HACKETTSTOWN, N.J. — In the most watched New Jersey contest of the political season, incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) and his Democratic opponent Josh Gottheimer trained blowtorch rhetoric at each other at close range this morning in a debate broadcast on WRNJ.
In a series of brutal exchanges over the duration of the hour-long debate, Garrett and Gottheimer charged each other with lying, as the congressman packaged himself as a movement conservative, status-quo-bucking taxpayer watchdog, while Gottheimer dogged him as a bigot who refuses to work across the aisle and whose ideology prevents him from being an effective steward of the North Jersey district.
“New Jersey’s resident fanatic,” was how Gottheimer referred to the Republican incumbent, citing Garrett’s refusal to more aggressively fight for federal dollars to fund first response and other critical government programs, which results in local property tax hikes to fill the gap.
Dismissing former Bill Clinton speechwriter Gottheimer as a Washington crony, Garrett repeatedly objected, as the two candidates presented a stark contrast.
“We want to stop so much money going to Washington in the first place,” said the congressman. “The solution is not to get a few pennies back. We want hard-working taxpayers to keep more money in their pockets.”
Gottheimer struck back throughout, making his case that Garrett – with over two decades in office -is a government hack whose cozy ties to ideological groups inside the Beltway prevent him from understanding “New Jersey values.”
Garrett leaves critical federal grant dollars untouched, and these “are dollars we should be getting back,” said the challenger.
“The status quo is not working,” the congressman said. “The solution is not sending money in the first place.”
The two men scrapped bitterly over a charge leveled by the congressman that Gottheimer has not paid taxes on his D.C. luxury home for six years, a charge Garrett retracted and modified, noting that, in fact, the Democrat had only paid up a year ago when he decided to become a candidate for congress. Gottheimer later slapped at Garrett for participating in the Farmland Preservation program, which gives a tax break to New Jersey homeowners who farm their own land.
Throughout the debate, Garrett tried to take Gottheimer to task for running a negative big money campaign, citing the figure of over $10 million pumped against him by the Democrat. The congressman seemed particularly offended by a plane at the Jersey shore this summer that dragged an anti-Garrett slogan in view of beach-goers, but also objected to Gottheimer’s “vitriolic” tactics, including bad language.
“How can he work across the aisle?” the congressman wanted to know.
A short time later, Gottheimer shot back that he had just had a conversation with U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who called Garrett the one person in the New Jersey Congressional delegation with whom he couldn’t work.
The two candidates also fought over Garrett’s infamous opposition to gays in elected office. Politico first reported on a closed-door meeting in which sources described the congressman resisting giving a contribution to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee on grounds that they fund gay candidates. Garrett said the story was wrong, and thanked Herald Columnist Rob Jennings, one of the questioners in today’s debate, for clarifying his remarks in a story subsequent to Politico’s published account.
Gottheimer pounced, defending his campaign’s ddecision to focus on the story, which Republicans who were at that closed-door meeting verified.
“I think people have the right to know when their congressman is a bigot,” the challenger said. “I understand you’re desperate because you’re losing. I understanding your back is against the wall. [But] talk to your fellow Tea Partiers [about the authenticity of the original story].
“Please don’t lie to the voters,” Gottheimer added.
The challenger also burnished his support from police and fire as a cudgel in response to Garrett’s argument that he backed a bill allocating $39 million for emergency first responders.
Garrett lingered at one point on a comment Gottheimer made about how the congressman is “an unskilled liar.”
“I don’t lie that much,” the congressman said. “You’re a skilled liar.”
Garrett pointed to what he said was Gottheimer’s wobbly record of public statements on the controversial Iran deal.
Both candidates seemed to punt on a Black Lives Matter queeestion, with Garrett speaking in broad terms about how all lives matter, and Gottheimer pivoting to his strong support from law enforcement.