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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.