By just about every expert’s account, New Jersey’s newly drawn 9th Congressional District was carved out to be a stronghold for Democrats.
But that hasn’t stopped three hopefuls from running in the district’s Republican primary. The field includes a professor, a rabbi, and an eye doctor. It almost sounds like the setup of a joke.
But the three Republicans -- Blase Billack, Shmuley Boteach and Hector Castillo -- are serious-minded candidates who say they are committed to providing voters with a solid alternative in November to the winner of the Democratic death match between incumbents Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman.
Billack comes from the Republican Party’s right wing. He supported Rick Santorum in the presidential primaries and says North Jersey’s conservative constituents have been ignored for the past two decades.
“I started out as a voice crying out in the wilderness," Billack said. “If you just sit back and stay quiet, things aren’t going to go the way you don’t want them to go. You’ve got to get up off the chair and be heard."
A professor of pharmaceutical sciences at St. John’s University, Billack has some specific goals if elected. He wants President Obama’s healthcare plan repealed. He wants American troops pulled from Afghanistan. He wants federal funding eliminated for abortions and for groups like Planned Parenthood that provide abortions.
Taxes are another major issue on Billack’s agenda. Among the ones he wants to see reduced or eliminated are taxes on capital gains and inheritance taxes, the death tax, and taxes on cell phone use. Companies that return to America and hire Americans should get tax breaks, he says.
How would he pay for such tax cuts? Billack wants to start by whacking the budget for the U.S. Department of Education by 75 percent. He acknowledges that might not provide all the savings needed. But it’s a start, he says.
In addition to cutting the education department’s budget, Billack also says it should be stripped of its authority to establish policy for American schools. Moreover, he calls for the elimination or de-emphasis of standardized testing as a means of shaping education policy and he wants to create tax deductions for corporations that provide scholarships to help students in failing school districts go to other public schools or to private ones.
For too long, Billack says, federal elected officials have not been responsive to their constituents.
Boteach, meanwhile, says he decided to run for Congress in 2009 after Rothman was unwilling to intervene when the news broke that Muammar el-Qaddafi was considering moving into the estate the dictator owned in Englewood. Botech said Rothman suggested folks maintain “neighborly relations."
“That’s when I blew a gasket," Botech said. “Neighborly relations? We’re talking about one of the world’s foremost murders."
Boteach says he distrusts people who have been in elected office for a long time and is trying to break the Democratic Party’s hold on his congressional district, one that stretches back to the days when Robert Torricelli represented that part of Bergen County. “How long are you going to stay in there? Forever?’’ asked Botech. “I don’t believe in a political class. I believe in a citizen class."
A rabbi who says America suffers from a “values crisis," Botech disagrees with the Christian religious right’s emphasis on what he calls “distractions” like gay marriage, abortion and contraception. Instead, Boteach says spiritual leaders should focus on ways to keep marriages intact and families whole.
“I want to change the values conversation," he said. “When’s the last time anyone ever heard the word divorce? Divorce affects 50 percent of our population." To help couples stay together, Boteach proposes that the cost of marriage and family counseling services be made tax deductible.
Boteach also supports a federal school voucher system that he says would allow poor families as much choice in where their children are educated as wealthy families enjoy.
“To me, it’s the most oppressive idea that your tax dollars can’t go to the school that you want your children to be in,” he said. “I think it’s an abrogation of democracy. Democracy means having choices."
Regarding education, Boteach says the classroom work in college should be reduced to three years. In the year between high school and college, America’s youth should be required to enroll in some sort of “values service” with community group, or even the military.
The author of 27 books, Boteach has hosted a weekly radio show on WABC and for two years and had a family counseling reality show on the TLC network for two seasons.
Castillo, a semi-retired ophthalmologist, says his view of the world is shaped by the people he meets in downtown Paterson, where his office is located.
“I see a lot of suffering,’’ he said. “I see people who are disgusted because they lost their jobs and can’t get another one. I think everybody in this country should be able to get a job. We need hope."
Indeed, at times, Castillo sounds like a populist. As a congressman, he says, he would try to make college education more affordable. He promises to crack down on fraud and abuse on Wall Street. He says he would stand firm against attempts to cut Social Security benefits and Medicare.
Castillo’s platform also emphasizes such environmental positions as promoting the use of natural gas and solar energy.
On some social issues his stands are in keeping with his Catholic education. For example, he favors “pro-life initiatives’’ and defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.
Castillo has the most political experience among the GOP hopefuls. In 2005, he ran as an independent for governor and finished third, with 29,452 votes. Most of his support came from Passaic and Bergen counties.
He says he was inspired to run for governor when he took a masters course at Farleigh Dickinson University and met then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie and former Bergen County Executive Pat Schuber, who were among his instructors.
Subsequently, Castillo says he was the Paterson Republican coordinator for John McCain’s presidential campaign and Christie’s gubernatorial race. Castillo has done volunteer work for the Children Without Borders charity.