In the end, gerrymandering was destiny.
Democrat Adam Gussen and Republican Rabbi Shmuley Boteach entered their congressional races – in the fifth and ninth districts respectively – knowing that the odds, as measured by partisan voting registration, were against them.
On Tuesday, the expected happened. Rep. Scott Garrett (R) and Rep. William Pascrell (D) were reelected to the House of Representatives, as were the overwhelming number of incumbents nationwide. (In the 2010 congressional races, 85 percent of incumbents were returned to office.)
Both challengers are Orthodox Jews – a biographical detail that affected the campaign “not at all,” Gussen said. “Other than finding it hard to come up with kosher food in Warren and Sussex County, I don’t think it played a plus or minus in the campaign.”
Gussen termed his loss “profoundly disappointing,” although the campaign was “a tremendously rewarding experience.”
The election gave him “a deep respect for our democratic process,” he said. “And I think I’ve learned that there’s so many values and ideas that cut across all lines of geography or socioeconomic barriers that we all share in common, whether there’s a D next to our name or an R. We all want what’s best for our families and we want to feel safe and secure in what tomorrow brings.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Boteach said he was “joyous. We achieved most of our goals. We showed a rabbi can run as a real candidate. When you have a yarmulke and beard and nine kids following along on the campaign trail, you can be a candidate.”
Boteach said he had rejected political experts’ advice to drop his title during the election, warning that it would marginalize him.
“I was proudly Jewish. I went as ‘Rabbi Shmuley,’ not ‘Shmuley,'” he said.
Boteach said the campaign was one of the great experiences of his life – and an outgrowth of his desire to spread Jewish values “to bring healing in America.” Having done that in books and television and radio, “I wanted to do it in politics. That’s one of the places that’s suffering the most today. If you want to fix the political arena, you need to jump into the political arena.”
Boteach said he was pleased to have gotten his message out, drawing more than ten thousand emails from across the country.
“What people will see and remember from my campaign,” he said, is his talk about values other than the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Those issues had been a focus of the Republican Party – and those issues cost the party dearly in this election.
“I spoke about making marital counseling tax deductible, a national year of service after high school, recreating an America sabbath by giving employers incentives to give their workers off on Sunday to have time with their family. I spoke about the need for parents to have a real educational choice. And I defended Israel with all my heart and all my soul,” he said.
In the course of the campaign, he met and fell in love with the people of the district. “This is one of the most amazing districts,” he said. “One of the most diverse in America. I think I received the respect of mutual affection among the Arabs of Paterson, by showing them respect. I knew they would never vote for me. They are Pascrell’s base. I was told by all the campaign professionals around me that you need to campaign around people who will vote for you.”
But campaigning in Paterson gave him warm encounters with Arabs who were friendly even as they argued about Israel policy. Some spoke to him in Hebrew.
So what’s next for the candidates?
Gussen is taking a couple of days off to relax with his family. And then on Monday morning he will return to his job at a mortgage company, after having taken a few months off to devote entirely to the campaign. “I need to refocus on the most important things in life and that’s my family,” he said.
Boteach said he too has to get back to work, picking up commitments that had been pushed aside by the campaign: lectures, recording an audiobook, and promoting his new book, “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.”
He won’t rule out a return to politics – particularly if Pascrell fails to “invest himself fully in helping the people I’ve come to love” or again takes actions about Israel to which Boteach objects.
Would he consider changing his role from “America’s rabbi” – as his website bills him – to the Ninth District’s rabbi?
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” he said.
During the campaign, he forged relationships with the Arab and Korean communities. He wants to grow those relationships. He renewed his relationship with the African American community and he wants to strengthen that too.
“Here in the city of Englewood we have an unforgivable divide between the large Jewish community that is heavily Orthodox and the large African American community, and no one has done enough to bridge the divide. That’s something I’d like to focus on.”