U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell isn’t in much danger of losing his seat in north Jersey’s 9th Congressional District this year, being something of a political powerhouse in unmistakably Democratic territory. But as he closes in on re-election, Pascrell does have competition — from three different contenders, in fact, all of whom are dissatisfied with the incumbent’s leadership over the past several years.
“He only serves Bergen County,” said Hector Castillo, this year’s Republican candidate for the 9th district seat. “He seems to have forgotten about the rest of the district.”
With a population of over 750,000 people, the 9th congressional district covers a nook of north Jersey that includes a roster of Bergen County municipalities as well as a handful of Hudson and Passaic cities. And with 169,692 registered Democrats, 57,172 Republicans, and 181,193 unaffiliated, its deep blue demographics makes reelection a safe bet for Pascrell, a 10-term congressman who switched seats from neighboring 8th district after redistricting in 2013.
But beyond its political persuasion, the 9th district can be harder to define. Economically speaking, it’s a tale of two districts: one that is middle-class if not relatively affluent, including Bergen County towns like Fort Lee and Saddle Brook, and the other that is more disenfranchised, including Passaic County cities like Passaic and Paterson.
Once a prosperous industrial city with a thriving silk industry, Paterson is today one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, with a poverty rate that is almost twice the national average. Passaic, likewise, has struggled with similar problems relating to crime and unemployment.
Castillo, a practicing ophthalmologist in the Silk City, pointed to that divide as one of the reasons for getting into the race. He won his party’s blessing to take on Pascrell earlier this year, running on a promise to bring jobs and industrial growth back to the district’s more depressed communities.
In an interview with NJ Spotlight, he accused the Democrat of “ignoring” the neediest portions of the district — such as Paterson’s 1st Ward, which in the last few years has been plagued by drug- and gang-related crime.
“I see it every day — broken families, broken dreams, basically no hope,” Castillo said. “This is the industrial seat, the beginning of the industrial revolution of the United States. I haven’t seen any positive changes in the past 20 years. In fact, it’s getting worse and worse.”
A frequent political candidate in north Jersey who ran as an independent in 2005’s gubernatorial election — a bid that later drew scrutiny when he was accused of misusing campaign funds — Castillo said he would fight to bring more federal dollars to the district. Right now, the 9th district residents only see 27 cents for every dollar they send to Washington, he said.
“We need new ideas, and we need to be a little smarter about what we’re doing,” Castillo said. “We need to fight the problems where the problems are.”
Castillo, though, isn’t the only candidate Pascrell is facing this year — nor the only one who is dissatisfied with the job he’s done in Washington. Two other candidates — Jeff Boss, of the NSA Did 9/11 Party, and Diego Rivera, of the Libertarian Party — hope to unseat the incumbent, who they both criticized for failing to address the district’s problems.
“I don’t want to get into personal attacks, I’m not into character assassination,” said Rivera, a U.S. military veteran and Montclair University alumnus. “But he’s been congressman for the past 10 terms, and what does he have to show for it? How’s Paterson doing? How’s the 9th District doing? Not good.”
Boss, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who claims he’s run for public office in New Jersey over 10 times — as an independent for president in 2008, as a Democrat for governor in 2009, as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2014, for state assembly and as mayor of his home Guttenberg — echoed those concerns. He also said more federal funding needs to be brought to the district in order to pay for things like education and public housing.
Taken over by the state in 1991, Paterson’s school system continues to grapple with serious fiscal issues, including a $45 million budget shortfall this year.
“The district is a mess, Paterson is a mess, it’s one of the poorest cities in the country. We should bring some federal funds in there, we should have free college, we should build decent housing for residents in Paterson and Passaic, and a whole bunch of other things,” Boss said. “But the whole system is just broken.”
Still, such criticism overlooks the fact that Pascrell, a former state assemblyman, has long called Paterson home. He served there as mayor in the 1990s, and in 1996 won a seat in the 8th Congressional District, which at the time still included the city. In 2013, after redistricting moved him into the 9th, he was forced to fend off a hard-fought primary challenge by then-Rep. Steve Rothman, who chose to take on the Democrat rather than try his chances against Republican incumbent Scott Garrett in a newly expanded 5th District.
That contest attracted statewide attention, but Pascrell ultimately trounced Rothman with 61 percent of the vote. Some Democrats pitched him as a possible candidate to run against Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, but Pascrell declined.
Over the phone, Pascrell told NJ Spotlight that he is proud of his work in the 9th, where he said he’s focused on protecting Medicare and Social Security and providing more opportunities to the district’s considerable immigrant population. He said he’s also worked to ensure the state has investment dollars for its transportation infrastructure needs, with is a major issue in densely populated north Jersey.
But he criticized the legislature’s recently passed Transportation Trust Fund legislation, which would replenish the infrastructure fund with $16 billion over the next eight years, saying it will misguidedly phase out New Jersey’s estate tax, a significant revenue generator for the state.
“In the 9th congressional district we’re talking about economic stability, we’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about the deplorable condition this state is in because of our current governor,” Pascrell said.
“You try and help people in the position that they’re in to the best of your ability. Getting their kids an education, not having to burden the whole family with what the debt is going to be when you finish college or technical or vocational school,” he added.
Pacrell is a firm supporter of Hillary Clinton and other fellow Democrats in Washington — including Josh Gottheimer, the party’s 5th District hopeful to the north. Gottheimer’s challenge against an embattled Garrett is considered one of the most competitive races in the state this year, and Pascrell recently helped campaign alongside civil rights icon John Lewis for the Democrat there.
“When you’re a congressman, you know, you’re running really on your own merits, or lack of them,” Pascrell said. “But I support the entire ticket. I know a lot of kids out there run just to cover their own rear ends, but that’s what I believe in, you support the whole ticket. And if you don’t, then you keep your mouth shut.”
Both Boss and Castillo, who Pascrell faced in a recent debate, said they are supporting the controversial Republican nominee Donald Trump in his race against Clinton. Rivera, meanwhile, said he is not supporting Libertarian presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, though he did support party standard bearer Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012.
Boss and Rivera also nicked Pascrell over his vote for the Patriot Act in 2001, though the Democrat later opposed a permanent extension of the law.
“Between the Democrats and Republicans, what we get is a further expansion of a centralized authority in Washington,” Rivera said. “We have an abuse and an overreach of government. And we’re seeing the downfall of it now.”
Pascrell has served since 2007 on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles all legislation on issues involving taxation. In 2011, he was named to the House Budget Committee, and is also a key mover of legislation focusing on special diseases and traumatic brain injuries. He said homeland security has been another top priority during his tenure in Washington.
“We’re working hard and not taking anything for granted, and I know Hillary isn’t either, and if you take that attitude and try and keep it positive down the stretch I think you’ll be OK,” he said.
Pascrell had $1,496,332 in the bank as of his last Federal Election Commission filing, while Castillo had just $1,374. Boss and Rivera have reported no contributions over the course of the election.
Follow this link for an interactive overview of District 9.