U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th), heavily favored to win a 10th term, is drawing more attention criticizing a fellow North Jersey congressman than for anything said in his own race.
Pascrell, 77, is running against a Republican, Dierdre G. Paul, and independent Nestor Montilla.
There are nearly three times as many Democrats than Republicans in the 9th District, which includes parts of Bergen, Passaic and Hudson counties.
Pascrell received 73 percent of the vote in November 2012, five months after his Democratic primary victory over then-Rep. Steve Rothman. Redistricting prompted that rare showdown between incumbents.
Pascrell’s safe perch could explain why he has directed his toughest campaign rhetoric not at his opponents, but at Rep. Scott Garrett, R-5th District. Garrett is facing a stronger-than-expected challenge from Democrat Roy Cho.
On Oct. 21, Pascrell joined Cho at an event in Paramus, in Garrett’s district, heralding the receipt of a federal grant for hiring five police officers. At the event, Pascrell criticized Garrett for voting “no” in 2009 on the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program.
Two days later, he called Garrett a “bozo” at a Bergen Democrats dinner in Carlstadt, according to Politicker NJ.
Paul, in an NJ Spotlight interview Oct. 24, criticized Pascrell’s rhetoric and his decision to attend the Paramus event while Paterson, where he once served as mayor, grapples with a more significant crime problem.
Paul questioned how “calling Scott Garrett names” would help Pascrell’s constituents, adding, “How much crime is there in Paramus in comparison to Paterson, where they can’t even be out at night?”
Pascrell, interviewed Oct. 27, countered that his involvement in Paramus stemmed from his support for the COPS program.
“I'm the co-chair of the public safety committee. I went there because they received a COPS grant, which Mr. Garrett has sought to decimate and demonize since he's been in Congress,” said Pascrell, who in July announced that 10 of 26 new police officers in Paterson were hired via a $1.6 million COPS grant.
A spokeswoman for Garrett did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but told NJ Advance Media last week that Garrett has a long history of supporting police.
In sharp contrast to Garrett’s district, which leans Republican, the Ninth District is solid Democratic turf. Of 393,782 registered voters as of Sept. 30, there are 150,133 Democrats, 51,318 Republicans and 192,092 unaffiliated voters, according to the New Jersey Secretary of State’s office.
Pascrell is a political powerhouse whose standing was boosted by his 2012 victory over Rothman, in a race that drew statewide attention. Some Democrats pitched him as a possible candidate to run against Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, but Pascrell declined.
In a fundraising letter four weeks ago, Pascrell recapped some legislative priorities, such as protecting Social Security and Medicare, strengthening equal-pay and gun-safety laws, improving services for veterans, and ending tax breaks for companies moving jobs out of the U.S.
His campaign reported $1.61 million in contributions through Sept. 30, with $1.048 million remaining in his account, as posted on the Federal Election Commission website. Paul reported $9,205 in contributions and had $4,116 remaining. Montilla did not list any donations.
Paul, 49, of Englewood, described her bid to unseat Pascrell as “a David and Goliath sort of battle.”
“I have never seen myself as part of the establishment or part of the system,” said Paul, who has talked about improving schools and bringing jobs to the region.
Her campaign website describes her as having “fiscally conservative/libertarian beliefs.”
Paul is a professor in Montclair State University’s early childhood, elementary and literacy education department. She was named, in 2002, to an early literacy education task force by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, and is a former education chair for the Bergen County NAACP.
A former Democrat, Paul switched to the GOP in 2013 and ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly as a Republican in the 37th District.
She called herself a "different kind of Republican," not bound by prevailing viewpoints within the party.
For example, while describing the Affordable Care Act as "far from a perfect piece of legislation," she said she did not agree with efforts by House Republicans to repeal it.
"As long as President Obama remains in the White House, it will not be repealed. Therefore, reasonable people on both sides of the aisle need to fix that which is salvageable prior to moving to talk of full-scale repeal. There will, undoubtedly, be aspects that are irreparable and those must be repealed," Paul said in an email Oct. 28.
Montilla, 53, of Paterson, is director of corporate and community development at Lehman College and a first-time candidate.
He said he is encouraged that nearly half of the district’s voters are neither Democrat nor Republican.
His campaign website is labeled, “Seeking inclusion for all.” It refers to a quote from John F. Kennedy in 1958, two years before he was elected president, in which he urged seeking the “right answer,” rather than a Republican or Democratic response.
Montilla is a native of the Dominican Republic and said he expects to tap into that growing constituency in the district.
Pascrell, on Oct. 25, was endorsed by the Dominican American Elected and Appointed Officials Caucus of New Jersey.
Montilla said he is running, in part, to promote wider involvement in the political process.
“Most of the elected officials, they don’t have a clear mandate,” Montilla said, referring to low voter turnout.
He is married to Maria Teresa Feliciano, one of eight candidates in the city’s nonpartisan race for mayor last May. Though Pascrell joined other top Democrats who endorsed Councilman Andre Sayegh in the election, Sayegh finished second to new Mayor Jose Torres.
Montilla said party officials should not have sought to sway the outcome, but added that he did not launch his candidacy as payback.
In an Oct. 21 interview, he criticized Pascrell for missing 506 roll-call votes over the course of his House career.
“That’s real troubling to me,” Montilla said.
Pascrell responded that he has made 97 percent of votes. Those he missed, he said, were related to time away when his mother died, as well as a hospitalization.
“If that’s his issue, God bless him,” Pascrell said.
Pascrell has served since 2007 on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles all legislation on issues involving taxation – everything from Social Security to Medicare.
In 2011, he was named to the House Budget Committee.
Despite those two key assignments, Pascrell may be just as well-known for founding and chairing a task force focusing on traumatic brain injuries. In that role, Pascrell has pushed for improved concussion screening for military service members, as well as for student-athletes.
Paul, though, suggested that Pascrell, as his power has grown on Capitol Hill, has less of a local connection.
“He's been in Washington 17 years. He started out very different than he has ended up,” Paul said.
Pascrell countered that he strongly focuses both on legislation and constituent service. “I'm proud of what we've done, both in Washington and in terms of our constituent service,” Pascrell said.