U.S Rep. Steve Rothman has a message for critics who say he should have taken one for the team when his town was carved out of the 9th District and run against U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett in the newly configured 5th District: The 9th is his district and has been for the past 15 years.
“I’m running for re-election in my home district,” Rothman said in a recent interview with PolitickerNJ. “It’s the district I was born in and have lived in nearly my whole life.”
The statement has become like a mantra to Rothman as he seeks to counter disparagement from some in his own party who were less than enthusiastic about his decision.
He points out that 55 percent of the voters in the newly configured 9th were part of the old 9th – which he has represented since 1996 – including 61 percent of the Democrats. He points out that 28 towns in the new district came from the old 9th and that Englewood, where he was mayor, is in the new district.
“The fact that the redistricting commission took the borough of Fair Lawn where I now have my home and cut it off from the 9th and stapled it on to Garrett’s 5th doesn’t change the fact that the 9th District is my home district,” he said.
As a result of that “stapling,” Rothman now finds himself forced to challenge fellow Democrat Bill Pascrell, with the political life of each at stake come November.
There are those who say Rothman had a choice. Garrett is beatable, the story line goes, and even if it was a lost cause, Rothman acted selfishly in deciding to move to the newly drawn 9th and challenge Pascrell rather than take on the most conservative member of the state’s delegation.
“Bill had a choice,” he said. “I’m running in my home district. The fact that Bill was put here in my home district by the redistricting commission is unfortunate but I didn’t cause it and Bill didn’t cause it and that doesn’t mean that I’m going to abandon my friends, neighbors and people I served over the last 15 years in Congress and 24 years of elected office – to run in somebody else’s district.”
Asked if he thinks Pascrell and not he is the interloper in the new 9th, Rothman hinted that he believes that to be true.
“Bill’s decision to run in my home district was Bill’s decision and I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
So far, Rothman has received endorsements from dozens of mayors and municipal chairmen in the Bergen County portion of the district, along with County Chairmen Lou Stellato of Bergen and Mark Smith of Hudson and all of the Democratic state Senators and Assembly representatives who represent Bergen County.
Still, he stirred controversy early in the race when PolitickerNJ reported that he had been offered up to $2 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run against Garrett. The initial sources for the story stand by it and another source has since confirmed the offer, but Rothman denied there was ever an offer of unconditional money. The DCCC doesn’t work that way, he said, and even if they did, things change as campaigns go on. Any funding offer from the DCCC would have come with fundraising goals and caveats, Rothman said.
“But even if they had made an unconditional promise and put $5 million or $10 million in an escrow campaign account for me, there is no amount of money that would have had me run in a district other than the 9th, which is my home district,” he said.
This week, the Record of Bergen County reported that DCCC Chairman Steve Israel said he tried to talk Rothman into running against Garrett. Asked about the pledge, Israel laughed, but told the Record that he and Rothman discussed the race and he offered fundraising help.
“We told Steve, I told Steve personally, that I understood that it would be a tough race and that we, the DCCC, would treat him as a front-liner and help him build the resources he would need to win,” Israel told the Record. “He chose to run elsewhere. You can’t do anything about that once that decision is made.”
Despite the controversy, Rothman maintains he is the better candidate for the 9th for many reasons, not the least of which is his committee assignment, which he will keep if he remains in Congress, but would not pass to Pascrell should Rothman lose.
Rothman sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which decides how money is spent. He is the only Bergen County Representative ever to sit on the committee and he says that along with his longstanding ties to the district are enough to keep him around.
“My committee assignment on the House Appropriations Committee and my seniority there enables me and will continue to enable me to bring home more money to my congressional district than any member of Congress who has ever represented my congressional district,” he said.
As for what he will do if he loses, Rothman was pragmatic. At 59, he is far from ready for retirement and with experience as a lawyer and a municipal judge, he thinks finding employment wouldn’t be hard.
“But I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “I’m thinking about continuing to bring home money for my district.”