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In N.J., Democratic Frenemies Wage Final Battle

Reps. Steve Rothman (left) and Bill Pascrell went head-to-head at a debate Monday in Montclair, N.J.
S.P. Sullivan
Reps. Steve Rothman (left) and Bill Pascrell went head-to-head at a debate Monday in Montclair, N.J.

There was a time when U.S. House colleagues Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman, Democrats from neighboring congressional districts in northern New Jersey, called themselves friends.

But congressional redistricting means Pascrell and Rothman will face off in the state's Democratic primary on Tuesday for one congressional seat. And despite their long friendship, the race has been anything but collegial.

"Bill voted to give this estate tax relief to billionaires. He changed his mind in further years, in further votes," claimed Rothman at a debate this month. "I say that I'm the Democrat's Democrat up here."

Rothman, who currently represents the state's 9th District, has tried to portray himself as the more liberal of the two men — a claim Pascrell, who represents the neighboring 8th District, vigorously disputes.

"This is really a specious argument. I'm working for the middle class. I'm working for the working poor," Pascrell said at the debate. "That's more important than what the label is on my head."

Friends With Sharp Elbows

The truth is that you have to look pretty closely to find much of a difference in their voting records at all. Both Rothman and Pascrell are seasoned veterans who've represented their districts since 1997. Rothman is 59; Pascrell is 75. Both have shown they still know how to throw a punch.

Even political observers like Peter Woolley at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey were caught off guard by the rough tone of the campaign.

"Everybody has been taken by surprise that these two men have really been very bitter toward each other — each one very anxious to hold onto his seat in the House of Representatives, and willing to use the sharp elbows to do it," says Woolley.

Both men are so desperate to grab an advantage, adds Woolley, that they've called in every favor they can from party bigwigs.

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, flew in from Chicago to endorse Rothman at an event last week.

"When people say to you, you need to elect a congressman who's going to be the most effective ally for the president of the United States, I'm here to tell you that that man is Steve Rothman," Axelrod told Garden State voters while campaigning with Rothman in Wood-Ridge, N.J.

Rothman was one of the first Northeastern Democrats in Congress to support Obama for president, back in 2007.

Four years ago, Pascrell backed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. And this year, he's lined up the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, who will campaign for Pascrell later this week and who also recorded a robocall, asking people to vote for Pascrell.

Redistricting Dilemma

Pascrell and Rothman have represented adjoining districts, but slow population growth caused New Jersey to lose one congressional seat after the last census.

Redistricting left Rothman's home in a different district, the state's 5th, which is currently represented by Republican Scott Garrett. But rather than run against Garrett — who has support from the Tea Party — Rothman put his house on the market and moved back to Englewood, the city where he was mayor in the 1980s. It's in the newly reconfigured 9th District.

Pascrell says Rothman should have taken on the Republican instead.

"He chose to run and hide. He chose to leave and move back into the district that was assigned to me in the process," says Pascrell. "How is that helping the Obama agenda or the Democratic Party? I don't know."

But Rothman insists he's simply following his constituents into the new district.

"I was born and raised in this district. I was the mayor of Englewood, and practiced law here, and represented this district for the last 16 years. And I live here. So for someone to say this isn't my home district is a little silly," Rothman says.

On paper, it looks like the new district contains slightly more of Rothman's constituents. He also has more money to spend. But Pascrell has strong support around his hometown of Paterson, where he was mayor in the 1990s.

Democratic voter Thomas Lyons of Clifton says this is one choice he wishes he did not have to make.

"It's regrettable that one of them wouldn't choose to take on Mr. Garrett. Nobody has the internal fortitude to go out and challenge the man. And it's a shame that it comes down to two good Democratic members here, Rothman and Pascrell," says Lyons.

And no matter what happens on Tuesday, one of those members is not going to represent New Jersey in Congress next year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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