For the past five election cycles, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Dist. 5) has trounced his Democratic rivals.
But this time, Josh Gottheimer, a one-time speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, believes he can unseat the staunch conservative incumbent he calls “Dr. No” and “a member of the Tea Party gang in Congress.”
Traditionally, the Fifth Congressional District, which covers 43 towns in Bergen County, 19 in Sussex, and 15 in Warren, has been predominantly Republican. But Gottheimer, 40, is convinced he will win.
And his party thinks he has a strong chance. Gottheimer points to a fund-raising effort that has already earned him $1.5 million. He was designated as one of 19 Democratic challengers who will receive an extra infusion of money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to defeat Republican incumbents considered to be vulnerable.
When he launched his campaign Feb. 8 at an industrial park in the Bergen County town of Northvale, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) helped out by delivering a blistering attack on Garrett.
Calling Garrett “the most rigid right-wing member of Congress,” Booker said the incumbent was “very far from the values I know we all share.”
In a Feb. 12 phone interview, Gottheimer — a native of North Caldwell who now resides in Wyckoff — told NJ Jewish News his own values were formed when he became bar mitzva at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, and then had a second ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“Judaism affected my values, my views about public life, and how I treat others,” he said, calling himself “socially progressive.”
Garrett, who attends an evangelical church in Lafayette Township, also said he grounds his views in his religious upbringing, as the son of devout Christians in Wantage. He is staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage, has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which promotes smaller government and free markets.
“Garrett uses his religion as a crutch,” said Gottheimer. “These are not the religious values I was taught. He said gay people should not be allowed to run for Congress. He is free to believe what he wants, but he should not represent this district because those views do not represent this district.”
Gottheimer was referring to reports last year that, in a closed-door meeting, Garret said he would not contribute to the congressional Republicans’ fund-raising arm because it supports gay candidates. Garrett later said his position was based on his belief in “traditional marriage,” and that he held no malice toward gays.
Gottheimer continued: “He is saying, ‘My faith says they shouldn’t.’ That is a far cry from New Jersey values. Imagine if he said that about African-Americans or Italians or the Irish or Jews or women. This is not at all what scripture teaches us. It says, ‘You love thy neighbor.’ But he is using religion to backstop his extreme ideology.”
Gottheimer calls himself “a fiscally responsible and very moderate Democrat.” He said his opponent has imposed “the Garrett Tax” on the district “by not ever getting a grant for firefighters or police, for never fighting for any roads, bridges, and tunnels that need to be fixed. It costs every person in the district $20,000 a year. That is the gap between the federal dollars we pay and the federal dollars we get back,” he said.
Citing the congressman’s voting record, he said Garrett “has said ‘no’ to homeland security, ‘no’ to investing in research and development, ‘no’ to the ARC [Access to the Region’s Core] Tunnel that would have provided a new railroad link between New Jersey and Manhattan.”
Garrett, continued Gottheimer, “voted ‘no’ to raising the debt ceiling when the country was on the verge of defaulting. He voted ‘no’ to equal pay for women, ‘no’ to family medical leave, and was only one of nine members of Congress to vote against the Violence Against Women Act. He voted against funding for mammograms. He voted for privatizing Social Security. He voted to shut down the Department of Education.
“And this is heartbreaking.”
Gottheimer called himself a strong supporter of Israel who believes “in a two-state solution, but I am not sure who Israel can sit down and negotiate with.”
He said he was a strong opponent of the multinational nuclear arms deal with Iran. “I was deeply concerned with the impact it would have on Israel and on terrorism in the region. I think Iran will funnel billions of dollars to Hizbullah. It will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in terms of terror,” he said.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, told NJJN he does not normally campaign for political candidates but is working with Gottheimer because “he is a strong advocate for Israel. Garrett’s support for Israel doesn’t compare to Josh’s. Josh’s support is in his kishkes because he’s Jewish and because he cares about Israel.”
Gottheimer grew up in North Caldwell, where his mother taught nursery school and his father ran a small business.
He graduated from West Essex High School in North Caldwell and the University of Pennsylvania, became a Thouron Fellow at Oxford University, and then went on to Harvard Law School.
He and his wife, Marla, a former federal prosecutor, have two young children.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said, “Gottheimer probably has a better chance than the previous people who ran against Garrett, but it is still an uphill battle. He is a talented politician and he will make a very aggressive run with all the money he has been raising. There will be a lot of national money coming into the race, and it is a presidential year in which Democrats are likely to do well in New Jersey.”
But, said Dworkin, “Garrett has been there a long time and is very well known.”
Dworkin said another factor is the eventual Republican nominee for president.
“If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz wins the nomination, it doesn’t help Garrett with the moderate Republicans in his district,” he said.
Garrett did not answer NJJN’s requests to respond to Gottheimer’s charges.