring his work schedule. He’s still a driver for Raymour and Flanigan, so he rearranged his hours to meet commitments in Trenton, especially on Mondays and Thursdays that tend to be busy legislative days.
He said people constantly ask him if Trenton is different than he expected, but he’s not sure what to say.
“I never really thought about Trenton. I did my job, paid my taxes,” he said. “I think I’m getting the grasp of it.”
Mr. Durr represents the 3rd Legislative District in suburban Philadelphia, which covers parts of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.
He is in a two-year cycle and “absolutely” plans to run for reelection in 2023. He could face his old opponent, Mr. Sweeney, who told Politico earlier this year that “redistricting will not deter me” if he decides to fight for his old seat.
Tweaks to the legislative map made things harder for Democrats, particularly as blue-collar workers shift to the GOP.
“Those South Jersey Democrats outside the Camden suburbs are shifting to the GOP in enough numbers to make a comeback for Sweeney difficult,” Mr. Baker said.
For his part, Mr. Durr says he has other issues on his mind.
“I don’t really know, and I’m not concerned about what Sweeney will do,” Mr. Durr said. “I’m concerned about what I can do for my constituents.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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