WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Two veteran New Jersey lawmakers traded barbs last night during a rare debate that pitted incumbents on the same side of the aisle against one another.
It was the first time Democratic House incumbents Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman squared off in the fight for the newly created 9th District — using the kind of invective they would normally reserve for a Republican.
Parts of Rothman’s old 9th District were merged with portions of Pascrell’s old 8th district, and now both lawmakers are fighting to represent the new district, which includes portions of Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties.
Touting his early support of President Barack Obama, Rothman reminded the packed audience that he was the first Democratic House member in the state to back the president of his party’s nomination. Evidence, he said, of his progressive streak.
"Who was the first to call for our troops to be withdrawn from Iraq? Who was the first to call for marriage equality?" Rothman asked. "Who was the first to support President Barack Obama?"
But Pascrell, who was endorsed by Bill Clinton last week, claimed Rothman moved out of his old district and into Englewood so he had a better shot at winning an election after his old district was redrawn.
"That's not supporting the President of the United States when we're trying to get back to a majority in the House of Representatives,” Pascrell said.
Rothman lived in Fair Lawn in what had been the 9th district territory pre-redistricting. Had he chosen to stay there he would have had to run against conservative Republican incumbent Scott Garrett whose 5th district was re-drawn with Fair Lawn in it.
Rothman opted to move back to Englewood, where he served as mayor. That made him eligible to take on his frequent dining companion Pascrell, who saw much of his district folded into what would be called the new 9th.
The men have similar voting records, but there are differences which Rothman did his best to capitalize on.
Pascrell voted for TARP, which Rothman opposed and characterized as “a bail out for the banks.” And Rothman went after Pascrell's voting record on abortion.
Pascrell defended his pro-choice credentials. He says he had to find common ground with Republicans in order to get President Obama's healthcare bill through Congress.
A second debate is scheduled for May 14 at Montclair State University and will be broadcast on New Jersey Public TV.
The primary is June 5.