Republican Shmuley Boteach’s campaign for New Jersey’s 9th District congressional seat started out as a novelty act. He was the guy with the colorful resume, a rabbi who wrote “Kosher Sex,’’ a man who had been Michael Jackson’s spiritual counselor, the host of a weekly radio program and a reality show about relationships.
But that changed in August when the news broke that Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife had given $500,000 in PAC donations to support Boteach's campaign. Suddenly, the Republican National Congressional Committee upgraded Boteach’s status to “Contender,” a designation that held promise for additional support for the campaign against 16-year Democratic incumbent Bill Pascrell.
“It changes the dynamics of the race, but it’s not clear whether it will change the outcome,’’ said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “I think Pascrell is still the heavy favorite to win.’’
In fact, Pascrell is such a strong favorite that The Polling Institute at Monmouth University decided not to do any pre-election polling in the district, earmarking its resources to what it views as more competitive races.
“It gives the Republicans some extra air time,’’ said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute, referring to the Adelson money. “But it doesn’t change the underlying demographics of that district. It’s decidedly Democratic.’’
New Jersey voter registration records show that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 9th District by almost a 3-1 margin. For the June primary, there were 136,426 registered Democrats, compared to 51,595 Republicans. The 193,846 undeclared voters represent the largest group.
“I don’t see the district leaning Republican anytime soon,’’ said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the school’s PublicMind survey research group.
Until the new congressional maps were redrawn last winter, the 9th District mostly was composed of Bergen County towns and included some parts of Hudson. The new 9th District lost some of Bergen County and added some of Passaic County, including Paterson, Pascrell’s hometown.
The redistricting set up a titanic $4.7 million clash between Pascrell and Rep. Steve Rothman in the Democratic primary. Pascrell emerged the victor, despite the fact that political pundits had considered him the underdog because there are more voters from Bergen County than Passaic in the district.
Soon after the Adelsons made the $500,000 donation for Boteach, Pascrell sent his supporters an email warning that he was in danger of being outspent in the campaign. Because Pascrell spent $2.8 million to defeat Rothman, he had only about $250,000 in the bank as of June 30.
Pascrell, 75, has attacked the $500,000 from the Adelsons as the product of a wrong-minded new federal campaign finance law allowing unlimited contributions from so-called super PACs. He also has criticized Boteach for taking money from Adelson, whose casino operation is reportedly being probed by the U.S. Justice Department.
“He’ll have to suffer with the people who he’s getting the money from,’’ said Pascrell, who is also a former state Assemblyman. “We know their record. We know they’re being investigated. If he wants to take money from them, fine.’’
After winning as an underdog in June, Pascrell said he’s working hard to make sure he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of an upset in November. “There is no one who is entitled to public office,’’ he said. “You’ve got to earn it.’’
But Boteach, 45, of Englewood, says Pascrell is taking things for granted. That’s the theme of his series of YouTube “Where’s Bill?’’ campaign videos, in which the rabbi approaches various Patersonians and asks them if they have seen Pascrell lately. At times, Boteach uses an empty suit with a “Bill” name-tag as a prop in the videos, a move he says was inspired by Clint Eastwood's GOP convention conversation with an empty chair.
Although the videos seem more shtick than substance, Boteach says they carry an important message.
“It’s about the fact that Bill Pascrell has been utterly unaccountable,’’ said Boteach.
At times, Boteach uses the “Where’s Bill?” videos to highlight the problems of Paterson, where Pascrell once served as mayor, by pointing out shuttered stores, a closed church and a housing site where development hasn’t started yet.
“What you built looks pretty darn bleak,’’ Boteach says to an absent Pascrell in one video. “I wouldn’t want to own this. I don’t blame you for not being around.’’
Pascrell, a self-proclaimed street-fighter, takes umbrage at the “Where’s Bill?” videos. “For him to insult me and my city that way, to me it’s a reflection of a desperate candidate and a desperate person,’’ Pascrell said, suggesting that Boteach needed counseling. “He mouths a lot of platitudes about love and family values, but you have to look at the individual for yourself.’’
A former college professor who holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in philosophy from Fordham University, Pascrell is a former Paterson Board of Education member who served in the Army for six years. He is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Committee on the Budget. He is married and has three sons.
In addition to Boteach and Pascrell, there are two independent candidates running in the 9th district, E. David Smith, a rabbi and attorney from Passaic, and Jeanette Woolsey of Lodi, who is affiliated with the Tea Party.
Woolsey, 44, of Lodi, could not be reached for comment. On his campaign website, Smith says he was challenged to run for Congress by his children.
“I realized that if I was to be the father my children thought I was, if I was to justify their trust and their upbringing, if I was to be honest, the man of integrity who put a menorah on his front lawn because he fervently believed that ‘a little light can indeed push away great darkness’ - then I would have to accept their challenge,’’ Smith wrote. “I would have to go to Washington.”
Smith, of Passaic, has a law degree from Tulane University.
It’s not often that two rabbis run against each other for the same congressional seat. In fact, no rabbi has ever been elected to Congress.
Bergen County Republican Chairman Bob Yudin said that the 9th District’s large Jewish population will prove helpful to Boteach’s chances. “Normally, they vote Democratic, but this year, they’re going to be voting Republican,’’ said Yudin.
Yudin said the Jewish vote is one of several factors that could result in a surprise win for Boteach. Another, the chairman said, is Boteach’s fund-raising ability. In addition to the Adelson money, Boteach says he has raised about $350,000 so far this year and expects to add another $150,000 by Election Day. His June 30 report shows only about $54,000 so far.
Those numbers are unprecedented for Republican congressional candidates in the 9th District, Yudin said. Normally, he said the GOP candidate doesn’t break the six-figure mark.
But Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato said the money won’t make a difference.
“I think Pascrell has great name recognition with the voters,’’ he said.
Political experts said Pascrell also will benefit from having Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in the presidential race, along with incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez running for Senate. But Yudin says Obama may not help as much as people expect.
“I don’t think you’re going to see Obama win by the kind of numbers you saw him win by four years ago,’’ said the GOP chairman.
In Paterson, however, Obama’s candidacy has spurred widespread voter registration drives. That bodes well for Pascrell, whose support in Paterson and surrounding Passaic County towns in the Democratic primary easily offset Rothman’s edge in Bergen County.
“Bill Pascrell showed us in the primary that Bill Pascrell knows how to turn out his vote,’’ Murray said.
Convention political wisdom would say Boteach ought to write off Paterson. But Boteach says he campaigns there regularly, especially in the city’s Arab neighborhoods.
“They don’t agree with me on the issues, but they respect me for coming,’’ he said.
Boteach, who is married and has nine children, acknowledges his campaign remains an uphill fight. That he blames on a redistricting map that gave Democrats a commanding advantage.
“If we lose, we will have lost because of the structural corruption of a gerrymandered district,’’ he said.