When it comes to candidates, Republicans this midterm cycle are talking a lot about the issue of parents’ rights. Their stance — that parents should be dictating what’s taught in schools — is not new.

Last year, parental control of the curriculum was a winning issue for Republican Glenn Youngkin, who ousted Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia. (Youngkin is now targeting trans student rights.)

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly beat back a challenge from Republican Jack Cittarelli, who drummed up controversy by making specious claims about the state’s sex education standards for its curriculum. The results were closer than expected.

This year, in the competitive contest for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District, a battle has erupted again over sex education in the classroom, even though any parent can opt out of any class they feel is inappropriate for their child.

The purple district picked up thousands more Republican voters after redistricting this year. Located in the southern portion of Northern New Jersey, the district includes all of Hunterdon and Warren counties, along with parts of Sussex, Somerset, Morris, and Union counties. It’s rather sprawling — stretching as far east as Linden and Rahway, and as far west as Harmony and Holland. There’s also a little town called Bedminster, where former President Donald Trump likes to golf and summer, right in the middle.

The incumbent currently representing the district is Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, who is running against Republican Tom Kean Jr., son of a former New Jersey governor, and a former minority leader of the New Jersey State Senate. (Kean Jr. declined WNYC’s invitation to join the show.)

The race is a rematch between the two candidates, after Malinowski narrowly beat Kean Jr. in 2020.

Malinowski was a guest Sunday on “The People’s Guide to Power,” WNYC’s midterm election series, and spoke with host and senior politics reporter Brigid Bergin. A lightly edited transcript of their discussion is below.

Brigid Bergin: Let's start with this issue of sexual education in the classroom. New Jersey adopted new standards that are being implemented for the first time this year. What kind of input do you think parents should have on this issue?

Rep. Tom Malinowski: I think parents should have input on every aspect of their kids' education. Ever since I've been in this office since 2018, I've been talking to parents, to teachers, to students. I do assemblies and meetings at high schools all the time, and I get a range of concerns from folks about our schools. The No. 1 concern, probably going back to when I first started running for office, was safety.

I meet a lot more parents who want to protect their kids from guns than parents who want to protect their kids from books. And [guns are] still an important issue — this year we actually passed the first gun violence prevention bill Congress has adopted in over three decades.

Since COVID, I hear a lot, very understandably, about the time that our students lost when education was hybrid or at home. That's a very serious problem. Our kids are dealing with a lot of mental health issues. The lack of mental health resources for kids comes up a lot. And then there's this newer issue that has kind of come to our state from other states where parent groups and political movements have tried to rile up a lot of fear about what our kids are allegedly being taught in class.

So we're seeing that play out in school board elections in New Jersey and in our campaign.

It was also a topic of a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll that found most New Jerseyans do favor sexual education in high school and middle school, but just about 46% approve of it in elementary school. This is really a state issue. We're talking about state standards, and you are running for federal office. Can you talk more about why this has become an issue in your race?

My opponent, who you mentioned, Tom Kean Jr., has jumped on this bandwagon of bringing the culture wars to New Jersey. He went on Fox News a few months ago and accused elementary school teachers in his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey of teaching pornography to second graders. (Note: In his appearance on Fox News, Kean Jr. did not explicitly mention the town of Westfield. However, NJ Spotlight reported on how the origin of this debate traces back to a presentation at a school board meeting there.)

It's obviously not true. It has nothing to do with the state education, sex education guidelines. Just think about what a horrible thing that is to falsely accuse an elementary school teacher of doing. But I think the political purpose of this is just to stoke fear and anger and then to try to use it to win elections.

I mean, if I'm a parent and I hear a politician tell me that teachers are sexually grooming my second grade student, I'm going to be pretty upset about that and pretty concerned. It just happens to be not true and that's what has really upset me.
Rep. Tom Malinowski

I mean, if I'm a parent and I hear a politician tell me that teachers are sexually grooming my second grade student, I'm going to be pretty upset about that and pretty concerned. It just happens to be not true and that's what has really upset me. We need to be recruiting more teachers to teach our kids.

That's a big problem right now. We have a teacher shortage in New Jersey and all across the country. Recruiting teachers into a situation where politicians are going to accuse them of horrific things like that is even harder.

Let's talk for a moment more about the district itself. Because of redistricting, you now represent parts of the state that you never did before and you picked up more Republicans. Democrats control the redistricting process in New Jersey. How did that happen to you?

It's actually a bipartisan process in New Jersey. So there are Democratic redistricting commissioners, Republican commissioners, and then a nonpartisan judge who makes the final decision.

How it all happens tends to be a mystery to all of us, but I've got a very competitive district that's still roughly equally divided between Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and probably the one race in New Jersey that everybody's going to be watching this year. (Note: According to analysis by NJ Spotlight, the voter registration in the 7th Congressional District is divided 30% Democrats, 33% Republicans and 35% unaffiliated voters.)

How are you going to try to appeal to those moderate and independent voters?

Well, I'm getting them. I'm winning independent voters in the polls. I have Republican elected officials crossing the aisle to endorse me. I’m the nominee of the Democratic Party, but also of a new party called the Moderate Party in New Jersey that was formed by current and former Republicans who may not agree with me on everything, but they don't support the MAGA wing that's taking over their party either. So I'm running by building an alliance among moderates of both parties.

Can you talk a little bit about the Moderate Party? I know it was subject to a lawsuit since fusion voting — where a candidate runs on both major and third-party ballot lines — is banned in New Jersey.

The lawsuit is proceeding but not fast enough to enable me to be on two party lines this November. But the party itself, which, again, was started by local Republicans in my district, will be campaigning for me and making the case that moderate voters should be voting for me this year as the Democratic candidate. Then next time, hopefully, I'm pretty confident the lawsuit will ultimately succeed. Next time they'll have the opportunity to [vote] under a party line that reflects their values and sends a message to both parties that we need responsible, pragmatic governance from the center and avoid the extremes.

Congressmember, you were recently listed in The New York Times as one of the 97 members of Congress and the U.S. Senate who traded stock in a company that had business before the committee you served on. You sit on the House Transportation Committee and shorted stock in Carnival Ferrari and Tesla. Can you talk about what happened there?

I had my retirement savings invested in the stock market when I was elected to Congress, as a lot of people do, by an investment firm that I had no personal involvement in. I have since placed my life savings in a blind trust. I think I'm one of only about five members of Congress that has done that, that has a fully qualified blind trust where I have no idea how my savings are invested.

I've sponsored legislation that would require every member of Congress to have a blind trust if they have any investments in the stock market and I'm hopeful that we're going to pass that before the end of the year.

I've read some reports that legislation like that could pass as soon as this week. What can you tell us about that?

We're going to try to do that, yes. There is a version of that legislation that combines a lot of good ideas from different bills that will be put before us. And, you know, fingers crossed, will be able in the House at least, to get that done this week.

Do you support that bill as well?

Absolutely. Very strongly. I already abide by it.

Congressmember, our focus today is the power of parents. What is your pitch to voters, and particularly parents, about why you want to stay in Congress to represent them? What's at stake and why you?

What's at stake is whether we have a government in Washington that focuses on the everyday issues that the voters in New Jersey care about: cost of living, keeping the price of health care down, lowering the cost of prescription drugs for our seniors, which we just did, passing legislation that will finally allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs down for our seniors.

Protecting our democracy and making sure that we remain a country where we have differences, but we settle those differences by voting and not by violence like some people tried to do on Jan. 6.

Protecting the environment, fighting climate change for our kids so that they have a planet where they can breathe the air and we can have an economy where America, not our adversaries around the world, are leading the world in the technologies of the future. That's what we've been doing. We've been delivering for New Jersey based on those principles.

The alternative is politics of division and anger and increasing extremism. The Republican Party is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. It's been taken over by this extreme MAGA wing that is banning books, banning abortion across the country, and doing more to divide us than to deliver for us.

So it’s a very clear choice. Our race in the 7th District is one of the few in the country that could go either way, and so it's very important for the direction of the country as a whole.

The Republican Party is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. It's been taken over by this extreme MAGA wing that is banning books, banning abortion across the country, and doing more to divide us than to deliver for us.
Rep. Tom Malinowski

Tune in next Sunday at noon on WNYC for the next episode of “The People’s Guide to Power,” where we explore the power of the “sixth borough” : a conversation about the relationship between New York and Puerto Rico in terms of political power and how that translates into resources and votes. Call and join us live at 212-433-WNYC, that’s 212-433-9692.