When news broke that Republican Roland Straten would run for the 8th Congressional District seat, Straten got a call from his old acquaintance and new opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson).
According to Straten’s recollection, the exchange went something like this:
Pascrell: “Rollie, are you mad at me?”
Straten: “Bill, no.”
Pascrell: “Why are you running against me?”
Straten: “I don’t agree with your votes and your policies."
Pascrell: “Then I’m going to beat your tail.”
If Straten’s campaign turns out like those of Pascrell’s five previous challengers, then Pascrell probably will beat his tail. Since Pascrell narrowly unseated Republican Bill Martini in 1996, no Republican has gotten more than 35 percent of the vote against him. Last year, Republican Jose Sandoval only got 28 percent to Pascrell’s 71 percent.
The 8th district is almost as safely Democratic as a district gets in New Jersey. It has 123,116 registered Democrats – more than twice the 53,249 registered Republicans (the single largest chunk of voters — 125,504 — are unaffiliated, as is typically the case in congressional districts).
“It’s a tough race, yes. It’s not going to be an easy race. But it’s a fun race,” said Straten, who acknowledges that he’s a long-shot for the seat.
But the 67-year-old Straten, who as of June 30 had $55,000 cash-on-hand ($50,924 of which came from his own pocket), said that if he has enough money and wherewithal to get his anti-tax and pro-school voucher message across, he just might be able to pull off an exceptional victory against the 71-year-old Pascrell.
That could be difficult against such an entrenched incumbent, who in press accounts is quoted talking more about his gubernatorial or senatorial aspirations than his re-election to the House. And if necessary, Pascrell can easily bury Straten with his $1.17 million war chest.
Straten, an engineer, grew up in Wayne and lives in Montclair. He ran Associated Fire Protection – which was founded by his father — out of Paterson for 37 years. Just last year, he handed off that business to his own son.
In the lead up to the race, he wasn’t sure about running, and called the two previous Republican candidates – George Ajjan (2004) and Jose Sandoval (2006) to make sure they had no interest. It was ultimately Pat Kramer, the former Republican mayor of Paterson, whose exhortations convinced Straten to run.
“He’s a good politician. He built up my ego,” said Straten.
So far, the campaign has remained relatively good-natured. The two candidates’ relationship goes back to early 1990s, when Pascrell was mayor of Paterson – the single largest municipality in the district — and Straten chaired Paterson’s Chamber of Commerce.
“We worked pretty close together trying to get things done,” said Straten.
In fact, Straten even supported Pascrell for reelection in 1998, donating $250 to his campaign – one of only two federal campaign contributions he’s ever made (the other was $1,000 to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999). He even sat on Pascrell’s Public Safety Advisory Committee during the early part of the Congressman’s tenure. But things have changed since then.
“Since we met, (Pascrell) has moved substantially over to he left. He was always liberal, but I think he’s gone way, way far,” Straten said. “Not that I’m an ultra-conservative, but I think spending is totally out of control.”
Straten laments the closing of Catholic schools and thinks school vouchers would encourage more parents to send their kids to them. He thinks he can appeal not just to homeowners upset about their property taxes, but to renters who see a large part of their pay checks go towards income taxes.
And he stands with Republican presidential candidate John McCain on earmark reform. He would have no problem on the process of voting for individual grants on the floor of the House, but said he wants to end the practice of inserting them into bills.
“Pascrell seems to be one of the biggest voters for earmarks. Not only coming into this county, but other places,” said Straten.
His biggest problem with Pascrell’s record, however, are his votes on the Iraq war – his initial vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution, and his subsequent vote against the troop “surge.”
“I don’t have the information and nobody asked me at the time, and I don’t know if that was the best battle to go in,” said Straten. “But Congress and the administration put together a plan, and (Pascrell) voted with them to send troops to Iraq and then pulled the rug out from under them. That really upsets me, and he doesn’t get any gruff from it.”
So with little money in his pocket, Straten is walking the length of the district a few miles at a time – from Pompton Lakes in the north to South Orange in the south.
“I’m getting out place to place, train stations, door to door, parks, picnics, wherever I can go just saying hello to people,” he said.
Pascrell’s side kept its response to Straten’s challenge short.
“If the criticism is that Congressman Pascrell is trying to end the war in Iraq, the congressman gladly accepts it,” said Pascrell Chief of Staff Ben Rich. “Congressman Pascrell is proud to run on his record of accomplishment, and is a strong, independent voice for the people of the 8th Congressional district.”