PARAMUS — Sitting at a conference table at IBEW Local 164's headquarters with congressionalcandidate Dennis Shulman, several labor officials and two reporters this morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was asked whether he planned to back up his visible support of Shulman with a significant amount of cash.
Hoyer, smiling, pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Shulman.
"Here's another $2,500. Talk is cheap, right?" said Hoyer. "It's not in the mail. It's in his pocket now."
It was the second $2,500 check that Hoyer's political action committee, AmeriPAC, had given to Schulman's campaign – something he said would be a taste of things to come if Shulman continues to run a vigorous campaign against three-term Rep. Scott Garrett in the fifth congressional district.
Things are looking up for House and Senate Democrats on a national level, and Hoyer's visit was meant to communicate both to union officials (many of whom had backed Schulman's Democratic primary opponent, Camille Abate), and political observers that national Democrats are paying more than lip service to putting the 5th Congressional District in play.
What's clear already is that this will be the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's (DCCC) third priority in the state, behind the open seat races where well-funded Democrats are hoping to take over for retiring Republicans in the 3rd and 7th districts. Shulman and Hoyer today worked hard to get the point across that Garrett, who is ranked among the most conservative members of Congress, is out of step with this "centrist" district.
"Dennis… is a bonus. We didn't see him coming along, and here we have an extraordinarily qualified individual who I think represents this district and has got an extraordinary life-story to tell people," said Hoyer. "We believe this is a race we're going to win, and that Scott Garrett doesn't represent the views of northern New Jersey. He may represent someone, somewhere, but not here."
Shulman does have an unconventional background. A rabbi and psychologist from Demarest who's been blind since childhood, he impressed national Democrats with early fundraising numbers that were competitive with Garrett's. But it's also a district that Democrats are wary of.
Northern Bergen County accounts for 63% of the district, which also is made up of parts of Passaic County and the Republican bastions of Warren and Sussex Counties. With the Democratic dominated county as its largest portion, the district may initially look ripe for the picking to outsiders. But three successive challenges against Garrett – by Anne Summers, Anne Wolfe and Paul Aronsohn – have failed to achieve more than a double digit loss. Even in 2006 — a Democratic year — Aronsohn received 44% of the vote to Garrett's 55%.
At least among some local Democrats and Bergen County Democratic operatives, that's led to a sense of futility and a hesitance to spend their resources against Garrett. But Shulman, citing national polls in which respondents said they'd prefer Democrats to keep control of Congress, along with factors unique to his own candidacy, said that attitudes towards this race have changed drastically in the last few months.
"It's both me and the times, and I think that even people in the BCDO will answer the question differently than they did in February," he said. "This is a winnable seat this time, and the only thing that will get in the way of me winning is people thinking that it's not winnable."
According to the latest FEC reports, Shulman has raised a total of $384,727 since kicking off his campaign in November, including $35,000 personal loan. He has $157,570 on hand. Garrett, meanwhile, has raised about this election cycle and has $508,523 on hand.
Labor officials plan to put considerable resources to work for Shulman. IBEW Local 164 Business Manager Richard K. Dressell said that retirees would be going door-to-door for Shulman during the day, while active union members would canvass at night. Many, he said, would work phone banks from headquarters.
Dressell offered the harshest criticism of Garrett.
"He's to the right of Gengis Khan. He's just arrogant. Indeed, he's aloof from the rest of the world," he said.
According to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, national Democrats are looking at this district as well as about 75 others nationally. They're putting just a little bit of money in, and will reevaluate whether to spend more on it come September. Their hopes are also buoyed by three recent special elections Democrats have won in traditionally Republican districts.
But Shulman has a steep hill to climb. The portion of Bergen that makes up the district tends to lean Republican, which combined with the ultra-Republican Warren and Sussex Counties has made the last few campaigns a walk for Garrett. But national Democrats do recognize something different this time around.
"They're looking at this nationally. If they can build up a lot of enthusiasm for a Democratic presidential candidate, Senate candidate and two hot congressional seats, they may be able to ride a wave," said Murray. "They're going to spend a little bit of money – not a lot of money – and that's what we're seeing in the fifth right now. If they see that lightning strikes, they'll put more resources into it."
Hoyer seemed to acknowledge as much during his visit, but committed to another New Jersey visit before November to campaign for Shulman and Democratic congressional candidates Linda Stender and John Adler.
"Dennis is a hope for a new direction and a commitment to a new direction and a commitment to change. We believe the people of this district will respond positively to that, and as Dennis's poll numbers get better the answer is yes, we believe there will be a substantial contribution," he said.
Both Shulman and Hoyer portrayed Garrett – who has a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union – as to right-wing for the district, while Shulman sought not to identify himself as "someone who's committed all my life not to ideology, but to problem solving."
To conservative political consultant Rick Shaftan, Garrett's adherence to conservative ideology does not work to his detriment. There's no doubt, he admitted, that the public's mood has soured towards mainstream Republicans. But according to Shaftan, Garrett is different.
"He's separated himself from the national Republicans on a number of key issues," he said. "You have these conservative Republicans becoming Democrats because the Republican Party nationally is seen as standing for nothing at all, except the war."
Meanwhile, to Garrett Campaign Manager Amanda Gasperino, this all has a familiar tone.
“Every election cycle, the national Democrat party touts the local Democrat running in the 5th District…. And every election cycle, the outcome has always been the same," she said. "I hope by being here, Congressman Hoyer will gain a better understanding of the challenges facing New Jerseyans and will return to DC to focus on taking real action on problems like high gas prices and the Alternative Minimum Tax.”