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Garrett and Gottheimer Play Nasty, Not Nice in Only Debate

The only parley between 5th District incumbent Rep. Garrett and his Democratic opponent featured slings and arrows, but also underscored major policy differences

garrett and gottheimer
Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett (left) and Democratic hopeful Josh Gottheimer

New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District candidates squared off in the first and only debate of their contentious race yesterday. The discussion tended, for the most part, to mirror the tone that has defined the rest of the contest: bitterly partisan, with the Democratic challenger accusing the Republican incumbent of being a “resident fanatic” and both accusing each other of “lying” to voters about their records in the 700,000-person district.

“How we treat gay people and how we treat women and how we treat everybody is actually an issue. I think people have a right to know if their congressman is a bigot,” said Josh Gottheimer, who in an hour-long appearance on the Hackettstown radio station WRNJ continually slammed incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett on the conservative’s social stances.

It’s not the first time Gottheimer has charged Garrett with anti-gay bigotry, nor the first time the Republican, who called his opponent a “tax and spend liberal”, has accused the well-funded Democrat of being a puppet for the national party interests who’ve bankrolled his campaign. That rhetoric has been a regular feature of the race in the 5th Congressional District, a swath of north Jersey that is home to the most competitive House contest in the state this year.

While he’s enjoyed easy re-election in the past, the seven-term incumbent and conservative standard bearer Garrett is fighting hard to keep his seat against Gottheimer, a Microsoft executive and former adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. With just over a week to go before voters take to the polls on November 8, the battle is at fever pitch, with millions of dollars in outside spending, national media coverage, and mudslinging all part of the mix.

But amid its more overtly political nature, the debate also managed to shed a rare light on the policy differences between the candidates. From taxes to terrorism and foreign policy to guns and mental health, Garrett and Gottheimer staked out differing positions on issues that factor largely into the 5th District.

Taxes

New Jersey’s property taxes are notoriously some of the highest in the nation, averaging more than 2 percent of a single-family home's value each year. That’s especially true in the 5th District, where homeowners in comparatively wealthy, suburban Bergen County — in which most of the district’s population is concentrated — had the fifth-highest average property tax bill in the nation last year.

The issue is an important one in political contests in the district.

“Despite being one of the highest taxpaying districts in the country, we're at the bottom because you won't fight for us,” Gottheimer said to Garrett yesterday, noting taxes have gone up in the district over the last several years.

Both Garrett and Gottheimer are purported fiscal conservatives, saying they’d fight for lower taxes and an overhaul of a U.S. tax code that they argued is squeezing businesses and middle-class residents in the district. The position might be an obvious one for Garrett, a self-professed fiscal hawk who has consistently voted down measures that would lead to increased spending on the federal level, but it’s more surprising coming from Gottheimer, whose party’s own presidential nominee has proposed a tax plan that includes hikes on top income earners and corporations.

On his campaign website, Gottheimer lists the “need to cut unnecessary spending and waste, close loopholes, reduce our deficit, cut the debt, and pass comprehensive tax reform” as among his highest priorities, pointing to the tax code former President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill drafted in 1986 as a potential model. Accused yesterday of supporting the tax increases proposed by Clinton, Gottheimer said he doesn’t support that plan.

Garrett, meanwhile, said he favors the balanced budget put forth by House Republicans earlier this year, which proposes to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes by several trillion dollars. He also cited his role as a senior member of the House Budget Committee, where he said he’s worked on reining in runaway federal spending and downsizing bloated government agencies.

“I think we have paid too much in taxes,” Garrett said. “In all my time in office, I have not raised tax, I have not voted to raise taxes. Why? Because I think we send too much money to Washington. I want to send less of your money to Washington, and you know how you do that? You lower taxes. Mr. Gottheimer here wants to keep the status quo.”

The two candidates diverged on how they would approach taxes in the immediate future, with Garrett saying he would continue fighting for tax cuts as a first priority and Gottheimer criticizing the Republican for not fighting harder to bring back federal tax dollars to the district in the form of grants, which he argued is necessary in lieu of comprehensive tax reform. Gottheimer said Garrett has failed on that front, pointing to the difference between what the district’s residents pay in federal taxes and what they get back from the federal government.

Gottheimer has called that difference the “Garrett Tax,” claiming that the 5th district gets back only $0.33 on every dollar it pays in federal taxes. That’s less than half the $0.68 average for the rest of New Jersey, he said, and substantially less than the $4.22 West Virginia and other states get.

“When you add it all up, the Garrett Tax is costing us $14,000 a year for every person who lives in our district.” Gottheimer said. “For him it's just a few pennies, but for everybody else, it’s a lot.”

Gottheimer offered a recent example where Garrett refused to write a letter seeking a grant to help pay for a fire truck in Vernon, a town in the district’s western portion.

Garrett called Gottheimer’s criticism “rhetoric,” and challenged the Democrat to come up with a fully fleshed-out tax plan like the one he said Republicans in Congress have. He said, “New Jersey is one of the most affluent states in the country, New Jersey sends a disproportionate amount of our tax dollars back to Washington, and the solution is not to get a penny back as my opponent would say, the solution is not to simply allow politicians and crony bureaucrats and such like my opponent is connected to and made his career out of — the solution is to allow hard-working taxpayers to keep more of their paycheck in their pocket.”

Guns, Drugs

Encompassing parts of rural Sussex and Warren Counties, the 5th District is home to some of the state’s staunchest Second Amendment supporters. Take, for example, the case of John Drake: the Sussex County man’s lawsuit challenging the state’s strict conceal carry law made national headlines in 2014, winning support from organizations like the National Rifle Association.

Garrett, who hails from the more rural portion of the district, has packaged himself as a champion of the issue over the years, voting for legislation that would establish a national standard for the carrying of concealed firearms and earning an A score from the NRA on his pro-gun record. More recently, he joined the organization and other House Republicans in opposing legislation that would prevent individuals on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying weapons.

Gottheimer pounced on that stance yesterday, saying it was “unbelievable” that the Republican would allow suspected terrorists to buy firearms. While he said he is a firm supporter of the Second Amendment, he argued that exceptions should be made in the interest of homeland security.

The Democratic National Campaign Committee, which has poured millions of dollars into the district in support of Gottheimer, late last year paid for radio advertisements criticizing Garrett on his vote against the barring of terror watch list suspects from firearm purchases.

Both candidates mentioned the state’s heroin epidemic as a major problem, and Garrett said he recently helped craft legislation that would provide training and education to local schools to help address the state’s heroin problem, which he called a “growing plague on our nation.”

Terrorism and Foreign Policy

Vying for a seat in a district that includes parts of commuter-heavy Bergen County — also known as the sixth borough of New York City — both Gottheimer and Garrett said more must be done in the fight against terrorism, including giving more resources to police officers and firefighters to respond to dangerous situations at home.

Like neighboring Union County, where “terror cell” suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was arrested in connection with last month’s bombing of an Elizabeth train station, Bergen County is also considered a potential hotbed for homegrown terrorism. Gottheimer said law enforcement officials must be given the tools to fight extremism online, where terror organizations like ISIS often try to recruit members.

"The problem now is, if you see what ISIS is doing, they're actually training people on YouTube, and people can go online and actually find out how to make a bomb,” Gottheimer said. “We need to be extremely vigilant and stay on top of that.”

Garrett said he’s worked across the aisle with New Jersey senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker to bring more Department of Homeland Security grant funding for terror security to the state. Recently he co-sponsored the Community Counterterrorism Preparedness Act, passed by the House last month; it authorizes $39 million for emergency response providers in major metropolitan areas to conduct training and exercises to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the most likely terrorist attack scenarios, including active shooters.

On foreign policy, both Gottheimer and Garrett condemned the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, which they said put the United States and its allies in jeopardy. Garrett slammed the Democrat for not coming out against the deal sooner, noting that he withheld publicly announcing his position until the deal was already struck. He added, “Well I take that back, he was saying something, he was raising millions of dollars from all the special interests in Washington D.C. who were on the other side of that deal.”

Gottheimer contended that he “bucked my party very hard” on the Iran deal. He said he’s received more support for his plans to protect the district from terror threats than Garrett, citing endorsements from the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association and Professional Firefighters’ Association of New Jersey.

"They know that Scott Garrett hasn't been with them, whether that's helping to get the resources to fight lone terror, whether it's winning grants to pay for fire trucks to respond there,” Gottheimer said. “And it's unfortunate. It's why he voted against the Zadroga Act, becoming the only Democrat or Republican to not stand by our first responders. It's why he voted against vets, against prosthetic limbs for veterans returning from war which made our country weaker. Issue after issue, he doesn't get the back of those that get ours, which makes us weaker at home and abroad.”

Presidential Politics

Gottheimer argued this year’s 5th District race isn’t about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the two controversial presidential nominees whose national race experts say is likely to have a noticeable impact on the down-ballot contest.

“I'm supporting Hillary Clinton, but frankly, what I'm focused on is what we need to do here in the 5th Congressional District,” Gottheimer said. “Just like my opponent is supporting Donald Trump despite all his attacks on women and assaults on women, I don't think this race is about Scott Garrett vs. Hillary Clinton. I'm not running against Donald Trump.”

That claim isn’t necessarily supported by the approach Gottheimer’s campaign has taken to the race in the 5th District, however. In television and radio ads, Gottheimer and House Democrats have sought to tie Garrett, who came under fire for comments he made about not supporting gay GOP candidates late last year, to the maligned Republican presidential nominee, who has faced his own backlash on the national stage for stances he’s taken on issues like immigration and religious extremism.

During the summer, the DCCC released a web commercial comparing Garrett’s positions to those of the real estate mogul’s, highlighting Trump's opposition to abortion, his description of immigrants crossing the border from Mexico as "rapists," and his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

In the wake of more recent comments Trump made disparaging women, Garrett initially withdrew his support for the Republican presidential candidate, but said he will still vote for him “because we could not have eight more years or four more years of failed Obama policies going on.” Gottheimer criticized that flip-flop, saying it’s time residents in the district had a congressman that reflects their values.

“Your record on saying no to women, on voting against the Voting Rights Act, on saying no to everyone, is consistent, and it's completely in line with what your values are, with the Tea Party values you hold,” Gottheimer said in yesterday’s debate. “Those are not New Jersey values.”

Garrett levied his own charges at Gottheimer, labeling him a “Washington insider” looking to buy a seat in Congress. “What people are really sick and tired of are negative campaigns,” Garrett said yesterday. “Negative campaigns for a year and a half, funded by who? By the people of this district? No, from special interests, from the DCCC, from Nancy Pelosi's majority PAC, from other special interests from outside the district all going into my opponent's war chest. And do they spend on the issues? No, it's on glossy fliers, attacks ads, planes flying around the Jersey Shore.”

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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