CLIFTON, N.J. — In the battle between Democrats Bill Pascrell and Steven Rothman, the contrasts are only outnumbered by the New Jersey landmarks that dot this suburban district in the shadow of the Big Apple.
With little daylight between the two liberal lawmakers’ ideology, differences in geography and personality have come to define the race for the handful of voters who are paying attention a month before the June 5 primary.
Here it’s not just about Member versus Member. It’s Passaic versus Bergen, gritty ethnic enclaves versus nouveau riche mansions, sleeves rolled up versus
buttoned-down coat and tie, and old school backyard politicking versus direct mail and phone banks.
On the ground there is a sense that it is not merely one lawmaker’s Congressional future at stake, but the political relevance of his entire community.
“It’s do or die when it comes to our county,” Passaic County Democratic Party Chairman John Currie told an audience of Indian-American Pascrell supporters last week.
Both lawmakers are former mayors first elected to Congress in 1996. Both are the grandsons of immigrants. And both boast of a capacity to bring federal funds back to the district, with Rothman serving on the Appropriations Committee and Pascrell a member of the Ways and Means panel.
Yet amid those similarities, the two men are nearly complete opposites in political style and background.
Pascrell is a former teacher who rose through the ranks of local education politics. He is an old-school politician in every sense: quick to shrug off his suit jacket, roll up his sleeves, pump his arm during his stump speech and to throw his arm around a child at a rally.
At 75, he is as at ease at a house party of Irish Catholic baby boomers worrying about 401(k)s as he is at an urban block party where an emcee yells into the microphone, “Is Passaic in the house?”
On the trail, he talks of his Catholic education and his childhood “on the streets of Paterson.” He is the grandson of Italian immigrants, and his campaign brands him “a fighter.” That word surfaces everywhere in his campaign.
Rothman, a second-generation American from a humble Jewish immigrant background, went to law school and is a former judge. When he gave an apolitical civics lesson to a group of middle school students, he paced back and forth as if he was delivering an opening argument.
The 59-year-old joked about his baby boom generation’s fashion choices, laughing about flower children.
“Know that I love you, and I have confidence in you,” he said in his closing moments with the students.
Personalities aside, this is a geographic war. There are three counties in the district: Bergen, Hudson and Passaic. In New Jersey, county machines still flourish as the most important political organizations. The Bergen machine is behind Rothman, Passaic is with Pascrell, and Hudson voters could prove decisive.
“Hudson County matters,” Currie said, stressing the importance of every ballot cast in a low-turnout primary. “This race could come down to 5-, 6-, 700 votes.”
When one thinks of New Jersey, it is probably the new 9th district that comes to mind.
The New Jersey Turnpike courses through the district, as does the Garden State Parkway. The George Washington Bridge stretches from the 9th and disappears into the New York City skyline. New Jersey’s “Real Housewives” do business here, as have real and fictional Mafioso. And Bruce Springsteen sings of its Meadowlands swamps and the community’s firsthand devastation on Sept. 11, 2001.
This is not a place for the faint of heart.
Amid all the iconography, the newly married portions of Rothman’s and Pascrell’s current districts are night and day and each man embodies the temperament of his hometown.
Paterson, where Pascrell was once mayor, is where people go to begin the American dream. It has been that way for generations. Once heavily Italian Catholic, Paterson has shifted toward a predominantly Latino and African-American population.
Main Street is congested and gritty, with old brick warehouses a reminder of its industrial past.
Rothman’s hometown of Englewood in Bergen County is minutes from Paterson, yet it is a world away.
Around every corner sits a luxury car dealership. The main drag is quiet, polished and orderly. There are galleries, a Starbucks and spas. Picture perfect houses are set back on sprawling lawns.
Although there are pockets of poverty, Englewood is where people go when they have achieved the American dream.
The entire district is situated in New York City’s prohibitively expensive media market. This puts added emphasis on the campaign’s get-out-the-vote strategy.
In Pascrell’s world, houses are jammed close to each other. Supporters gather at the Elk’s Lodge or in a narrow backyard for a block party. They bring new friends to every event. The retail politicking here is person-to-person.
For the Rothman camp, the outreach emphasis is on direct mail, door knocking and phone-banking. A group of rabbis and synagogue presidents banded together recently to pen a voter outreach letter.
“I’ve got the hardest-working team anybody could hope for,” Rothman said in an interview. “I certainly am doing my part working seven days and nights from when I open my eyes to when I close them and have kept that schedule going pretty much without break since a few days after Christmas.”
It’s hard to tell which lawmaker has the edge, although Pascrell got a major boost Friday with the endorsement of President Bill Clinton.
Public polls are scarce, as is a basic voter awareness about the race.
Because of the way the county political machines work, Rothman has an institutional advantage on the ballot. But all signs point to low turnout, and Pascrell has passion on his side.
The local TV news has all but ignored the race. There are no campaign billboards around the district, and yard signs are generally confined to the candidates’ bases.
Still, for those who are plugged in, the race borne out of redistricting is a cause and a point of resentment.
Rothman did not live in the new district until a couple of months ago. He moved there after his Fair Lawn home was drawn just outside the new district lines.
Pascrell supporters argue that Rothman should have run in the 5th district against GOP Rep. Scott Garrett. But that district favors Republicans, while the 9th is a safe Democratic seat.
“This is my home district that I’ve represented for the last 16 years in Congress, where I was born, raised, lived most of my life, was the mayor of Englewood,” Rothman argues.
Pascrell and his supporters, meanwhile, express indignation with Rothman’s decision.
At a Bergen County house party, Pascrell described learning over the phone from Rothman of his decision to run in the 9th.
“He told me how much he loves me,” Pascrell said with a sarcastic laugh. “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
Pascrell’s supporters are more visceral. They call Rothman names and say he lacks the courage to face Garrett.
“I don’t know what went through his head,” said Passaic County activist Angel LaBoy to a crowd of Pascrell supporters. “He was supposed to fight a Republican in his area, and I think he got a little scared and came over here, jumped the fence like the pitbulls.”
Rothman is far less combative. When informed of the harsh comments, there is a flash of sadness in his eyes. But he makes no pretense that a friendship still exists. He now describes his and Pascrell’s interactions as “cordial.”
There is little upside to this race and its outcome for Democrats. For both men, a friendship is probably over, and it will likely mean the end of a political career. For House Democrats, it guarantees the elimination of a party elder. And for one of the counties, it means the loss of one of their own in Congress.
But the grim reality is that it’s the nature of politics in New Jersey, and the two men push ahead.
“My parents taught me that you never start fights,” Pascrell said. “But you finish them. You finish them.”