Going into 2012, New Jerseyans knew that two members of Congress were going to be pitted against one another for the 2012 elections. As 2011 came to an end, voters knew exactly which two were going to be opposite one another. In a quick twist, Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ9) went from being placed in CD-5 against Congressman Scott Garrett (R-NJ5) to running in the newly drawn CD-9 against Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ8). The two Democratic allies soon became ardent foes and that has only increased in the last few months. The two are fighting over similar constituents and are in a constant race to garner major endorsements in the district. The words between the two have been just as fast and furious. Rothman has accused Pascrell of dirty politics while Pascrell has accused Rothman of running from a fight with Garrett and an opportunity to weaken the GOP in the state.
As the two men move towards their June primary contest, they only continue to add more ammunition for the other. Regarding challenging Pascrell over Garrett, Rothman’s spokesman Paul Swibinski expressed;
“I find it ironic that Bill Pascrell is so concerned with who will face Scott Garrett considering he went to great lengths to ensure a majority of his towns did not end up merged with Garrett’s 5th district. Pascrell’s former chief of staff lobbied to serve on the state’s Congressional Redistricting Committee. Then he advocated for a gerrymandered map that cut a few targeted towns out of the 9th district in an attempt to move Steve Rothman into the 5th. This could easily be viewed as an attempt to rig the process and protect Pascrell’s own seat. This is the type of politics Pascrell has engaged in his entire career, wielding influence and power to benefit himself and his friends and supporters.”
A recent in-person face-off led Pascrell to respond to comments like that with:
“This is not a debate(referring to the meeting they were at). But I can’t wait to debate you. My bags are not packed. (Your) bags are packed.”
The new 9th Congressional District represents between 55 and 60 percent of Rothman’s district of the last decade plus. As part of his ability to run against Pascrell, he is claiming residence at his home in the 9th Congressional District as opposed to his other home in the newly drawn 5th Congressional District, where he was originally slated.
If the race was not already tense, the race only got more complex with the growing expected entry on the Republican side by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood. As part of his entry in the race, he voiced;
“The values that have dominated the American political landscape for decades include an obsession with gay marriage, abortion, and now contraception. If elected, I pledge to be a ‘values voice’ in Congress, and focus on issues that have largely been ignored; it is time to expand the values conversation and agenda, and once again make them the center of our country. Let’s begin with saving the institution of marriage by making family a priority again.”
Among his stances, Shmuley wants to: lobby for a flat tax and simplification of the current tax code to lessen the burden on working families, intertwine service from high school students in exchange for college credits, provide vouchers for school children, see legislation that makes marital counseling tax deductible as a way to lower divorce rates, and establish a foreign policy that promotes freedom and holds dictators and tyrants accountable for incorrigible acts.
A major name would throw their influence behind Shmuley shortly after his announcement. That being House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA7). Cantor contributed $5,000 to Shmuley’s efforts. His campaign manager, Jason Kitchen, would comment;
“We are experiencing a great deal of momentum and will have the resources to wage a competitive campaign. We are in the process of a major fundraising push this week, including a fundraiser on Thursday in Englewood, and want to secure every dollar possible before the March 31st deadline.”
Even with Shmuley in the race, the two Democrats are focused on one another and even more focused on key parts of the district. None possibly as important as the areas in Bergen County that are part of the district. As part of that sentiment, the two men and their campaigns had a lot invested in a Bergen County Democrats’ meetings and vote held in Paramus recently. The county and territory favors Rothman and his campaign entered the day’s proceedings with a bit of confidence for that reason. The big prize? The valued spot of line A for the primary contest in the county. Despite the uphill climb in the county, Pascrell and his troops did not hold back in the fight. The two men were shaking hands, patting backs, and speaking kind words to everyone they encountered. The handshakes and kind words were the only methods of talking themselves up before a key vote for both as neither were allowed to give a speech as a method of swaying voters. By night’s end, as most foreshadowed; Rothman coasted to a county victory by a 329 to 72 vote.
Taking the loss in stride, Pascrell exclaimed;
“We started with zero. This is a great victory for our side. I’ve taken on the tea party every day on issues. I continue to fight to preserve Medicare and Social Security. I intend to support the agenda of President Obama, not just sometimes but all the time.”
While Swibinski speaking on Rothman’s behalf uttered,
“Steve Rothman received 83.0 percent of the vote. We are absolutely overwhelmed. In our highest hopes we thought we had 70 percent. This is a remarkable outcome. Steve Rothman represents the ideals of the Democratic Party. It will become even more clear as this campaign unfolds that Steve Rothman is the only candidate in this race who represents the progressive ideals of the Democratic Party.”
Pascrell would rally back fairly quickly locking up the support of the Passaic County Democratic Committee. As Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie stated,
“Congressman Pascrell has been a longtime fighter in the various elected positions he has held. This committee feels that he has proven himself to be the best candidate to represent the entire geography of the 9th Congressional District.”
“This is another huge victory for my campaign. Momentum continues to build towards June 5th for my campaign and the unanimous vote for me today shows that people are beginning to understand the clear differences between my opponent and I. I have always stood up and fought for middle class taxpayers against Tea Party conservatives and special interests and I intend to continue leading that charge to help ensure the future of our middle class.”
That victory came after Congressman John Lewis (D-GA5) joined the primary discussion and endorsed Pascrell over Rothman. It might have a small impact or it could sway some based on Lewis’ standing in Congress and in American popular culture for his role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
As has been the case, the race’s unpredictability reached another hurdle with a possible additional candidate. Speculation began to grow in recent weeks of former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes entering the race. Wildes, a Democrat, would face strong challenges against either incumbent Democrat and most saw the move as a gamble at best. Nonetheless, Wildes was taking the time to build a staff and prepare financially for the race. He even boldly confirmed,
“No, no way (when discussing if he was pairing up with Pascrell). It looks like Pascrell may come in third, according to our polling. As a result of their geographic supporters being split with another congressional district, the base support for each candidate is reduced, and the total number of Democratic primary voters who are either frustrated or angry has increased,” Sheinkopf wrote in a March 5th memo to Wildes. Only 23.1% of voters strongly support Pascrell, and just a few more percent, 28.1%, strongly support Rothman. The more telling part of this question is the 15.4% and 14.2% respectively who are not considering Pascrell or Rothman under any circumstances.”
Wildes’ information came from polling and studies conducted by himself and Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant and strategist for the metro area.
The talk and speculation was nothing more than smoke. As quickly as he announced the possibility of his entry into the race, he exited the race as a potential candidate and put his weight behind Rothman over Pascrell. That weight, however, is lukewarm at best as he does not seem to behind the scenes like Rothman a lot more than Pascrell. Nonetheless, he would express;
“Congressman Rothman, it is a pleasure to stand here today to make sure you are going to be elected again to your ninth term. You’d be splitting hairs to find differences between Steve (Rothman) and Mr. Pascrell. The difference is in terms of temperament and character. …Mr. Pascrell makes a good case for partisanship, but Steve is a bridge-builder.”
Rothman would chime in on top of that with:
“This is a wonderful day for the people of the 9th Congressional District. I am grateful to have the support of Michael Wildes, he was a dedicated and caring public servant who exemplifies the leadership we need in government. Someday Michael will make an outstanding congressman. He served for two terms as the Mayor of my hometown of Englewood and during that period proved to be a tenacious campaigner. I am excited that he will be working as part of our campaign.”
Even Rabbi Shmuley would voice,
“Michael Wildes was my partner throughout the summer of 2009 as we worked to prevent Kaddafi from coming to Englewood. He’s a tireless public servant who would have been an outstanding candidate and the people of NJ’s 9th district are poorer for his declining to run. I do wish that prior to having endorsed Congressman Rothman, Michael would have extracted from him a pledge to publicly break with Obama, as did Senator Schumer, should the President return to pressuring Israel for dangerous concessions. I likewise question whether what the people of our district need is, as Michael put it in his statement endorsing Rothman, a Congressman running for a ninth term when fresh blood and ideas are essential to Congress fixing the problems of the American people.”
There is no doubt that things will only intensify in the final month and half of this race. Things might and will get personal as two long serving members of Congress are at a career crossroads as only one can advance to the general election. Cases will be made. Appearances will be made. Endorsements will be made. Two Democrats fighting tooth and nail. Much of New Jersey has probably not been exposed to similar battles in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Illinois. This primary contest could be a high point this year or only the beginning for the races in the state this year.