New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District has been in Republican hands for nearly 70 years, but-- the Democratic challenger to incumbent -- says the district has become “eminently competitive” for his party.
Indeed, a recent Bergen County Republican Organization poll shows a tight race — with Garrett ahead of Gussen by only 2 percentage points -- despite the fact that Gussen has relatively little name recognition and funding.
Yet the race is not on the national radar; neither party is targeting the race.
Garrett has held the seat for the past 10 years, fending off successive Democratic challengers and earning a reputation as the most conservative congressman from New Jersey and one of the most conservative in the nation.
This year, he faces both Gussen and Patricia Alessandrini, the Green party candidate.
Garrett’s air of invincibility was reinforced last spring when Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9th ), whose hometown was redrawn into the 5th, opted to move to the newly constituted 9th and challenge fellow Democrat and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell — unsuccessfully.
The newly constituted 5th, which sits at the top of New Jersey like a sideways L, includes most of Warren and Sussex counties, a few Passaic municipalities, and parts of Bergen County
During the last decade, the district was more rural, including all of Warren and parts of Passaic and Sussex counties, with some suburban areas in Bergen County. As a result of redistricting, the district lost some of more rural Warren County, while more urban parts of Bergen County were added. The Bergen municipalities added are Lodi, Bogota, Hackensack, Maywood, Fair Lawn and part of Teaneck.
Democrats have the registration advantage in some of the added communities. Nearly three-quarters of the district’s population lives in Bergen.
Gussen, who is the deputy mayor of Teaneck and has served on the council for six years, said voter registration numbers in the newly redrawn district bode well for his campaign.
Prior to 2011, the district leaned more heavily Republican, making it “almost impossible” for Democrats who ran against Garrett, Gussen said. In 2010, 31 percent of registered voters were Republicans, while 23 percent were Democrats with the rest unaffiliated. Redistricting has narrowed that gap, although the GOP still holds an advantage, with about 28 percent of those registered to 25 percent Democrats.
“When we look at the numbers we are encouraged by what we see,” said Gussen. He said the addition of such core strong Democratic towns like Hackensack and Teaneck, Fair Lawn Maywood and Lodi have made “an unbelievable difference.”
But Bob Yudin, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, pointed to the GOP poll that put Garrett ahead of Gussen by only a 46-percent o 44-percent margin as confirmation of Garrett’s strong position. That’s because Bergen also has the largest number of registered Democrats.
“So for Garrett to come out of Bergen ahead, after all the other counties are polled, Garrett will win going away,” Yudin said.
Gussen, 39, has been dismissed by many political watchers because of his relatively low name recognition and comparatively meager fundraising – through June 30 he had not raised enough money to require filing a report with the Federal Election Commission. He said he could not provide more current fundraising numbers because his campaign staff was still tallying it. The next reports are due to be released Oct. 15.
He should be known by loyal Democrats, having won the June primary by defeating former U.S. Marine Jason Castle and Lyndon LaRouche Democrat Diane Sare.
But Gussen hopes to profit from the choice Rothman made not to challenge Garrett: “Whether right or wrong, Rothman made the decision that he made and it opened the opportunity for another Democrat to step into the 5th District and into a competitive race.”
Gussen contends that he can be competitive despite the difference in campaign war chests – as of June 30, Garrett reported having $2.1 million on hand.
“We’re running a campaign based on cost effectiveness and efficiency of messaging dollars,” Gussen said. “We are running a campaign based on our ability to fund it. We have a clear road map of how we can be successful doing that on a limited budget. We’ve got a plan and we’re executing that plan.”
Gussen said that the campaign had relied heavily on robocalls through early October: “We’ve put out 400,000 already as a very cost-effective way to get our message out.”
Additionally, he is campaigning door-to-door with local municipal candidates, appearing at events with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and freeholder candidates through the four counties and visiting local Democratic committee meetings, street fairs and concerts.
“Our message has been very well received and it’s exciting,” said Gussen.
For his part, Garrett dismisses the idea that the newly redrawn 5th improves his opponent’s chances.
“At the end of the day, the issues are the same across the towns and across the district,” said Garrett, 53. “People are concerned about their jobs, their home, the economy. Maybe they are not out of work but their neighbors are, or maybe their job isn’t the same, or not at the same pay.
“You can divide any district any way,” he added. “Some families are more affluent, some more working class, but the concerns are the same — whether in Hackensack to Hackettstown.”
Garrett was born in Englewood and lived in Closter as a child before his family moved to Sussex County. He graduated cum laude from Montclair State University before earning his J.D. from Rutgers University Law School.
Garrett worked as an attorney and spent 12 years representing the 24th Legislative District in the state Assembly, where he became an assistant majority leader.
He fran unsuccessfully for the 5th Congressional District both in 1998 and 2000, challenging incumbent Rep. Marge Roukema, considered a moderate, in the primary and losing by less than 2,000 votes each time.
When the district lines were redrawn following the 2000 U.S. Census, the 72-year old Roukema, the longest-serving woman in Congress at the time and the last woman to represent New Jersey in the House, announced her retirement. The following June, Garrett easily beat four others Republicans in the primary, including a candidate endorsed by Roukema, and went on to win the seat.
In Congress, Garrett chairs the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government-Sponsored Entities, which has jurisdiction over the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Garrett also serves on the Budget Committee and the House Financial Services Committee. Garrett is the founder and chairman of the Congressional Constitution Caucus.
In June 2012, Garrett easily won over primary challengers Michael Cino and Bonnie Somer, both from Bergen County.
He lives in Wantage in Sussex County with his wife, Mary Ellen, and two daughters, Jennifer and Brittany.
Gussen is a life-long Teaneck resident. In 1990, while at Teaneck High School, he was named to the USA Today All American Football Team. He attended Rutgers on a football scholarship and studied economics and sports management, earning a bachelor’s degree.
In Teaneck, Gussen has served as a library board trustee, planning board member and liaison to the parks, playgrounds and recreation board, as well as on various subcommittees on shared services and cost reduction.
Gussen works as a business development executive of global political risk and trade credit insurance at Coface North America, which has its North American headquarters in West Windsor. He lives in Teaneck with his wife Shari and two children, Molly and Sidney.
Alessandrini, 73, was born in Newark and now lives in Teaneck. She is widowed and has two children, Anthony and Patricia. She declined an interview, saying she was caring for a sick friend.