Despite a winning streak going back to 1996, and polling upwards of 65 percent of the vote in recent years, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) says, “I never take any election for granted.”
That holds true this November, as the Paterson pol faces a rematch with Roland Straten, whom he defeated by 23 points in 2008.
Still, pollsters think Pascrell has much less to fear than other Democratic incumbents around the country.
“The main reason we don’t see many competitive races in New Jersey is that the districts are so gerrymandered. Incumbents of both parties are pretty much safe,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. (See related article.)
And even if his own job does not appear to be threatened, the 73-year-old Pascrell worries that Republicans could regain their majority in the House of Representatives.
“I sure as hell hope not,” Pascrell said in a telephone interview Sept. 28. “We are working to keep the majority and we know some of our folks are more in danger than others. We are trying to help them out.”
Pascrell sees meanness in the air this election cycle.
“This is my eighth election, and in the previous seven I have never experienced the amount of innuendo — be it racial, be it ethnic, or be it specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “But my record is my record and I stand on it. I am very proud of the Jewish support I’ve had in every election.”
His district in Passaic and Essex counties includes sizable Arab-American communities in his hometown of Paterson as well as suburbs with significant Jewish populations. Straten has charged that Pascrell is “taking the Jewish vote pretty much for granted” as he seeks the “Arab vote.”
The allegation makes Pascrell angry.
“People know where I come from. People know where I stand. They know I don’t say one thing in Paterson and another in Wayne,” he said. “That is the reputation I have and I’m proud of it. My parents told me to be a bridge builder, and that is exactly what I’m doing.”
Pascrell said he doesn’t regret signing the so-called “Gaza 54 Letter,” in which some House Democrats asked President Barack Obama to help lighten Israel’s embargo of Gaza in order to facilitate more humanitarian aid.
“It is very clear that Israel has every right to defend itself and every right to prevent Hamas from getting weapons. But that was not the question,” he said. “We needed to find out what the real truth was and the Israelis adopted our position,” said the congressman, referring to subsequent moves by Israel to partially ease the blockade.
He is adamant that he speaks his mind on issues without testing popular opinion.
“I do not say just what other people want me to say. I do not try to ingratiate myself. I am proud of my record on Israel. I have voted for every dollar that has ever come up before the Congress,” he said. “I have supported every attempt of Israel to defend itself — not some of the time but all of the time. I have condemned Iran from the beginning and warned of it years ago.”
He said he hopes for “a fair solution in the Middle East,” and noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a moratorium on West Bank construction “is not going to help.”
“But it is not the end of the talks,” said Pascrell, “and I would hope that cooler heads will prevail. I have confidence in [Netanyahu’s] leadership, and I think Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to do the right thing.”
He also supports the Obama administration’s efforts in bringing both sides to the peace table.
“President Obama, number one, is committed to the safety of Israel,” he told NJ Jewish News. “Number two, he is committed in stopping Iran in trying to build a nuclear force. Number three, he is absolutely going to do everything he can with negotiations to make this really count. The option is to go home and do nothing.”
Should the GOP regain control of one or more houses of Congress, Pascrell expects “they will play to the audience and then do nothing. They played to the audience in terms of economics and we had a 10-year tragedy.”
He is also concerned Republicans might try to unravel the health-care legislation he played a hand in drafting as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“I think rolling back health-care legislation is a big worry. It has been proven that this legislation is going to be meaningful. It is a beginning,” he said.
While he acknowledges that the Tea Party, which is backing his opponent, “has some good ideas in terms of looking at balanced budgets, as we had under the leadership of Bill Clinton,” Pascrell said he is troubled that “some of the extreme positions they have taken are not good for America.
“The Tea Party wants to do away with the Department of Education. That should go over big with the Jewish community,” he said sarcastically. “No group respects education more than the Jewish community.”
Looking beyond Election Day, Pascrell said, “Whether I am in the minority or the majority, I am still going to provide the best constituent services. I am going to fight like hell to maintain the majority. If it doesn’t happen and I am reelected, I am going to continue to provide service for this community. It is never written about, but it is just as important as anything else.”