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In 5th District, Six-Term Incumbent Seeks to Fend Off Democratic Challenger

Rep. Scott Garrett and challenger Roy Cho appear miles apart on substantive issues

roy cho
Democrat Roy Cho

Republican ambivalence over last year’s federal Sandy relief bill has become campaign fodder for a first-term Democratic candidate seeking to unseat six-term GOP Rep. Scott Garrett in the 5th District.

The challenger, Roy Cho, 33, is the son of Korean immigrants and a business and private-equity lawyer. He previously worked in Gov. Jim McGreevey’s office, for former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and for the Port Authority. He has done pro bono work for community development organizations and served on two nonprofit boards. He grew up in Monmouth County and moved to Hackensack two years ago.

scott garrett
GOP Rep. Scott Garrett faces a challenge in the 5th Congressional District. He is one of 10 incumbents facing contests in their party's June primary.

Garrett, 55, served in the state Assembly from 1990 to 2002, when he was elected to Congress. He serves on the House Budget Committee and Financial Services Committee and heads the Congressional Constitution Caucus. He lives in Wantage with his wife and two daughters.

Garrett’s position on the storm aid bill drew new attention after he sent out a campaign mailer in September saying he had “worked to bring immediate relief to Sandy victims.” Cho and others attacked the claim as a lie, pointing out that while the rest of the state’s federal legislators and Gov. Chris Christie lobbied for the $50.7 billion bill, Garrett made headlines for his initial reluctance to support it.

Garrett responded by noting that he did in fact co-sponsor the first Sandy aid bill, which provided $9.7 billion to cover flood insurance claims. He also personally helped in the cleanup and later voted for the $50.7 billion relief bill.

Voters Feeling Squeezed

While the Democrat has pounced on the Sandy relief bill and Garrett’s other votes in Congress, both candidates said voters on the campaign trail are most concerned about more immediate problems, particularly pocketbook issues.

“Across the board there's a lot of frustration with the middle class being squeezed,” Cho said in an interview. “People are concerned about the affordability of college, they're concerned about their kids having jobs in a very competitive global job marketplace. They've taken on debt to go to school and they can't find a job.”

Cho advocates boosting the economy by investing in infrastructure, in part through public-private partnerships. He cited the example of a Connecticut highway-construction project that investors helped finance in exchange for interest payments funded by tolls.

He also calls for more spending on public and vocational schools; more affordable student loans; support for alternative energy industries; eliminating tax breaks for companies that move jobs overseas; ending trade agreements that hurt domestic manufacturing; simplifying the tax code; and raising the minimum wage.

Garrett points to his role in the passage of the JOBS Act of 2012, which sought to boost investment in startups and small companies by easing rules on crowdfunding, solicitation of investors, initial public offerings and SEC oversight.

“It goes to the heart of the issue of how do you help small businesses get the capital they need in order to grow their businesses, the capital they need in order to hire more employees,” Garrett said. “We were able to do that in a fully bipartisan manner.”

The congressman is pushing what he calls JOBS 2.0 to encourage investment beyond the startup stage. He has said one focus will be making it [http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/house-gop-eyes-small-business-bill-92618.html|easier for small businesses] to trade their stocks.

He criticizes Cho’s focus on public-private partnerships, which seek investors for public projects, and compares them to some notoriously troubled private and quasi-private entities that received federal money: the failed solar panel-maker Solyndra and the mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“We need to have some reform in Washington, not the same go-along-to-get-along approach that's been there for so long. We need to end the crony capitalism where politicians sort of bail out their friends, and unfortunately my opponent supports that,” Garrett said.

In addition to jobs, Cho said better transportation options are a high priority among the voters he’s canvassed. He favors reviving the plan for the proposed ARC train tunnel to New York, which Gov. Christie canceled.

“People talk to me a lot about transportation. They say it's very, very inefficient to get around, and more importantly for our purposes, get back and forth to New York City,” he said. “You do have a lot of people who live here in northern New Jersey who do work in New York City.”

Garrett, meanwhile, said a hot issue on the campaign trail is the Ebola outbreak and the federal government’s response. He wrote to the White House early on stressing the need for transparency, and is now urging the banning of flights from affected areas of West Africa. He said it was “totally wrong” to select Ron Klain, a Democratic political adviser with no healthcare expertise, as the president’s “Ebola czar.”

Cho dinged Garrett for his vote last month against a funding bill that allocated emergency funds for Ebola vaccine research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Garrett said he voted “no” because [http://www.njtvonline.org/news/video/nj-politicians-debate-ebola-precautions/|he opposed the inclusion] of funds for the president’s Middle East policy within the bill.

Ideological Opposites

The two men are wide apart on social issues. Cho supports same-sex marriage while Garrett has voted to ban it. The challenger is pro-choice while the congressman, a born-again Christian, has supported efforts to outlaw abortion, including for victims of rape.

Cho supports equal pay for women; workplace protections for LGBT, women, and minority workers; expanded access to affordable childcare; and a ban on racial profiling. He criticizes Garrett’s stands on women’s issues, citing the congressman’s opposition to reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and his vote against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Garrett called a “make-work bill for trial attorneys.”

Cho supports the Affordable Care Act but says health insurers should offer a wider range of plans, and argues that the medical device tax should be repealed and more nonprofit health cooperatives be considered.

By contrast, Garrett last year proposed balancing the federal budget in five years by repealing the Affordable Care Act, raising the Social Security retirement age, cutting nondefense spending while allowing defense spending to rise, and making other changes. He voted against ending last year’s government shutdown because the measure did not repeal or change the health reform law.

For years Garrett has focused on the rising national debt as one of his top concerns, calling it “a crisis that endangers our children’s future.”

Much of Garrett’s work stems from his position on the House Financial Services Committee. He has received millions of dollars in donations from the financial-services industry and is generally skeptical of government regulation.

For example, he recently criticized a proposal to class the insurer Metlife as a “too big to fail” institution, which would subject it to more intensive regulation, and he wants more congressional oversight and transparency for the Federal Reserve.

On a range of issues, Garrett has often taken very conservative positions, even among Republicans.

He has repeatedly voted against extending unemployment benefits, including in 2008 during the recession. In 2006 he opposed a bill to make gasoline price gouging a crime, saying it would do little to lower prices. He supported a proposal to allow offshore gas exploration and drilling off the coast of New Jersey and other states. And he has advocated for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Meir Rinde is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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