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In Race to Stay in Congress, Pascrell Rides Huge Passaic Turnout to Landslide Victory

'Enthusiasm gap' in Bergen dooms Rothman, who passed up race against Republican Garrett.

Fueled by a huge turnout in his home Passaic County, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell defeated fellow Democratic incumbent Steve Rothman by a startling 11,000-vote landslide in a 9th District primary race that was dead-even in the final weekend polls.

Credit: John Munson, The Star-Ledger
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell celebrates his primary win.

“We did it!” an ebullient Pascrell roared, symbolically rolling up the sleeves on his white-button down shirt. “As a lifelong Patersonian, my parents always taught me not to start fights, but to know how to end them. Together, we did just that!”

Pascrell’s unexpected victory most likely ended the political career of Rothman. When the New Jersey Redistricting Commission put Rothman’s hometown in Republican Rep. Scott Garrett’s 5th District, Rothman shocked Pascrell and his fellow Democrats by passing up the Garrett challenge to run against Pascrell in the 9th District primary instead, essentially ceding the 5th District seat to the GOP.

It was a strategic mistake, said Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex), a Pascrell supporter.

“If Bill Pascrell had been put into Scott Garrett’s district, he would have taken him on, and Democrats knew that,” Giblin said. “There’s no way he would have passed up a fight.”

Giblin said he was stunned by Pascrell’s unexpected 61 percent to 39 percent margin of victory. “Bill has incredible energy, he’ll go for 16 or 18 hours a day campaigning. But Rothman’s whole strategy of going negative boomeranged on him. This race was Rothman’s to lose, and he lost it.”

Pascrell alluded several times to Rothman’s negative campaign in his victory speech.

“We ran a completely above-the-board campaign that we can say we are proud of. We never ever crossed the line of decency, and I can sleep at night,” he said.

Pascrell’s win was a big victory for Passaic County Democrats, who had lobbied the redistricting commission to keep the cities of Paterson, Passaic City and Clifton together in one district as shared “communities of interest.”

State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said voters in those communities turned out in unprecedented numbers for a Democratic congressional primary, delivering what campaign strategist Sean Darcy said would be a 20,000-plurality for Pascrell in an election he won 30,227 to 19,118.

Pascrell reminded the hundreds of campaign workers and supporters who packed the Passaic County Community College gym in downtown Paterson that he would “take no race for granted,” including his upcoming November campaign against Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who won a three-way GOP primary last night. But Democrats outnumber Republicans overwhelmingly in the 9th District, and Pascrell will be an overwhelming favorite to win his ninth two-year term.

U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman

Rothman appeared at his Fort Lee headquarters at 10:30 p.m., with most of the crowd of about 200 still here, although a few had left as the election results became apparent. The Passaic numbers were reported first, with Rothman losing by 10,000, then 15,000 then 20,000. Few believed he could recover that, not with Bergen turnout at less than 25 percent, compared with 37 percent in Passaic.

Standing at the podium with his son and daughter, Rothman smiled at the loud applause but was clearly crestfallen and a little teary that his 16 years in Congress were all but over.

“They ran a terrific race, huge numbers in Passaic,” he said. “We did a great job in Bergen and Hudson, but he [Pascrell] brought out huge numbers in Passaic.”

Rothman listed his accomplishments, which included obtaining school safety money, quieting Teterboro Airport and bringing $2 billion to his district. He said he will return to Washington to finish his term and will support and work for Pascrell and Obama in the fall.

“I don’t know what the future will hold for me personally. I’ll probably take a vacation, stop and smell the roses a little bit,” he said. “I don’t think I will run for elected office ever again.”

The crowd had a few notable names, including state Sen. Robert Gordon and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Bergen and Assemblyman Gary Schaer of Passaic.

Privately, a few of his supporters said Rothman’s calculation to run for the 9th district instead of the 5th district would be examined closely in the coming days and weeks. But Gordon, who said he considered a run himself, said the numbers were clearly not there for Rothman in the 5th.

“That was a tough call,” Gordon said. “Obama lost that in the height of his popularity.”

“I think it came down to who ran a better ground game,” he continued. “It appears Pascrell focused on ‘get out the vote’ and it worked.”

Huttle said Pascrell’s strength in his own city pointed to the city-suburban divide and how important it can be in primaries.

The cities came out, the suburbs felt comfortable,” she said. “Pascrell is a fighter, and he brought it out. Primaries are an inside game.”

Rothman may have had an inkling he was in trouble, challenging on Monday the legality of more than 2,000 absentee ballots collected in Passaic County. That prompted Pascrell to criticize Rothman for "Jim Crow" tactics aimed at holding down the minority vote. A Superior Court judge ruled the ballots legal.

While Pascrell and Rothman spent more than $3 million waging a bitter primary battle in the 9th District, the biggest winner was really Garrett, the most conservative member of the New Jersey House delegation.

While little more than 20 percent of voters in the newly configured 5th District had been in Rothman’s old district, Rothman had built up significant name recognition, particularly in Bergen County, during his eight terms in Congress, and political experts believed he had a puncher’s chance to win by painting Garrett as an extremist.

Rothman’s decision to move back to Englewood, where he had once served as mayor, in order to challenge fellow Democrat Pascrell for the safely Democratic 9th District seat angered not only Pascrell, but state and national Democratic leaders, who knew his decision would make Garrett an overwhelming favorite to win reelection in November.

Barring any unforeseen upsets due to scandal, New Jersey -- which had voted overwhelmingly Democratic in four consecutive presidential elections -- would be sending as many Republicans as Democrats to the House of Representatives for the first time in decades.

Pascrell made Rothman’s decision not to challenge Garrett the centerpiece of his campaign, asserting that the Bergen County Democrat had betrayed his party by putting his own political self-preservation ahead of state and national Democratic Party interests.

From a political standpoint, however, challenging Pascrell made sense to Rothman. First, 54 percent of the voters in the new 9th District actually had been Rothman’s former constituents, compared to 43 percent who had previously been in Pascrell’s district.

Second, Rothman, who had been the first important New Jersey Democrat to endorse Barack Obama in 2008, believed he could count on at least tacit support from the White House -- and the Obama administration repaid his loyalty with an endorsement by Obama campaign chief strategist David Axelrod and a White House photo op Friday with Obama, carefully timed to run the same day as Pascrell’s big rally in Paterson with former President Bill Clinton.

Obama was careful to say that his appearance with Rothman was not an endorsement, but Clinton minced no words in championing Pascrell’s cause. Pascrell, like most New Jersey Democratic leaders, had backed his wife Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary against Obama.

Clinton’s endorsement was the biggest of the campaign, but Rothman was successful in getting some nods from Pascrell’s Passaic County home base, starting with Schaer, a longtime Passaic City council president who is the only orthodox Jew in the New Jersey Legislature. Schaer’s endorsement of New Jersey’s only Jewish congressman was not unexpected, but Rothman managed to win other endorsements even in Paterson, where controversial Mayor Jeffrey Jones snubbed his Paterson predecessor by endorsing Rothman just four days before the election.

Pascrell and Rothman both compiled reliably liberal voting records in their eight terms together in Congress, but the Rothman campaign spent much of its money on attack ads attempting to portray Pascrell as favoring tax breaks for the wealthy -- including untruthful ads that earned Rothman the “Pants on Fire” approbation of The Star-Ledger’s PolitiFact.

Both the Star-Ledger and The Record of Hackensack endorsed Pascrell, citing both the tenor of Rothman’s campaign and his failure to mount a challenge to Garrett that only he was equipped to make.

The victory for Pascrell yesterday also provides validation for the argument made by John Farmer, chair of the Congressional Redistricting Commission, that the new map’s 9th District would ultimately prove to be the state’s third “minority opportunity district” -- one that would provide an opportunity for Democratic primary voters to elect a third minority congressman, whether African-American or Hispanic, when the 75-year-old Pascrell ultimately decides to leave office.

A group of African-American lawyers from North Jersey had made that argument to the redistricting commission during the final week of deliberations, emphasizing their support for Pascrell’s reelection, but adding their expectation that a minority Democrat would represent the 9th District by the end of the decade. A victory for the 60-year-old Rothman would have undercut that possibility.

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