|Roy Cho, the Democratic challenger for Congress in the 5th District, is flanked by Dolores Philips of the NAACP and Alain Sanders of the Jewish Community Relations Council. His opponent, incumbent Scott Garrett, was a no-show at the JCRC-NAACP co-sponsored forum.|
What if the Jewish Community Relations Council held a candidates forum – and one of the candidates never came?
That was the situation in Temple Israel in Ridgewood on Monday night.
Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, had invited both candidates for Congress from the 5th district.
Roy Cho, 33, the Democratic challenger was there.
Scott Garrett, 55, the Republican incumbent, was not.
Mr. Garrett, in Congress since 2002, faced his unsuccessful challenger under JCRC auspices in 2012. In 2008, however, he sent a surrogate to debate challenger Dennis Shulman, a blind rabbi.
Why didn’t Mr. Garrett show up this year?
“I don’t know,” Ms. Kurland said. “Maybe because the NAACP was a co-sponsor?”
Ms. Kurland brought in the NAACP as a co-sponsor as part of a broader JCRC initiative to reach out and form relationships with the African American community – relationships that Ms. Kurland said will help build support for Israel.
African-Americans and others at Monday’s forum heard Mr. Cho make a strong case for U.S. support for Israel.
The evening was divided into timed segments. After four minutes for an opening statement, Mr. Cho was given four minutes to respond to each question. Faced with time limits, he spoke fast.
Mr. Cho began by telling of growing up in New Jersey and believing in government’s power to do good. “My family came to this country in 1982″ from South Korea, he said. “They believed in the American dream. My father was able to start a business because of a loan secured by a stranger at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.”
The discussion about whether government is the solution or the problem “isn’t just a political science debate in a classroom,” he said. It affects people’s lives. “We are facing one of the least productive, least popular Congresses in U.S. history. What Harry Truman called the ‘do-nothing’ Congress of 1948 sent 900 bills to the president. This Congress barely cracked a hundred.”
Mr. Cho, a corporate lawyer, said that when he first talked of running, “a lot of people rolled their eyes and said, ‘Why go to Washington when government is broken?’
“I was raised to be an optimist,” he said.
“Government has an obligation to serve the people. I want to focus on how to create a common-sense, pragmatic government that works for the middle and governs from the center.”
On the economy, he spoke for the need of improving transportation and “having an efficient infrastructure grid. We have people who have been unemployed for long periods of time who fix roads and bridges for their living. If they build an off-ramp, it stimulates the local economy. We live in Bergen County. I happen to live in Hackensack. That is 12 miles from downtown Manhattan. It takes an hour, an hour and a half, to get there. That doesn’t make sense.
“We need solutions, whether as ambitious as the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel” – the project to build a new rail tunnel, nicknamed ARC, under the Hudson river that was canceled by Governor Chris Christie – “or as simple as fixing potholes,” he said. “I want to be able to focus on public-private partnerships, on how we can get the private sector engaged to make public infrastructure.”
Asked about Israel and the Middle East, Mr. Cho said that “Israel is our most important ally in the Middle East. We share the same values.”
Mr. Cho recalled he spent three days in Israel this August. He went with three Bergenfield Democrats, including Rabbi Steven Burg, the eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It was an incredible country,” Mr. Cho said. “I want to aggressively advocate for Israel’s interests because Israel’s interests are America’s interests. People who do not believe Israel has a right to exist do not believe American democracy has a right to exist.”
He spoke of going to Sderot, near Gaza, “and seeing a temporary bomb shelter that was built behind a family’s home.” He contrasted the plight of children in Sderot, who had 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter, with his favorite memories growing up in New Jersey, going off on his bicycle and not coming home until dinner.
Regarding Iran, he said, “we have to focus on how to have Congressional input” in the negotiations between the United States and Iran and any resulting agreement that might lift sanctions.
He called Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who took a lead role in developing sanctions against Iran, “a great ally and mentor.”
“Sanctions have brought Iran to the table in the first place,” he said. “We have to make sure Iran does not play games with us.”
He was asked about an American role in brokering negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. “We have to take our cues from what is happening in Israel now,” he answered. “We have to take their context into account, and understand our democratic ally who shares our values. It’s not our job to be dictating Israel’s foreign policy right now.
“As a 33-year-old first-time candidate, I would not have the hubris to think I can solve problem of Mideast peace.”
He called for America to continue “providing muscular support for Israel. We have to continue providing the funding they need,” and noted that “75 percent of the money we provide to Israel is spent here in the U.S., so it helps us as well.”
Elsewhere in the region, “We have to focus on how to stanch fundamentalism. We have to separate and divide fundamentalism from Muslim people. Muslim people are peace loving, but fundamentalism and ISIS are dangerous to everyone. It cuts across all borders.”
Asked about immigration, Mr. Cho said that “it is frustrating for me that Congress refused to act” after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill. “My perspective, as a child of immigrants and the editor in chief of the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, is that our country has to recognize two things: We are a nation of immigrants, and we are also a nation of laws.
“We need immigration reform. If you can have the head of the AFL-CIO come together with the Chamber of Commerce to come to agreement, we have to also hope that Congress can do the same.”
On gun violence: “It is very frustrating for me to again see politics injected into the equation. We had an opportunity to pass common-sense reform. I am in favor of federal funding for states to implement background checks. The head of the National Rifle Association initially favored this. Later on he reneged.
“In New Jersey, we had the entire Congressional delegation – minus one – who was in favor of background checks,” he said. That one representative was Mr. Garrett. “We have to focus on common-sense gun legislation.”
On the environment: “My opponent is a climate-change denier. This is something we have to address as a society. When we focus and invest in clean energy, we’re creating jobs, cutting our dependence on foreign oil, and making ourselves more globally competitive. We need to focus on economic sanctions on polluters to address climate change. If China continues to pollute the world, everybody suffers.”
On money in politics: “Campaign finance reform is a critical part of my platform. In this election, one of the disheartening things is how much money is necessary to show credibility and get your message out. I’m proud to be able to say at this stage we’ve raised tremendous amounts of money,” he said. As of September 30, he had raised $940,869, less than the $1.8 million raised by Mr. Garrett, who also had more than $3 million in cash on hand.
“I’m running against one of the most well-funded members of Congress, because he sits on the Financial Services and Budget committees,” Mr. Cho said. “Scott Garrett is tied to special interests that fund his re-election efforts.
“We have to be talking about campaign finance reform because we have a tiny population that is determining our policies. Look at New York City for example. They have laws that say contributions below $200 to campaigns will be matched.”
He said he supported raising the minimum wage. “Seventy percent of economic growth is based on consumer spending. Our country as a whole has to grow. Trickle-down economics has not pulled us out of the recession.”
On women’s issues: “Women make up 53 percent of the district. My opponent has a commercial that says he is a champion of women’s rights. The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support. Out of 435 members, nine members of Congress voted no. He was one of those nine.”
Asked where he distinguished himself from the Democratic party platform, he said that on foreign policy, he accepted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s critique of President Obama.
“‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ cannot be the guiding principal for foreign policy. The reality is there has been an overcorrection” in response to the Bush Administration, he said.
“There has to be smart diplomacy between burying our heads in the sand and putting our boots on the ground.”