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Hoping to take the fifth

Garrett, Gussen face off in Mahwah

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Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.), left, and his Democratic challenger, Adam Gussen, the deputy mayor of Teaneck, define their positions during a forum at Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, sponsored by The Jewish Standard and the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Northern Jersey.

Rep. Scott Garrett, the Republican representing New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, faced off on Sunday for the first time against his challenger, Adam Gussen, the Democratic deputy mayor of Teaneck.

After this year’s redistricting, much of Teaneck is now part of the 5th District’s revised borders.

The two met at a forum sponsored by this newspaper and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern Jersey at Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

The meeting drew about 100 people.

Garrett argued that the United States must undo “the failed policies” of the last four years to restore the country.

Gussen charged that Garrett favors “big business and special interests” at the expense of New Jersey families.

The two candidates were asked questions on topics including the relationship between Israel and the United States; the country’s policy on Iran; the future of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; the economy, and employment.

Opening statements

Garrett opened by declaring his commitment “to try to undo some of the damage that has been done to our country over the past four years.” That can be done, he said, by reducing both the size of the government and taxes.

“We don’t even want to go back to some of the failed policies of the prior administration as well,” he said.

Gussen opened by referring to his experience on Teaneck’s town council as well as his day job as a business development executive of Global Political Risk and Trade Credit Insurance.

“I know the tough decisions local government can face, and how government can be a partner that helps solve problems,” he said.

In his private sector work, “day in and day out I work with small and medium sized companies to expand and grow their revenues. It’s easy to see how career politicians do not understand the needs of businesses,” he said.

His reason for running: “Because we need leadership that will tackle the major problems affecting America head on, and not just the problems of hyperpartisanship.”

The United States and Israel

Dan Kirsch, a former JCRC president and the debate’s moderator, asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Garrett, having won the coin toss, answered first.

“In a word, I would characterize our Mideast policy and relationship with Israel as a disaster – an absolute disaster – over these last four years,” he said.

President Obama, he said, “tried what some have characterized as a ‘charm offensive,’ and this has been a disaster in the Mideast.”

He accused Obama of “treating our friends as enemies, and enemies as friends,” pointing to the president finding it “more important to appear on television and do fundraising events than to meet with the prime minister of Israel.”

As a result of Obama’s policies, “we see the Mideast is in flames again,” he said.

Instead, America “should take a leadership role as we had in the past. We should make sure the world and Israel knows that she is our ally and we are hers.

“I have always felt there has been a bipartisan position on this, in the House of Representatives, to ensure the strong relationship with Israel stands. Under this administration, this bipartisanship has failed. We have not worked with Israel as we should,” Garrett said.

Gussen began his rejoinder by saying that “regardless of how Congressman Garrett may want to frame this as being about Obama, this is about the candidates for the 5th district.”

He said that the U.S.-Israel relationship “is one of great strength. Israel is a democratic country in a sea of despotism. Over six decades we have had a strong relationship with Israel based on shared values, and we need to continue this relationship.”

Gussen characterized the last four years as a time when America provided Israel with advanced defensive technology, including the Iron Dome anti-missile systems and an X-band radar station in the Negev, thus “giving Israel real-time data to protect from any possible threat from Iran.”

Military support, including joint training exercises, “is stronger and more concerted” than before, Gussen said.

“Garrett wants to frame it with some PR slips rather than the reality of the policy over the past four years. Israel is safer today that it was because of Iron Dome and the significant relationship we have,” Gussen continued.

“I have a deep and genuine love for the Jewish state of Israel. Our need to stand shoulder to shoulder cannot waiver,” he said.

But in his reply to Gussen, Garrett countered the notion that Israel is safer than it was four years ago, saying, “just this week they had a drone shot down in Israel.”

Obama’s perceived snubbing of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not a PR slip, but “the policy of this administration from day one.”

Garrett said he had served on a conference committee dealing with a particular bill that tried to impose additional sanctions on Iran. “Where did we get the pushback from? Not from the other side of the aisle in the Senate. From the administration. They said we don’t need to do additional economic sanctions. They said all we need to do is containment if they [the Iranians] go further.”

Foreign policy

Foreign policy was revisited later in the discussion, with the moderator asking specifically about Iran.

This time, it was Gussen’s turn to answer first.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map. This is an unacceptable position for a world leader. We cannot allow Iran to achieve nuclear capabilities under any circumstance,” he said.

Gussen took the opportunity to attack Garrett for voting to give copper mining privileges to Rio Tinto, a company that is partnered with Iran in an African uranium mine, while rejecting a Democratic amendment to that measure that would have required the mining company to divest from its relationship with Iran. All the Republicans in the House voted for the measure and against the amendment.

Gussen said that while “sanctions are the first step,” he is concerned that “no matter how difficult it becomes for Iran diplomatically, they will always prioritize hate and war over feeding their people. We cannot expect rational behavior from them.”

Consequently, “we must use every bit of leverage we have politically and globally to prevent” Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That, he said, means “being able to leverage our position on the global stage with the governments of China, Russia, and India, the people who are still buying oil from Iran, people who have worked around sanctions, people who do not have the same values we have on the issue. We must continue to bring pressure to bear.

“There is a red line: We cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons or to continue to pursue the capability,” Gussen concluded.

“The mining bill?” Garrett responded. “The truth of the matter is that the companies involved there were all in compliance with sanctions. No Israeli group, no Jewish group had complained.”

He said the Obama administration has had a “disastrous” effect on Mideast policies, “with Iran specifically.”

“One thing I’ve seen in my years studying international relations is this part of the world respects strength and not some sort of charm offensive,” he said.

He recalled the contrast between President Jimmy Carter and his successor, Ronald Reagan.

“Immediately after Reagan was elected, our hostages were released,” he said.

(Actually, the hostages were released not after the November 1980 election, but 20 minutes after Reagan finished his inaugural address in January 1981.)

In contrast, Obama “does not stand up for American principles. This president would rather be on TV than meet with the prime minister of Israel. At the same time, he is more than happy to welcome a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to come to the White House,” said Garrett, referring to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

“What kind of message is it when this president wants to decimate this country’s military?” Garrett asked. “We cannot decimate our military and think we will have a strong position in the world community.

“Containment – which apparently is the policy with regard to Iran and nuclear aggression – will not work,” he concluded.

Gussen replied, “I said from the start that containment will not work, and there’s real issues that we need to face.”

If Garrett “wants to continue to paint me with the same brush he paints the administration, that’s not my thoughts, that’s not my beliefs.”

Regarding the Rio Tinto mining company, “Rio Tinto was sanctioned by the U.N. six times” for violating sanctions. “It operates the world’s largest uranium mine, puts Iran as their largest partner. Rio Tinto wants benefits so they can mine copper. Garrett is okay with giving away the house to big business even if they’re in bed with Iran.”

The economy

Next, the moderator asked the candidates about the economy, and in particular about the high level of unemployment.

“Jobs are the most important issue facing America today,” Gussen said. “We need to invest in our infrastructure. He noted that “39 percent of the bridges are deficient or functionally obsolete, and 78 percent of our roads are in poor condition” in the 5th District.

“We need tax incentives to invest in the unemployed,” he continued. “We need to disincentivise efforts that move jobs overseas. Energy independence will create jobs here.”

Garrett said the economy is “a dismal record for this administration. This is where the other side of the aisle has left us.”

He spoke of his neighbor “who has been out of work for over a year, with absolutely no prospect of getting a job again,” of the 25 percent of recent college graduates who can’t find work, of the 23 million Americans who are unemployed.

He said the key drag on the economy is “uncertainty” generated by the Dodds-Frank financial reform law and the Obama administration’s health care law.

“We need to restore certainty so people will have optimism in the marketplace,” he said.

Gussen retorted that “Congressman Garrett talks about his neighbor who has been struggling to find work. Congressman Garrett voted against an extension of unemployment benefits that would have helped his neighbor. He voted against funding for job training. He voted to cut Pell grants. He voted to have student loan rates double.

“He talks about certainty in the economy, yet last year he brought the economy to the brink with a hyperpartisan ploy on the debt ceiling. The ability of the American government to default on its obligations shook the world, hurt our credit rating, and brought on an unbelievable amount of uncertainty.

“I ask him to look at his own voting record,” Gussen said.

Redistricting

The next question was about the redistricting that changed the 5th Congressional District from consisting mainly of New Jersey’s northwestern counties to include more of urban Bergen County.

“How do you plan on responding to the increased diversity of the district?” Kirsch asked.

“I always describe the district as the nice part, one of the nicest parts, of New Jersey – the top crescent,” Garrett said. “What has happened is that the district has shifted. It lost some of the towns in Warren County and picked up about 12 towns in Bergen. Now about 50 percent of the towns are in Bergen County.”

Garrett said his response is “to look and see what the needs of the people are.” He sets up mobile constituent offices that go into town halls and libraries to supplement his permanent offices in Bergen County’s Glen Rock and Sussex County’s Newton.

“While the district has changed and some of the demographics have changed, the overarching issues and concerns people have are more or less the same. People have concerns about jobs, about the economy.

“I’ll continue to reach out to them and to fight for them,” he said.

When it was his turn to reply, Gussen began: “I don’t think I heard the Congressman mention diversity once.”

Gussen pointed to Teaneck as a model for diversity; it was the first majority white school district to integrate its schools voluntarily.

“When we look at the 5th Congressional District and look at the new towns that come in, we see a very changed district,” he said. “We see some of the largest population towns are new to the district. There’s much more of Bergen County in the district.

“For 80 years, Bergen County has had a resident member in Congress.”

Gussen said Bergen representation was important for the county to get its needs met “when we have bridges crumbling.”

“Bergen County, with 72 percent of the district, is at a severe disadvantage,” he said. “We already send a dollar to Washington and get 62 cents back in New Jersey. I shudder to think of what we’ll get back for Bergen County.

“Bergen County is larger than six states, than 46 nations. Bergen County needs a resident member of Congress.”

Gussen also reminded the audience about remarks Garrett had made last October, which were reported by the Express-Times of Lehigh Valley, Pa.

Responding to a local Warren County businessman who said the best people to do business with are those in the American Midwest because of their “straightforward” attitude, Garrett reportedly said: “Other ethnicities are not that way. They’ll say yes to you constantly and then you’ll realize they really didn’t mean it.”

“When Garrett was asked to clarify, he said he meant ethnicities from other countries,” Gussen said.

“My concern is that Garrett doesn’t understand diversity or Bergen County,” he concluded.

Garrett retorted that diversity “is not about dividing people, it’s about bringing people together. It’s not about separating people from different communities, it’s about creating one community.

“There’s problems with flooding in Bergen County, and there’s problems in flooding on the Delaware River. There’s bridges that are falling down in Hackensack, and bridges that are falling down in other counties as well. I’m not going to divide; I’m going to work to bring communities together across the board,” he said.

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security

Up next: “What would you do to fix Medicare and Medicaid?”

Gussen had the first response.

“When we look at the critical safety net, we have an obligation to care for those who can’t care for themselves, and an obligation to meet decades of promises.

“The Ryan-Garrett budget kills Medicare. It replaces what we know as Medicare with a voucher system that costs seniors $6,000 a year. It reopens the prescription drug doughnut hole.

“Garrett has voted to cut $1.4 trillion dollars from Medicaid, putting that burden on the states. The plan to address Medicaid by putting that burden back on the states is a total failure. Seven out of ten nursing home residents receive Medicare. Under Congressman Garrett’s view, seven out of ten nursing home residents are likely to become homeless because the state cannot pick up the tab.

“We look to the budget as giving life to the priorities we have. The Congressman votes for subsidies and givebacks to big oil, and wants to cut $1.4 trillion for Medicaid. Big business and special interests benefit, and the families of New Jersey suffer. That has to end. We need real leadership rather than the hyperpartisanship that has been the hallmark of Congressman Garrett,” Gussen said.

Garrett agreed that “bipartisanship is what is needed. Unfortunately, bipartisanship is not what we’ve seen in Washington as of late.

“There’s no one from either side of the aisle that wants to make any changes in the systems that would change the benefits they receive now. My mom is 90 years old. She’s in good health. She relies on Medicare. We know from personal experience how important these programs are. We want to make sure they’re there for your parents and grandparents, and also for your kids when they’re in retirement.

“If we just stand here and don’t come up with any alternatives, by the year 2023 the Medicare system will basically be out of money. The assets we will have stored up over time will be running out. Benefits will have to be cut,” and not only to future retirees but to people already in the system, Garrett said.

“We have laid out a proposal to try to address the situation. So far we have heard nothing from the other side of the aisle. Last year there was supposed to be a supercommittee if only Republicans would agree to raise taxes. The other side never came up with another alternative. Right now, one out of six people is in Medicaid. Under the Administration’s plan, one out of four will be on Medicaid. That’s unsustainable,” he said.

Gussen replied: “Garrett just said no one makes any changes to Medicare and Medicaid. The 2012 Republican budget voucherizes the system. How he can stand here and say no one wants to make changes amazes me and ought to amaze all of you.”

The next question was about Social Security – but the moderator said the candidates also could continue their discussion of Medicare and Medicaid.

Garrett continued with his earlier point, that increasing numbers of people are on Medicaid. “Why don’t we put everyone on Medicaid? Well, ask your doctor how many new Medicaid patients he has taken recently. Most doctors will say they’re not accepting Medicaid patients any more.

“So it’s well and good to say that it’s good to have a new Medicaid card, but not if there’s not a doctor willing to take you in as a new patient.

“On Social Security – we have to do something to make sure Social Security is sustainable as well. It will use up all the assets around the year 2033. That means that if you’re collecting Social Security in the year 2033, your benefits will have to be cut significantly. The system has to be reformed and fixed,” Garrett said.

Gussen agreed. “Garrett is right. If nothing changes, we will burn through Social Security assets in 2033. So we have 20 years to solve this problem. Unfortunately, if we wait 19 1/2 years the problem will never be solved.

“Garrett is right that life expectancy is higher. We have to make some changes. When we look at the budget for Social Security, there are three things we need to take a close look at.

“We need to look at the retirement age. We need to look at how we address life expectancy for the window of 15, 20 years down the road.

“Today we pay in to Social Security only up to the first $108,000. Everything above that is exempt. Just as we slide the retirement age up, we can slide the taxable level up.

“We have to make tough decisions. We have to look at benefits, we have to look at retirement age, and we have to look at tax exemptions for the highest earners.

“Consistently, Garrett has voted for the benefits of millionaires. When Garrett votes, two things happen: Millionaires and billionaires benefit, and the families of New Jersey suffer.

Garrett retorted that “What I’ve seen over the past four years is not that the millionaires and billionaires are benefiting. I’ve seen that the constituents of this district are suffering. People in this district are unemployed and underemployed.

“A lot of seniors expected to retire on their savings. When the Federal Reserve prints dollars endlessly, and the bank pay .001 percent interest, you’re having a hard time.”

As for changes to Social Security, “the last time, several years ago, when President Bush was in office, he tried to do something on Social Security and was attacked vehemently by the other side of the aisle. The changes we have to make on the economy and Social Security have to start immediately. We have to be able to bring these topics up and not be simply vilified.

Hunger, homelessness, faith-based programs, and proselytizing

“New Jersey is one of the richest states in the country. We are blessed in that regard,” Garrett said. Nonetheless, “we know from personal experience that people in this county are suffering. People are homeless, people are without food.”

Garrett noted a meeting he held three weeks ago with two local women who run a nonprofit agency that helps the homeless and hungry.

“They’re connected with the local community, with the churches. Our church does this as well; we allow homeless people to come into our church.

“We support those initiatives and I have supported those back when I was on the state level – down in Trenton – and now on the federal level to make sure they can get assistance,” he said.

He recalled the women telling him that “at the end of the day, Congressman, as much as these people are looking for food and a handout, they’re looking for a hand up as well. They’re looking for a way to get out of the situation they’re in so they can support themselves. People who never thought they would have problems are homeless and hungry for the first time.”

“That’s where I was able to explain to them some of the things we were doing in Washington to get the economy growing again,” Garret concluded.

Gussen attacked Garrett’s voting record.

“When we talk about food security, one of the most fundamental programs is WIC. It stands for Women Infants and Children. Congressman Garrett has repeatedly voted to defund WIC.

“In the past six years, 200,000 children’s lives have been saved by WIC. Congressman Garrett will take a far-right position to defend the life of a child when it’s unborn. When it’s born, Congressman Garrett doesn’t seem concerned about that child’s ability to eat,” he said.

“When he talks about the church reaching out, assistance can’t just be in a church or a synagogue. There’s not enough resources there.

“When there was a problem of coercive proselytizing in the Air Force Academy, Garrett signed a letter saying that evangelicizing was part of his religion, that it was part of religious freedom – even though it was coercive for Jewish cadets to sit through.

Gussen said he was concerned that if the government directs assistance through faith-based organizations, “coercive proselytizing will be become the norm across all of our society, not just in the Air Force Academy.

“To listen to Congressman Garrett talk about people getting a hand up, even when he’s cut primary and secondary education and college funding, when he’s voted against everything that enables people to help themselves – he’s being disingenuous. He says one thing here, and something else on the floor of the House.”

Gussen said he believed in “supporting investments in our communities,” because “government can be a partner for positive change. Government is not the biggest problem.”

“Government is not the biggest problem,” Garrett agreed, “but some of the government’s policies of the past four years have been the problem.

“The number of people on food stamps have gone up. People cannot afford food because they do not have jobs. In the years after World War II, in 1948 to 2008, in that entire span of decade upon decade, we had 38 months in that entire period where unemployment was above 8 percent. Since then we have had 33 months.

“We can create a better situation, we can provide for a better situation, but we can do it only by a change of policy out of Washington,” he said.

Collective bargaining

The next question concerned the role of collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.

“My wife’s a teacher, a member of the NEA,” Gussen said. “I’m also deputy mayor of Teaneck, where 375 employees are part of nine different bargaining units. So I understand the other side as well.

“There’s no question we need to create an economy where people’s jobs are safe, safe from abuse, from harassment, from retaliations for whistle blowing, from unsafe labor.

“We live in a world where in this county the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you do some math and think about the fact, that if they work two full-time minimum wage jobs, I challenge you to find a place where that family can live, and feed themselves, and put clothing on their children’s backs, while working 80 hours a week.

“Congressman Garrett has pursued policies, year after year, term after term, of allowing big business to move good paying jobs overseas to China.

“Congressman Garrett will every time choose big business and millionaires and billionaires over the families of New Jersey. Every time Congressman Garrett votes, big business and special interests benefit and the families of New Jersey suffer,” Gussen said.

Garrett began his reply with his own disclosure: “My daughter is a teacher.”

“With regard to collective bargaining, I agree we should have the right to collective bargaining. One of my heartfelt issues is the Constitution. I believe in the right of association, of people to join together and defend their rights. Collective bargaining is part of it,” he said.

But: “You want to have a situation where the economy is actually growing. I don’t want to be in a union and bargaining when the economy is in the doldrums.

“What we need to do on these things it to get the economy growing again. You do that in a bipartisan manner. I’ve worked with people like Maxine Waters, with Barney Frank. The president of the United States called me up and invited me to his office to pass the jobs bill.”

Gussen’s rejoinder was brief.

“Garrett has taken millions of dollars from the ten largest banks when he sits on the Congressional banking committee. I question why he votes the way he does. You should as well.”

Closing statements

The moderator then asked the candidates for their closing statements.

Garrett’s: “I have always stood for the proposition that the next generation, our kids, our grandkids, will do even better than our generation. This has been the history of country. I believe we can do that again.

“We’re at a turning point because of the policies that have come out of Washington these past four years. We’ve seen that Washington has basically stopped listening to us. They want to have more spending. They want to saddle everyone with additional debt. $16 trillion of additional debts.

“Getting out of this mess is not going to be easy. Just as families have to live within their means, so does the government in Washington as well.

“I look forward to going back to Washington as your representative to continue to listen to you, and most of all to make sure when we look forward to our next generation, we can see our kids, and our grandchildren, grow up in a country as strong and as dynamic as the country we grew up in,” he concluded.

Gussen finished by asking his listeners “to decide whose vision for the families of New Jersey and the values of your country better represents your own.

“Congressman Garrett was an original co-sponsor of House Bill 3, to redefine rape as ‘forcible rape.’ Mr. Congressman, there is no legitimate rape.

Garrett has voted repeatedly against the Violence against Women act.

“He voted to appeal the Affordable Care Act 33 times, wasting millions of dollars, even though he knows the vote could never pass the Senate. The Affordable Care Act which provides for removing all lifetime limits on health care, gets rid of the exclusion of pre-existing conditions.

“In the last 10 years, Congressman Garrett has been a sponsor of 116 bills. Two of those bills have passed; both of those were to rename post offices.

“I ask you to look at the record Congressman Garrett brings to the table. Look at what he supported. He’s supported biblical creationism being taught in our science classes. While we’re in a 21st economy that needs engineers and critical thinkers, Congressman Garrett wants biblical creation taught as though it were science. There are some major differences in his vision of America and mine.

“Scott Garrett votes for big business and special interests and millionaires and billionaires while the families of New Jersey suffer. I’ll always put families of New Jersey first,” Gussen concluded.

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