PATERSON, NJ – Folks who attended last week’s congressional candidates’ forum sponsored by the Paterson’s Pastor’s Workshop didn’t seem that interested in foreign policy or balancing the federal budget.
Their questions to Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman focused on how the two contenders in one of the country’s most hotly-contested congressional primaries would address issues directly affecting the Paterson community, such as job creation, taxes, reparations and prison reentry. And the candidates’ answers were, for the most part, as similar as their congressional voting records, which are aligned more than 90 percent of the time.
There was however, one solid distinction between the two. While the two Democrats acknowledged the importance of working with faith-based organizations, and agreed to do so if elected, they sharply disagreed about the availability of funding. The questioned boiled down to this: “How can we make sure faith-based groups get federal dollars under your watch?”
Rothman confidently said that money was available “now” for cities like Paterson. Rothman repeatedly reminded the audience of the more than $2.2 billion dollars he said he has brought to New Jersey during his 16 years in office and cited his experience on the Appropriations Committee. “I know where the money is and I’m very much looking forward to bringing home money to the six towns in the county,” Rothman said.
In contrast, Pascrell pointed to Tea Party cuts and the country’s economic distress. “Money is not that available,” Pascrell warned. But the former Paterson mayor said he would use his experience on the House Ways and Means Committee to fight to bring funding to faith groups in the district.
About 100 people attended the two-hour long event on February 23 at Passaic County Community College. It was clearly a home crowd for Pascrell, with supports hoiting his campaign signs and wearing his buttons.
The evening began with a vow by Reverend Michael D. McDuffie, president of the Pastors Workshop, to make amends for “a time when we were silent and should have spoken out.” Clergymen from Passaic and Bergen counties, along with interested Patersonians, challenged Pascrell and Rothman “to make a commitment that will help ensure our children don’t go to bed hungry and can wake up in the morning and look forward to a good day of school.”
When asked whether they would support the creation of an advisory board to help with grants and fundraising for faith-based organizations, both candidates said yes. Pascrell explained that he wants “to make sure that the not-for-profits in the community have the chance to compete against those who can hire professionals to help them with the grant writing.” To that end, he promised he would make sure a member of his staff was available to help constituents with grant applications.
Rothman, who was endorsed as the Black Clergy candidate during his mayoral tenure in Englewood, likewise welcomed the creation of the board, “Whether it’s one meeting or 10 meetings or 20 meetings. They will be my eyes and ears. I will get the applications filed and get the money to where it is needed the most.”
Another question – one that Pascrell called “probably the most important of the evening” – focused on the candidates’ positions regarding vouchers, charter schools and public schools. Both emphatically said they support the public education system.
“If we are going to move the next generation and provide them the opportunity, then we have to strengthen the public school system,’’ said Pascrell. “We cannot drain money away from the public school system.”
Rothman agreed, “I heard that on the debate about the Republicans saying Federal Government shouldn’t be in the business of supporting schools, that’s just plain morally wrong.” He continued, “I don’t believe in private school vouchers. It hurts the public schools. I do believe in public school choice. If parents see one public school is doing the job, parents can send kids to that school. I believe in it because it creates competition between public schools.”
When asked about their willingness to support reentry initiatives for people who have recently been incarcerated, Rothman gave the audience an example of his past support to show that he would do the same going forward for his new district. Rothman said he already has brought home $1.4 million dollars for prison reentry programs in Bergen County.
Pascrell received audience applause when he responded to the question. He categorized Rothman’s example as “one-upmanship” by saying, “Elections are about the future, Steve. What is your vision? I have a vision about what the district needs. I am willing to fight on the floor of the house and go after those Tea Party people!”
According to Pascrell the race comes down to one question: “Who do you want fighting for you in the foxhole?” Pascrell accused Rothman of walking away from such a fight when he opted not to take one conservative Republican Scott Garrett in the newly-configured 5th District.
Rothman countered that he has a long history of taking stands. “I chose Barack Obama when no other official in New Jersey would do that,’’ he said. “I was the highest elected official in New Jersey to endorse Obama. Barack made me his Northeast Chairman.”
Rothman also asserted his decision to move into the new 9th districts was done out of loyalty to constituents from his old district. Nearly 60 percent of people in the new 9th had been part of Rothman’s old district.
At the close of the evening one audience member was asked if the comments by the congressmen had impacted her decision on who to vote for. The woman, who declined to provide her name, said that she was voting for Pascrell. “If we lose him we lose our connection to DC. He’s a Patersonian and he’s our connection,” she said.
The other audience members’ Pascrell campaign signs and buttons made it clear she is not the only Patersonian to think that way.