They used to call each other “Billy” and “Stevie.” No longer. After state redistricting left New Jersey congressman Steve Rothman politically homeless, he decided, to the dismay of many on the left, to mount a primary campaign against fellow Democratic congressman William “Bill” Pascrell, a longtime colleague and friend, rather than challenge GOP congressman Scott Garrett. Politico has deemed the contest one of the “5 Ugliest Member vs. Member Battles” in the 2012 primary season.
A late-2011 redistricting plan split Rothman’s 9th district between Pascrell’s strongly Democratic 8th and Garrett’s Republican-leaning 5th, putting Rothman’s hometown, Fair Lawn, in Garrett’s district, but 54 percent of his constituents into Pascrell’s. Rothman’s decision to migrate to friendlier territory rather than challenge Garrett came as a shock to his colleague: “He called me,” Pascrell told NJ Today’s Mike Schneider, “and said, ‘Bill, I love you, everybody loves you. Bill, you’re a great congressman, but I’m running against you.’ . . . With friends like that, I don’t need enemies.” According to the Associated Press, Rothman passed up a cool $1 million offered by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to help oust Garrett.
Rothman explained his motives on the same show: “Just because the New Jersey redistricting commission snipped off the town of Fair Lawn where I was living . . . doesn’t mean that I still don’t want to represent the people who I was born and raised and grew up with and have represented all these years,” referring to the city of Englewood, where he served as mayor from 1983 to 1989, which was incorporated into Pascrell’s new 9th. As David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report, observed, the fact that Rothman can claim 54 percent of the new district’s constituents gives him a viable claim to the seat.
But not according to Pascrell, whose campaign launched a website called Realdemsstandandfight.com, featuring Rothman’s campaign logo with an open storage box above the headline, “Running From Fights with The Radical Right . . . Moving to a neighborhood near you.” The page includes links to the U.S. Postal Service’s online mail-forwarding service, a website detailing property values in Fair Lawn, Samsonite’s online luggage store, and New Jersey Magic Moving & Storage. The rest of the page highlights pro-Pascrell media, such as this excerpt from an editorial in the Newark-based Star Ledger:
Democratic Congressmen Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell are close friends who eat dinner together regularly, talk all the time and cast almost identical votes in Congress. Now, it appears, they will spend the next several months trashing each other, fighting for their political survival.
That is not Pascrell’s choice, it is Rothman’s. He has decided to move into Pascrell’s district, rather than to stay put and fight a tougher battle against the most conservative Republican in the New Jersey delegation, U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett.
This is a terrible loss for New Jersey and for the nation.
Pascrell’s criticism of Rothman for refusing to challenge Garrett in the 5th district has been the centerpiece of his attack. At the candidates’ May 7 debate at Bergen Community College, Pascrell pithily declared: “You were afraid. You ran away.”
Of course, Rothman, too, came out swinging. He has touted himself as the “Democrat’s Democrat,” citing his support for unconditional abortion (and condemning Pascrell’s support for a ban on late-term abortion), gay marriage, and “progressive” economic policies. He has repeatedly accused Pascrell of voting to “eliminate estate taxes for billionaires,” a claim that PolitiFact deemed “mostly false.” A video advertisement posted on Rothman’s website the day after the Bergen debate asks, “Who wants more tax cuts for the rich? Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Bill Pascrell.” The ad centers on a clip of Pascrell telling Hardball’s Chris Matthews, “Republicans had great ideas. I liked some of their ideas.” It then claims that “Pascrell voted with Republicans to slash taxes for billionaires.” PolitiFact jumped on the ad, noting that the comments shown in the Hardball clip were actually in reference to health-care reform: “In fact, the phrase ‘tax cuts’ was never mentioned during the entire interview.” PolitiFact gave the ad its “Pants on Fire!” rating.
After all of the negative campaigning, how different are the candidates? Rothman and Pascrell are both 16-year representatives, born and raised in North Jersey. Rothman, 59, served two terms as mayor of Englewood, a city of about 25,000, and then three years as Bergen County surrogate-court judge before his election to the U.S. House in 1997. Pascrell, 75, was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1987 and served as minority leader pro tempore before leaving Trenton for two terms as mayor of New Jersey’s third-largest city, Paterson.
Their voting records are almost as similar as their biographies. OpenCongress.org shows that Pascrell and Rothman have voted together on 97 percent of votes since January 2007 (the count excludes bills on which either member abstained), and both members vote with the Democratic party 94 percent of the time. The candidates have parted ways a few times — on TARP, for instance, which Pascrell voted for and Rothman voted against — but their ideological similarity helps to explain why this race has become so heated: With only minor differences on the issues, the candidates have had to find other ways to distinguish themselves.
Identity politics has played its part. The area’s sizable Jewish community has backed Rothman. In February, the presidents of 15 Orthodox Jewish synagogues sent letters to Jewish Republicans encouraging them to switch parties to vote for Rothman in the June 5 primary; a month later, two Passaic councilmen did the same. Both letters were funded by the Rothman campaign. For its part, Paterson’s large Arab-American population has backed Pascrell.
But the main distinctions have come in the form of endorsements — and this fiercely contested district has brought out the heavyweights. Bill Clinton endorsed Pascrell, calling him a “fighter” who “helped write President Obama’s healthcare law, he’s a leader protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, and he never stops fighting for the middle class.” Clinton has also recorded a robocall for Pascrell, who was among the New Jersey Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Rothman broke from the party establishment to endorse Barack Obama — and, as a reward for his early support, received the endorsement of Obama adviser David Axelrod on May 23. Axelrod called Rothman “an incredible, powerful voice for people, for fairness, and for a progressive vision of what America can and should be,” urging voters to return Rothman to Congress “for the president, for the country.” President Obama has personally endorsed neither candidate, but Rothman has presented Axelrod’s endorsement as a de facto White House nod.
In addition to big endorsements, the campaign has brought in big money. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that, as of May 16 (the most recent filing date for the Federal Election Commission), Rothman’s campaign committee has raised $1.3 million, spent $1.6 million (both campaigns have funds accumulated from previous races), and had another $1.3 million in cash on hand for the rest of the election. However, those numbers have undoubtedly already changed. Rothman made a six-figure ad buy in the New York City market, attacking Pascrell’s involvement in a lawsuit over waste cleanup in the Passaic River, which snakes through the new 9th district. Pascrell has raised $1.7 million, spent just under $2 million, and, as of May 16, had a little over $704,000 left for the campaign.
The new 9th is a D+9 district, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, giving the winner of Tuesday’s primary a commanding advantage in November’s general election. Still, three Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination on Tuesday: Blase Billack, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at St. John’s University in Queens; Herbert Castillo, an ophthalmologist who ran for governor as an independent in 2005, finishing third; and Shmuley Boteach, a rabbi, the host of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, author of the bestselling Kosher Sex, and erstwhile spiritual adviser to pop star Michael Jackson. Boteach has received the endorsement of the super PAC supporting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, ERICPAC.
Whoever captures Tuesday’s Democratic primary in district 9, the true winner is Republican congressman Scott Garrett, whose reelection to Congress in the R+7 5th district is all but guaranteed; neither of his opponents has the funding, campaign infrastructure, or name recognition to offer a serious challenge.
As for the 9th, redistricting has turned longtime friends into bitter political opponents. At their May 7 debate, the North Jersey Record’s Herb Jackson asked the congressmen to “say something nice about each other.” They thought for a moment. “I like Steve’s children,” said Pascrell. “Bill has a lovely family,” Rothman replied.
That’s as chummy as things get in North Jersey right now.
— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review Online.