In the race for an open seat in New Jersey’s 8th Congressional District this year, Democratic primary candidate David Ocampo Grajales says that a progressive vision is what’s needed for the Hudson County-based district.
In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, speaking over a small cup of espresso on a chilly day in the Heights neighborhood of Jersey City, he said that a progressive representative will help constituents, particularly working class people, call the Garden State a home for the long term, while also refuting the county’s machine politics.
“I think fundamentally, if we can make New Jersey the state that works for the working class, that is better for the community as well,” he said. “Because it allows people to dig in their roots, build a family here, stay for the long term, and then you stay multi-generational. But none of that’s going to happen if we don’t address the challenges that people are facing today.”
That includes a number of progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and forgiving student debt. For him, there’s also affordable housing, immigration reform and transportation that are important as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination, and potentially win the seat itself.
Pushing for Green New Deal, transportation and immigration
Ocampo Grajales grew up in Ridgefield Park as a first-generation American with his parents from Colombia, and has been in Jersey City for about a year. He went to New York University and had worked at a healthcare startup called Salute, which helps hospitals and universities improve accountability around environmental compliance and keeping workers, students and patients safe.
His candidacy for the 8th District, which was left open following Rep. Albio Sires’ impending retirement, is his first foray into politics, which he is now dedicating to full time.
“I think our politics would be better off if it was made up of more people who represent and look like the lives of people who live in the district, and less career politicians that come in, stay for 30-40 years, and end up changing nothing,” he said.
The 8th District is one of the most heavily Democratic districts in all of New Jersey, and the only one with a Hispanic majority. Being on the campaign trail, Ocampo Grajales argued that the district is more progressive than what elected officials believe.
One of the 8th District’s biggest challenges is affordable housing, noting that nearly 70 percent of Hudson County residents are renters, and that rent is increasing more than people’s incomes are. He also sees climate change as another challenge due to increasing extreme weather every year, and is supportive of a Green New Deal.
One of the issues that Ocampo Grajales is running on is transportation, where he says for too many people there are no transportation options, too much traffic or no parking, a symptom of not having a connected transportation system like in New York City.
“I think we need transportation that actually connects our communities here at home,” he said. “Not just to alleviate the burden of rising gas prices, alleviate the challenges caused by climate change and air quality, but it’s an economic stimulant to be able to connect with that and make communities walkable.”
To that end, he sees changing the conversation about it in Congress, where he said he’ll advocate in the House and also connect and work with local officials to push for those policies.
Ocampo Grajales also sees immigration as important to him, noting how it feels for him to have a family that’s undocumented, and other family members and friends that are as well.
“Immigration is broken in this country,” he said. “People talk about waiting in line, but the reality is that, aside from the lottery and a couple other processes, there are not a lot of options for actually getting into the country, and having a pathway to citizenship.”
He plans to push for immigration reform, addressing immigration courts, and advocate for abolishing federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Willing to take on a machine”
As Ocampo Grajales competes in a now three-way primary race between Robert Menendez Jr., the son of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, and Ana Roseborough-Eberhard, a public school teacher from Weehawken, he believes that he has a chance of winning it.
He also dismissed the establishment’s support of Menendez Jr. to potentially succeed Sires. “I’m so confident in our message, it’s just a matter of having people to get it out to,” he said. “It’s absolutely an uphill battle, but it’s definitely a winnable one.”
When asked about how he would deal with the gridlock and polarization that Congress has become almost commonplace, Ocampo Grajales acknowledged that Democrats could lose their majority in the House this November. In the meantime, he would focus on staying connected to the local community, creating a constituent services office in the district, and “innovate” the way constituents would interact with their elected officials such as town halls, and using technology to collect feedback and respond more quickly.
Regardless of who controls Congress after this year, Ocampo Grajales plans to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus and would work to reform it due to what he says are a number of representatives that call themselves “progressive,” and that they need to set a standard for what the term means.
Ocampo Grajales also wants to join committees such as Foreign Affairs, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Appropriations, where he would take time to do research and create questions that he wants answers to, as well as investigating how decisions are made and whether companies are doing things to improve transparency.
He said that he’ll try to work with Republicans, but pointed out with the recent infrastructure bill and the stalled Build Back Better agenda that sometimes they’ll face an opposing party that doesn’t want to get anything done for people.
He also said he’ll focus on stopping the GOP’s moves to pull back voting rights and abortion rights, and that he wouldn’t compromise on what he sees as basic principles.
“I think that if voters want a representative who truly represents them, understands the challenges that they’re facing because he’s gone through it himself, and is willing to just fight with everything, I’m willing to take on a machine and want to do a whole lot more to fight for the actual change that they deserve,” he said.