WOODCLIFF LAKE – At a temple on a hill overlooking the Bergen County portion of the 5th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) and his challenger, Dennis Shulman, engaged in an occasionally contentious 90-minute debate focused heavily on the economy, health care, foreign policy, energy and even a little scripture.
Over 200 people showed up to watch tonight’s debate at Temple Emanuel, the first of three between the two candidates.
It could have just as easily been a match of wits between President Bush against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, with each candidate trying to link the other to his respective party leader.
Shulman began his remarks by saying that the “Bush/Garrett years have been a disaster,” and echoing Barack Obama’s attacks on John McCain in highlighting Garrett’s voting affinity with the Bush Administration.
“You are a Republican who voted 85% of the time with George Bush, and 15% of the time to the right of George Bush.”
Garrett, for his part, mentioned Pelosi several times, linking her to the Bush Administration in her support for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout plan. Garrett was one of the plan’s most vocal critics, saying that House members should consider it more carefully despite Pelosi’s warnings that the economy would collapse without it.
“It passed. Well, the sky did fall. The market has gone down 1,000, I guess 2,000 since that period of time. The Dept of Treasury and Nancy Pelosi… have stepped back and said maybe there are other ways of doing it,” he said.
Shulman often made pointed accusations against Garrett, to which the incumbent responded that his record bore him out, often saying “maybe you don’t know what the facts are, or you’re using opportunities like this to mislead.”
This was home turf for Shulman, a rabbi and psychologist who’s been blind since childhood. Not only was it in a synagogue, but it was much closer to his hometown of Demarest than Garrett’s native Wantage.
A poll commissioned by the liberal blog Daily Kos last month showed Garrett leading 49% to 34% — within the double digit margin he’s beat every one of his Democratic challengers since 2002. Shulman’s campaign, however, argues that the poll was conducted when John McCain was enjoying his post-convention bounce and leading Obama in the polls. Now that Obama has opened up a double digit lead, Shulman's camp says, things are different.
But Shulman is putting up a stiffer challenge than Garrett’s three previous challenges. He’s raised a lot more money, matching Garrett dollar-for-dollar last quarter, though he only has half of Garrett’s cash on hand in the waning days of the campaign.
If Shulman is going to break through, it will likely be here in northern Bergen County, which holds about two-thirds of the district’s vote. Garrett can reliably count on the conservative voters of the district’s large, sparsely populated areas in Warren and Sussex Counties.
One way Shulman is trying to make inroads with those voters is to link Garrett to the financial services industry at the center of the economic meltdown. He noted that Garrett’s chief of staff is a former lobbyist for mortgage giant Countrywide Financial, and said that he took too many contributions from banks while supporting deregulation of the industry.
“It’s time for congressmen and women to take a pledge that they’re not going to take money from industries they’re supposed to be overseeing,” said Shulman. “I will never take money from an industry I’m overseeing. That’s an ethical no-brainer.”
Garrett responded with his own interpretation of the cause of the crisis, saying that he rallied against the policies of Fannie May and Freddie Mac, and laying some of the blame on the Community Reinvestment Act—legislation from the 1970s meant to keep banks from refusing to loan money in poor, heavily minority neighborhoods.
Moreover, Garrett said that he stood up and called for an investigation of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for an alleged sweetheart deal with Countrywide.
“I stood up with a number of my colleagues to call for an investigation into sweetheart deals between countrywide and some members of Congress, including Chris Dodd and some others,” said Garrett, who then challenged Shulman to sign on to the pledge.
Shulman responded that he would consider that once Garrett signed a pledge to not take any campaign contributions from industries that he’s charged with regulating, should he win the race.
While Shulman raised the issue of the tax break Garrett gets for hosting a tree farm on his property, it didn’t come up again until the end of the debate, when Garrett accused Shulman of attacking “myself, my brother, my wife my family and after that to attack local officials in my hometown as well.”
On health care, Garrett said that the system was broken, but that Shulman and the Democrats’ solution would make it worse.
“Yes we may have some people standing between you and your doctor, or do you want the same faceless beauraecrat nmaking literally life and death decisiosn for you?,” he said.
Shulman responded by reminding the predominantly grey-haired audience that many of them use Medicare – a government administered system that he said was being well-run.
Then he gave the only line of the night that got a laugh.
“You talk about private insurance companies like they’re close friends and neighbors. I don’t know how many people in this room have a good relationship with Oxford,” he said.
Shulman said one of the prime motivating factors for him to enter the race was Garrett’s vote against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and responded that Garrett was violating a fundamental biblical tenet.
“Even your scripture, Scott, says heal the sick and cleanse the leper.”
Garrett responded he was only voting against a bill that did not achieve what was intended, and said that Shulman was “misquoting scripture.”
“SCHIP was designed for low-income children,” he said. “What has it morphed into? Especially in the state of New Jersey? Have any of you read the investigation journalism in NJ where they found that not only poor children were getting SCHIP, but families making over a $250 million?”
The only issue the candidates tended to agree on was that the United States should continue strongly supporting Israel, though Shulman criticized Garrett for voting against a foreign aid package that included money for Israel.
Garrett took the opportunity to highlight a position he took that was different than the Bush Administration’s: his support for a wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Sounding a familiar note that we’ve often heard in the presidential campaign, Garrett accused Shulman of supporting negotiations with hostile heads of state like Iran and Venezuela, citing a local newspaper article. Shulman said he wasn’t familiar with his quote in the article, but that while he supports more open negotiations than the Bush Administration has, he doesn’t mean direct ones between heads of state.
On energy, Garrett said he supported a “three-pronged” approach of domestic property, alternative energy and conservation. He said that Democrats’ attempts to tax the oil industry provided foreign companies with an unfair advantage.
“Of course I would be opposed to putting America’s security taxes in harms way by saying we’re only going to tax one segment of the economy as opposed to another one, so that’s why I opposed that,” he said.
Shulman, however, said that Garrett has never voted for alternative energy programs, and when Garrett disagreed asked him to provide the voting records to his staff. When Garrett noted that he stayed past session with other House Republicans to protest the congresses vacation during last summer’s energy crisis, Shulman responded that it was a protest to “drill baby drill.”
“If you are saying you’re going to support a three-pronged solution, then I’m with you. But you haven’t,” he said.