In some ways, Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman seem to come from the same place. The grandsons of European immigrants, they studied philosophy in college and later became mayors of North Jersey cities. They started as freshmen in Congress together in 1997 at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s second term and then won seven more elections through George W. Bush’s administration and into Barak Obama’s historic presidency.
Moreover, their Congressional records show striking similarities. From 2007 through 2011, they voted the same way 97 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.
But during the past five months, the two Democratic incumbents pitted against each other in the 9th District primary have engaged in a ferocious battle to set themselves apart from each other. And in doing so, they have highlighted issues that accent the differences between the parts of North Jersey that they come from.
Pascrell grew up in working class Paterson and often likens himself to a city street-fighter. He has focused on issues that resound with blue-collar Democrats -- veterans’ services, job creation and public safety are high on his list.
Rothman hails from the Bergen County suburbs where voters have higher incomes and education levels. His campaign has emphasized issues that energize more liberal-minded Democrats, including abortion, gay marriage and immigrants’ rights.
Some of their fiercest exchanges have centered on their voting records affecting wealthy taxpayers.
Rothman, for example, has emphasized that he voted against President Bush’s Troubled Asset Resource Program, or TARP, in 2008 while Pascrell voted for it. Rothman campaign spokesman Adam Silverstein called the program “a complete bail-out for Wall Street’s biggest and most irresponsible bankers."
“Steve Rothman opposed the TARP because it rewarded the people who created the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and did absolutely nothing for the middle class and Main Street,” Silverstein said.
Pascrell, meanwhile, asserted that in 2005 he opposed a Bush-backed bill that made debt forgiveness more difficult to obtain in bankruptcy.
“Rothman supported this bill, which was backed by the credit card industry and opposed by consumer, civil rights and labor organizations, and hurt hard-working Americans who have fallen on difficult times," said Pascrell spokesman Sean Darcy.
About a month ago, Rothman began running a campaign advertisement that accused Pascrell of voting to eliminate inheritance taxes for billionaires.
“In a stunning giveaway to the wealthiest families in the nation, Bill Pascrell again joined far-right Republicans in voting to completely eliminate all inheritance and estate taxes, even for billionaires," said Silverstein.
In truth, Pascrell did vote in June 2000 to repeal the estate taxes. But President Clinton vetoed the measure and when the issue came up for an override, Pascrell changed his position and voted to keep the inheritance taxes in place. Since then, Pascrell has voted several times against the elimination of the tax.
The Rothman ad earned a “Mostly False” rating from The Star-Ledger’s PolitiFact. Another Rothman ad said Pascrell wants more tax cuts for the rich. That advertisement used video comments Pascrell had made about healthcare reform -- “Republicans had great ideas” -- and implied he was talking about taxes. PolitiFact gave that a “Pants-on-Fire” rating.
“Steve Rothman has run a dishonest, negative campaign," said Darcy. “His false accusations and distortions of Bill Pascrell's record have resulted in independent sources discrediting his false attacks on numerous occasions, but Steve Rothman still continues to press forward because he will say and do anything to have a seat in Congress for two more years.”
Again and again, Rothman has asserted that he has been a strong ally to President Obama. In particular, he cites his support of Obama’s efforts at healthcare reform and points out that Pascrell had expressed doubts about the president’s plans.
Rothman says his record shows a stronger commitment to abortion rights, asserting that Pascrell voted in favor of restrictions on abortions 18 times. Also, Silverstein said Rothman has a better track record on gay rights, arguing “Pascrell strongly opposed marriage equality until early this year. In 2010 he said that marriage should only be between a man and a woman."
Rothman’s campaign also has accused Pascrell of joining “the far right and Tea Party-style conservatives” in voting to build a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border. “The fence issue was used as a battering ram by the far-right to demonize immigration and Hispanics," said Silverstein.
Pascrell tends to focus on programs and projects more than issues. He boasts of the veterans’ medical clinic he helped open in Paterson in 2004, of the bills he sponsored that provide federal funding to buy equipment for local fire departments, and of his successful efforts to get the Great Falls designated a national park.
“Bill Pascrell has brought more money home to his district than his opponent and intends to go down to DC and fight to bring back even more for his neighbors across the new 9th District," said Darcy.
Pascrell has painted himself as a champion of the common man. For example, his campaign pointed to a vote last year on a trade bill involving products made in China.
“It was opposed by almost every major labor union," Darcy said, “and instead of siding with the working people, Congressman Rothman sided with the big corporations to destroy these jobs and continue sending our manufacturing base overseas.”
Such comments come easy to Pascrell, who comes from a city many consider the birthplace of the America’s labor movement. Pascrell had been a school teacher in Paramus and a member of Paterson’s Board of Education before he was elected to the state Assembly in 1988.
Then, in a four-way race, Pascrell was elected mayor of Paterson in 1990. He held that position until he became a congressman. Pascrell is 75.
Rothman, meanwhile, was a private attorney from 1978 until 1993 and the biography on his website says he won awards for the free legal services he provided to the poor, disabled and elderly. He served as Englewood’s mayor for six years in the 1980s and was a surrogate court judge for four years before he was elected to Congress. He will turn 60 in October.