In New Jersey’s 9th District, there’s a rabbi running for Congress who wrote a book called “Kosher Sex.” He also lives next door to Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Englewood estate and once served as Michael Jackson’s spiritual adviser.
Somehow, even with that background, Shmuley Boteach, has flown below the New Jersey media’s political radar screen. That’s because he’s seeking the Republican nomination in a district dominated by the bruising battle between Democratic incumbents Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman.
The one-time friends are facing each other in what could be a political death match, an increasingly bitter contest that’s been tabbed by one national publication as one of the five nastiest races in America. By April 15, Pascrell and Rothman already spent a combined $1.4 million on the race and they had another $3.35 million left in their campaign war chests, according to federal election finance reports.
“That’s a nasty campaign," Boteach said of the Democratic primary. “I’m amazed by it.”
New Jersey lost one congressional seat as a result of the 2010 Census and either Pascrell or Rothman will be the guy who’s left out.
For 15 years, they had been amicable neighbors as congressmen. Pascrell represented the 8th District, which included his hometown of Paterson, 10 other Passaic County communities and a swath of Essex County towns. Rothman’s district was just across the Passaic River, covering most of Bergen County’s largest cities and stretching into Hudson County.
In those days, it was common for the liberal-minded Democrats to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at press conferences fighting for the same cause. But New Jersey’s new congressional map squeezed Pascrell’s Passaic County turf together with most of Rothman’s Bergen County territory in a new 9th District that political experts deemed would favor Democrats.
Fair Lawn, where Rothman had been living, was shifted into the new 5th district, where Republicans held the majority and conservative GOP incumbent Scott Garrett already was popular. So Rothman decided to relocate to Englewood, where he once was mayor, setting up his contest with Pascrell.
In some ways, the Democratic primary has become a border war between Bergen and Passaic counties, with both sides claiming endorsements from numerous local politicians. Party leaders in the two counties have cautioned that their towns would become political stepchildren if the guy from across the river wins. The outcome could determine which communities end up first in line for millions of dollars in federal funding, they warn.
“You see what’s happening with Pascrell and Rothman, it’s one county against the other,” said Herbert Castillo, a Paterson eye doctor who is one of three candidates for the Republican nomination in the 9th district. “Hopefully, that’s not what the people believe. Hopefully, they pick the best qualified person, no matter where he’s from.”
Voters sifting through Pascrell and Rothman’s records may have some trouble distinguishing the two. In 4,886 votes since January 2007, Pascrell and Rothman have been on the same side 97 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. During 2011, they voted the same way 897 times and differed in 52 instances, a review of their records shows.
Each of the two Democrats has asserted that he would be the better defender of liberal values and ally of President Barak Obama against the nation’s growing Tea Party movement. Some analysts have called it a race to the left.
Rothman spokesman Adam Silverstein said Pascrell has not been as progressive as the Bergen County Democrat on issues like abortion, immigration, Wall Street bailouts, tax cuts for the wealthy and gay marriage.
“For all these reasons and more, it should be clear that Steve Rothman is the Progressive Choice for Congress in the Ninth District,” said Silverstein.
Pascrell campaign spokesman Sean Darcy disagrees.
“Steve Rothman says he stands behind President Obama, but when he had a chance to take on one of the most conservative Republican members in all of Congress and try to take back the House to help advance the President's agenda, he chose to forsake that opportunity and run against a Democrat instead,” Darcy said. “That is not progressive.”
Pascrell has won the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton. But Rothman’s supporters have dismissed that as mere payback for Pascrell’s support of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Rothman, they point out, was among Obama’s earliest backers in New Jersey.
The campaign increasingly has focused on the two candidates’ personalities and the class distinctions of Bergen and Hudson counties, said Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
“Pascrell paints himself as the typical Jersey Guy," Harrison said. “He appeals to the working man. Rothman is seen as more professional, more Bergen Countyish.”
The district includes 365,192 Bergen County residents, 333,090 people from Passaic County and 34,376 from the fringe Hudson County communities of Secaucus and Kearny. Numbers like those are why some pundits give Rothman a slight edge in the contest.
But several of the district’s Bergen County towns, including Garfield, Wallington and Lyndhurst, sit along the Passaic River and have blue-collar identities that make them prime targets for Pascrell, Harrison acknowledged.
With Obama at the top of the ticket in November, the chances are extremely slim that a Republican will win the 9th District, Harrison said. The winner of the Democratic primary likely would be in position to continue in Congress for years to come, she said.
“I can’t imagine a rematch,” Harrison responded when asked if the Pascrell-Rothman loser would take another crack at the seat.
Pascrell, she pointed out, is 75 and may not be looking to campaign again after a defeat. Rothman, meanwhile, may take aim at some other office if he loses in June, according to Harrison.
Until a couple months ago, there had been a third Democrat in the race, Michael Wildes, who like Rothman is a former mayor of Englewood. Wildes has an impressive campaign fund, which totaled $668,363 as of April 15. Some strategists thought his candidacy could have tilted the race in Pascrell’s favor because he might have siphoned Bergen County votes from Rothman.
But Wildes withdrew on March 31 and threw his support to Rothman. “I did what I thought was best for the Democratic Party,” Wildes said.
Even Republicans acknowledge the winner of their primary faces an uphill battle. But their primary field is even more crowded than the Democrats’.
In addition to Boteach and Castillo, the third member of the GOP field is Blase Billack, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences who backed Rick Santorum in the Republican presidential primaries. Billack ran unsuccessfully for Congress two years ago.
Castillo ran as an independent for governor in 2005 and finished third behind Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester. Castillo finished with 29,452 votes that year, about 2.5 percent of Corzine’s total, and spent $349,223 on his campaign, an impressive amount for an independent.
Castillo sees himself as “more towards the center” than his opponents. He said he wants to see the economy geared toward creating jobs, with comments that echo like sound-bites from Occupy Wall Street activists. “We need to do things that benefit everybody and not just the banks and big corporations,’’ Castillo said.
Boteach, meanwhile, considers himself a fiscal conservative who deems the religious right-wing’s emphasis on issues like gay marriage, abortion and contraception a distraction. Boteach emphasizes a “family values” message geared toward strengthening marriage. For example, he advocates the creation of an “American Sabbath” on Sundays when shopping centers would be closed and families could spend quality time dining together or going to the park.
“Are gays the reason our heterosexual marriages are failing? That seems like scapegoating to me,” Boteach said.