Bill Pascrell is quick to rattle off the ways he has helped constituents in his 16-year career in Congress.
Grants to hire police officers. Programs to provide firefighters with state-of-the-art equipment. Heath-care initiatives for poor people, college students and children. Pascrell’s personal list of achievements goes on and on, part of the tradition of American urban Democratic political leaders who have brought home the bacon.
“I didn’t go to Washington to sit on my hands,’’ said, a former mayor of Paterson. “I never have. I never will. Ask the cops. Ask the firefighters. Ask the doctors.’’
But don’t ask Shmuley Boteach. Pascrell’s Republican challenger offers a different take on the Democrat’s track record.
“How is Pascrell doing anyone a favor by patronizing voters and buying them off?” said, a rabbi from Englewood. “Sometimes, you’ve got to tell people you can’t have everything you want,’’ continued the Republican. “I think the people have to become more self-reliant and not have the government do too much for them. We have to put our individual needs ahead of our collective needs. Our country doesn’t have much left to give.’’
The contest for New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District pits two candidates with divergent philosophies on the role of government, a contrast that manifests itself not only in their personalities but in their positions on various issues.
On health care, Pascrell boasts of his role in the nation’s recent reform efforts, while Boteach offers offers criticism. On the economy, Pascrell talks about job creation, while Boteach calls for tax reductions. On education, Pascrell opposes school vouchers, while Boteach supports them.
In addition to the candidates’ differences on domestic issues, the 9th district campaign also has featured some fights over foreign affairs. That focus has been fitting, considering the demographics of the district, which includes Passaic County’s Middle Eastern enclaves as well as neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews in Bergen and Passaic counties.
In particular, Boteach has attacked Pascrell for his support of Mohammad Qatanani, the iman of one of the largest mosques in New Jersey, the Islamic Center of Passaic County. The federal government has tried to deport Qatanani over his ties to Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian political group that the United States has classified as a terrorist organization.
During the ongoing deportation proceedings, Pascrell submitted a letter of support on Qatanani’s behalf. But Pascrell’s backers point out that he is not the only New Jersey political leader in the iman’s corner, referring to the fact that Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has publicly called Qatanini a “friend.” In fact, Boteach acknowledges that he met Qatanani at a Statehouse dinner this summer and had a “pleasant conversation” with the iman.
“No one is saying he has blood on his hands or that he actually killed people,’’ Boteach said of Qatanani. “But if he wants to stay in this country, he should come out and condemn terrorism.’’
When asked about Boteach’s criticisms on Qatanani, Pascrell campaign spokesman Keith Furlong issued this response:"Congressman Pascrell was raised by his parents to be a bridge-builder, and he has spent his entire career attempting to bring people together."
In addition to the sparring over the Iman, Boteach has targeted Pascrell for being one of 54 congressmen to send President Barack Obama a letter in 2010 calling for an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While acknowledging Pascrell’s many votes in favor of foreign aid to Israel, Boteach called the letter “highly injurious to the Jewish State's ability to defend itself.’’
Pascrell condemns what he calls Boteach’s attempts to paint him as anti-Israel. “Look at my voting record,” said the congressman.
Meanwhile, Boteach has run an aggressive campaign against an incumbent whose party enjoys a commanding advantage in voter registration in newly-drawn district. Media savvy from his experience as host of radio and cable television show, Boteach has been on the attack. For example, he has produced several online video ads highlighting the struggles of the city of Paterson that question Pascrell’s performance on behalf of his hometown.
“All he does is promise money to people,’’ said Boteach. “His campaign says nothing about ideas.’’
While denouncing his opponent’s Paterson videos as desperate and insulting, Pascrell largely has tried to stay on message. Instead of responding to Boteach’s attacks, his campaign again and again has focused on Pascrell’s working-class values.
“Look at the Republican budget proposal, it’s grossly unjust to the middle class,’’ said Pascrell. “I’ll do anything I can to make sure it’s not put in place.’’
The campaign took on a new dynamic this summer when the news broke that Boteach would be getting $500,000 in donations from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Anderson and his wife. The money was earmarked for Boteach through the “Patriot Properity” super PAC. Now only did those donations somewhat level the financial playing field, but they also created a new issue in the race.
“This is not the first time Congressman Pascrell has been a target of the radical conservative agenda,’’ said Furlong. “Our campaign anticipated that billionaire super Pac money would target Congressman Pascrell because of his fight for middle class taxpayers and his support for bringing jobs back to the United States.’’
Pascrell has criticized Boteach for taking money from Adelson, asserting that the funds were tainted because the casino billionaire is under federal investigation.
But Boteach has called Pascrell’s comments on the Adelson donations “shocking and unprecedented.’’
“Congressman Pascrell's malicious remarks about the world's foremost Jewish philanthropist are mean spirited and ill-informed,” Boteach said. “Worse, they represent a troubling pattern for the congressman. First, he stands idly by while a key supporter, Imam Qatanani, an admitted member of terrorist Hamas, calls for the elimination of the First Amendment when it comes to speech critical of Islam. Now he suggests that someone who has not even been formally accused and maintains the full presumption of innocence should not participate in the political process. Does Bill Pascrell believe in simple right and wrong?”
Here a breakdown on the candidates’ positions on some domestic issues:
The Economy: Boteach says New Jersey residents get back just 61 cents for every tax dollar they send to Washington. He’s calling for a reduction in payroll taxes and argues that businesses would be able to create more jobs if government eliminated burdensome regulations and onerous corporate taxes. Pascrell, meanwhile, says Congress must push legislation that will adjust what he calls the nation’s trade imbalance, so that America exports more goods and creates manufacturing jobs. Moreover, Pascrell says it’s the middle class, and not big businesses, that needs tax relief.
Health care: Pascrell supports the Obama administration’s attempts to make health care available to everyone and boast of legislation he says provide Medicare clients with preventative care and impose consumer protections for people with private insurance. Boteach opposes a national health-are system and calls for personal health-care accounts befitting individuals’ needs. He criticizes Obama’s health[-care reform, saying it penalizes small businesses by adding to their overhead.
Education: Boteach says a voucher system would empower parents by allowing them to pick the best schools for their children. Moreover, Boteach argues that vouchers would allow various cultural groups, including Orthodox Jews and the Islamic community, to send their children to schools that match their values.
Pascrell, a former teacher and a self-proclaimed “product of Catholic schools,’’ says he opposes vouchers because they would siphon much-needed funds from the struggling public education system. But he also says he supports the growth of charter schools.
In addition to Boteach and Pascrell, there are two other candidates on the ballot in the 9th District, Jeanette Woolsey of Lodi, who is running as the Tea Party representative, and E. David Smith, an attorney and rabbi from the City of Passaic. Woolsey could not be reached for comment for this story and does not have a campaign website. Smith said he decided to run as an independent because the two major parties had become “echoes of each other” and neither, he said, has solved the country’s problems.
“John Adams said there are two ways to defeat a country, one is by war and one is by debt,’’ said Smith. “Both the Republicans and Democrats have put this country at $16 trillion in debt. There’s no distinction between the two parties on that. They’re both to blame.’’
Smith said Congress needed to approach spending with a different mindset. “Everybody says we can cut this, or we can’t cut that,’’ he said. “The only thing that’s responsible is to have a balanced budget.
Smith suggested that federal officials start their budget-cutting efforts by drawing an organization map of the federal government that was constructed in 1789 and then examine the necessity of things that have been added since then that are not essential.
For example, he said Congress should re-evaluate social spending. “Is government meant to be a charitable organization?’’ he asked.
Also, he pointed to federal programs that pay farmers not to plant crops, including one in upstate New York designed to keep fertilizer out of the Delaware River watershed. “Is that necessary?’’ he asked.
Smith also said that some military expenditures also should be re-examined.