U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell
In the lead-up to redistricting, political insiders figured someone in the northern part of the state was headed for trouble. Population growth had shifted to the South, making it more likely for two northern congressmen to get in a rundown as New Jersey faced the prospect of losing a congressional seat.
In the 2010 election, Pascrell made a big statement with his victory, staring down a GOP effort to mobilize Latino voters in the general election and recording the most impressive win of his career. The message was clear: If anyone has designs on messing with Pascrell, this is what they can expect.
But what Pascrell didn’t expect was the post-redistricting scenario of U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) getting jammed up with U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) and deciding against facing the Republican.
Confronted with a map that gave Garrett an advantage, Rothman decided to move from Fair Lawn back to Englewood, into the redistricted portion of his longtime district and run against Pascrell in a Democratic Primary where Rothman would hold a raw numbers edge.
Rothman’s announcement infuriated Democrats who see the tough-talking Pascrell as a soulful throwback. If Rothman was the soft-spoken suburban entity who failed to capture the imagination of players identifying with the crustier side of New Jersey politics, former Paterson Mayor Pascrell embodied the iconography of urban toughness. Plus, unlike Rothman, who used the Bergen-based routes of judges’ robes and a local mayoralty to leverage his own rise in the Bergen political universe, Pascrell was in the state Legislature, where he won friends on both sides of the aisle who still remember him and like him. Pascrell’s son furthered the family stake in the statewide political establishment as a Trenton lobbyist.
Pascrell had party goodwill in spades.
Former Corzine allies did not forget the congressman’s sustained, sleeves-rolled-up frontline 2009 role in attacking Chris Christie over his questionable use of deferred prosecution agreements as U.S. Attorney to soft-peddle punishment of corporate law breakers and reward political pals.
But those battles are buried, insisted insiders counting votes not past glorious losses.
Content to see the developing contest as Bergen (53%) versus Passaic (43%), Rothman added to the perception of dominance by gobbling up the longtime naysayers in Pascrell world, including Dominican leaders bothered by the congressman’s alliance with former Mayor Joey Torres and who felt frozen out of party patronage.
Nursing his own spats with Pascrell, Paterson Mayor Jeffrey Jones sat on the sidelines.
The Rothman message machine began crafting the inevitability factor.
Team Pascrell meanwhile immediately drilled into Rothman’s decision not to oppose Garrett, depicting him as missing in action for a battle with the North Jersey GOP Tea Party darling. An ad on PolitickerNJ.com showed Rothman running from Garrett as Pascrell began shaping a personality divide between himself as the bruising ex-mayor of Paterson and Rothman, ever dogged by the wimp factor.
Rothman tried to check the continuing cracks from Team Pascrell by suggesting that Pascrell had bailed on healthcare reform in a state of panic over Republican congressional wins nationally.
A YouTube ad created by the Rothman team showed a grainy close-up of their rival accompanied by eerie background music, emphasizing the 75-year-old’s age.
It began to get very ugly early.
Rothman allies like the Bergen versus Passaic storyline obviously because Bergen has a built-in advantage of ten percentage points and Rothman’s a Bergen brand.
Add Rothman’s advantage of the “A” column in Hudson County and they’re all but prepared to say the race is over.
Pascrell needs monster numbers out of Paterson – and again, Rothman wants the world to believe the Dominicans who backed Republicans in 2010 chop mightily into Pascrell’s local base – and then he needs some of Rothman’s territory.
His allies identify the riverside ravages of South Bergen, where some of the state’s finest eateries can be found clinging to the landscape, the fundraising haunt of many a well-worn political brand name, including Lou Stellato, Paul Sarlo and Nick Sacco.
“If Billy can peel some votes away in South Bergen – and the people will love him there – he’s got a shot,” a political insider repeatedly tells PolitickerNJ.com.
Rothman’s allies laugh in pitying observation of Pascrell’s accelerated efforts to get Bergen traction, pointing to the fact that Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) of the City of Passaic has endorsed Rothman, giving the Bergenite another key piece of Pascrell’s Passaic base.
“This race is over,” cackled a Rothman ally at an event where both men were in attendance, the animated Pascrell as usual working ten hands to Rothman’s one.
Pascrell showed some life at the Bergen Democratic convention, but Rothman secured a whopping 329 committee votes to 72 for Pascrell.
Pascrell underscored home and family with a both feet firmly planted kickoff on the front lawn of his Paterson home, while Rothman still trailed the storyline of a man having to move back into his old hometown of Englewood.
Both men went up on television, Pascrell jumping in the ring with the Tea Party and identifying the far right fringes of America as the real enemy. Expanding on the healthcare fight message and trying to identify himself as the progressive in the race, Rothman railed against Pascrell’s decision to vote for a $5.4 billion fence on the Mexican border and for personally participating in a federal immigration raid.
He leaned on local Latino support to try to lump Pascrell in with his own political enemies.
“Not long ago, conservative Republicans used the Mexican border fence issue to demonize immigrants and attack the Hispanic community,” said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, a Secaucus Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “People like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Bill Pascrell all supported the fence and claimed it was a homeland security issue. This was pure demagoguery and insulting to Hispanics everywhere. It was also a colossal waste of six billion tax dollars.”
Team Pascrell braced for the mail pieces in Paterson depicting Rothman as the only member of the New Jersey delegation who endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.
In their last Federal Election Commission reports, Pascrell reported $1,569,176 and Rothman $1,790,516 cash on hand.
Sources close to Rothman say the congressman thrills at the prospect of representing down on its heels Paterson. But the reality is that Paterson, New Jersey’s third most populous city, faces the prospect of not having a congressman based in the city.