|Steven Rothman has just moved into his offices at Sills, Cummis & Gross, but he already has surrounded himself with memorabilia from his years in politics. Jerry Szubin|
If someone who lives in Englewood says that he “moved west,” most people think of the Pacific coast. California sun, Seattle coffee and fog, Oregonian earnestness ““ each could possibly have its appeal.
Or maybe they think Idaho, for the skiing, or Montana, for the vistas and the privacy, or New Mexico, for the sunlight and the art.
They’re unlikely to think Wyckoff.
But when Steven Rothman, the former congressman who left office and started the next chapter of his life on January 2, says that he moved west in 1989, that’s what he means. It proves that you can try to take the boy out of Bergen, maybe even move him to Washington, but you can never take the Bergen out of the boy.
Even after 16 years in Washington.
Rothman was born in Englewood in 1952. His parents, Philip Rothman, who died in November at 90, and Muriel Fischer Rothman, were among the generation of mainly first-generation American Jewish philanthropists who built so many of the institutions that distinguish the northern New Jersey Jewish community. His father – who also was a literal builder, erecting offices and houses, including his own – helped start the local chapter of what many name-changes later became the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, as well as the local chapter of Israel Bonds. He was on the board of the JCC when it was still on Tenafly Road in Englewood and later he was on the advisory committee as it built its building on East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly and changed its name to the JCC on the Palisades. His mother was the first president of the Bergen County chapter of ORT, and she spearheaded the effort to bring the Israeli youth symphony to the United States. (“One of the youngsters in the symphony was a teenager by the name of Yitzhak Perlman,” her son recalled.)
The Rothmans were members of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, and the family’s first trip to Israel was in 1968. “I never forgot many things about that trip, including the burnt-out shells of Soviet tanks we saw on the Golan Heights which had just been retaken by the Israeli Defense Forces in the ’67 war,” Steve Rothman said.
The family moved from Englewood to Tenafly in time for Rothman to go to Tenafly High School.
Running and winning –
and then losing
Rothman next went to Syracuse University and then to Washington University School of Law – the school is in Missouri, and Rothman was very far west. Once he graduated, he headed back home to Englewood. Five years after his return, he ran for mayor, getting the nomination in a contested primary and then winning the general election. The job, which he held for two terms, paid $2,000 a year, so Rothman also worked as an attorney, first with a firm in Jersey City and then on his own, “above the barber shop in Depot Square,” he said. In 1992 Rothman ran for Bergen County Surrogate Court Judge, which, he said, is the only elected judgeship in the state. In 1996, “I was encouraged to seek Bob Torricelli’s open seat in Congress,” he said. (Torricelli ran for the Senate and won; his apparently shining career ended in scandal.) There was a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination, which Rothman won with 75 percent of the vote. From there, the general election was easy.
Rothman won eight elections to Congress, representing New Jersey’s ninth congressional district. His ninth run, though, presented him with a new set of problems. He was redistricted, and his base was taken out from under him. He had to decide where to run – in the fifth, where he lived (he’d moved from Wyckoff to Ridgewood to Fair Lawn), and he’d have to face a strong Republican, Rep. Scott Garrett, in the general election – or in the newly redrawn ninth, where his primary opponent would be his friend Rep. Bill Pascrell.
“I wanted to represent the district that was mostly mine, geographically, including Englewood and Tenafly, and I also wanted to help. I’d represented Jersey City as its congressman for eight years, until it was taken away from me in redistricting,” he said. “I wanted to represent the people of Paterson and Passaic and help them as I’d helped the people of Jersey City, getting them a great deal of federal aid.” (Paterson and Passaic were both in the redrawn ninth district.)
Rothman moved back to Englewood and chose to take on Pascrell.
“My friend Bill Pascrell won a fantastic campaign, and he whooped me,” Rothman said.
“His campaign delivered unprecedented votes out of Paterson and Passaic, with Bergen County not turning out in the numbers we had hoped for.
“And I got whooped.”
How does it feel? “In the end, the voters who show up get to pick their representative,” Rothman said. “And while I was very disappointed that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to continue to serve the public, I accepted what happened. I accepted the will of those who showed up to vote.”
A new life
Rothman certainly has landed on his feet.
He is now a partner in Sills Cummis & Gross, a law firm with offices in both Newark and midtown Manhattan. (“It’s at 30 Rock,” Rothman said.)
“I’ve been looking forward – with a little bit of reflection on the past, but mainly looking forward – to this new chapter in my life.
“My amazing children, John, who is 24, and Karen, who is 21, with whom I am extraordinarily close, were with me every step of the way. And while they shared in my disappointment, they were nonetheless openly ecstatic at the outcome for me personally. They said, ‘Dad, your career has done so much for so many people, and it’s allowed us to experience things we never would have experienced – but now it’s a chance for you to actually have a life! To make some money! To go on vacations!'”
Rothman will concentrate on government relations and on developing an aerospace and defense industry practice, which will be new for the firm.
He’s excited about working for Sills Cummis. “I wanted to work with people who are the top of their field, who could help me help individuals start up companies, establish firms, and solve problems that are very difficult to solve, but important.
“I wanted to be on the Yankees of my field. That’s why I joined these folks.”
He has maintained his membership in Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.
Partisanship, Jewishness, and New Jersey
Looking back at his decade and a half in Congress, Rothman talked about the committees he’d been on. Chief among them was the appropriations committee. “As I recall, the committee had approximately 65 members at the time, only one of whom was Jewish,” he said. “I immediately sought a position on the foreign operations and state department subcommittees, which recommended all the foreign aid from the United States, including to Israel.” He served on other committees and subcommittees, “and then finally I got the holy grail of subcommittees for my purposes – the 15-person defense subcommittee, which recommended all of the military spending for the United States. I was the first Jewish American ever to serve on the defense appropriations subcommittee in the history of the United States; in fact as of today I’m the only Jewish American.”
He also was on the judiciary committee when “a Republican majority sought to impeach President Clinton. I was part of that historic but extremely unfortunate saga.”
Rothman believes that “the good news is that this president” – Barack Obama – “is completely and thoroughly committed to Israel’s security and prosperity, not only because of his own life experiences and personal relationships and our two nations’ historic connections, but even more importantly because he and his administration understand that America’s vital national security is dependent on Israel’s existence and Israel’s national security.
“The other good news is that Congress, on the bipartisan level, reflecting the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans, supports the Jewish state of Israel wholeheartedly.
“The challenging news is that Israel still lives in a sea of dictators, thugs, terrorists, and murderers. Israel is truly not only an island of democracy, Western values, tolerance, and modernity in the Middle East, it is also – and now I am going to mix my metaphors – tantamount to a nuclear super powered aircraft carrier in what is now an even more unsettled, unstable, and dangerous region.”
His being Jewish was an issue when he first ran for Congress, Rothman said. “I was the first Jew elected from the ninth district. During some of the debates for the Democratic nomination in my first race, one of the other gentlemen who was seeking the nomination said at every debate that Steve was a great mayor of Englewood, but let’s face it. He’s a Jew. A Jew can never be elected in this district.
“Ninety percent of the folks in the district were not Jewish, and 90 percent plus of the Democratic county committee at that time was not Jewish. Some folks did speak up; they said that it was dumb or irrelevant. And then I won 75 percent of the vote at the election.” Problem solved.
Despite the Jewish community’s apparent belief that they constitute a large percentage of the voters in the ninth district, “I would guess that the percentage of Jews in the district is approximately 10 to 12 percent,” Rothman said. And only about 2 percent is Muslim, despite the community’s idea that Paterson’s Muslim population is huge. “The district is overwhelmingly Catholic,” Rothman said. “I would guess at least 70 to 75 percent.”
It was not difficult being Jewish in Congress, though, he continued. “We often forget that we’re only 2 percent of the population.” Many representatives, he said, “had no great contact – if any – with Jews until they got to Congress.” But Jews fit right in.
“Although for many of my colleagues in both parties, interacting with a Jew like myself, whether it was in the gym or in committee or on the house floor, was a new experience. I can honestly say that there was not a single time when I felt uncomfortable being a Jew. There was not a single instance when anyone said anything about my religion, except in the late nights, after voting.
“When you finished voting, late at night, you go out drinking. I was the only Jew there. When guys from across the country get together and drink, it gets rough. My Jewish heritage came up on occasion, when bunches of us would get together and unwind, have dinner and more than a few beverages. There were some tough characters from across the country, but take my word for it, when it came up I responded in kind.
“We had a lot of laughs, and everything was said with great good cheer and warmth.”
Rothman not only is Jewish, he is from New Jersey, a state the rest of the country seems to think of as being inherently funny. “The Sopranos” was on television during the start of his tenure, and he went out at the same time as “Jersey Shore.” “It’s fair to say that New Jersey always had a reputation for having members who could handle themselves, in every sense, whether it was physically, intellectually, in the rough-and-tumble banter on the floor, or at a bar,” Rothman said. “We always gave better than we got, and it tickled people.
“New Jersey was not alone, anyway. Every state was stereotyped. Just about every member had his or her nose rubbed in their state’s worst stereotype at one time or another, but in 99 percent of the cases it was with great fellowship and without an ounce of animus.”
Rothman said that the idea, now in common currency, that extreme partisanship is making it impossible for friendships to develop across the aisle, and therefore making it easier for each side to demonize the other, is not true.
“It’s a complete misperception of what’s going on there,” he said. “It’s not personal, it’s not even for the most part partisan. It is ideological.
“People come to Congress, for the most part, to do what they think is in the best interests of the country. Oftentimes they come armed with preconceived notions of what ideas and principles should be followed in an absolute manner. But – and this is one of the arguments against term limits – over time members realize that people on the other side of the argument are not evil. They are not stupid. They love America. They have some truth to their positions. Members also come to realize that no one and no party, whether they are in the majority or not, ever get their way 100 percent of the time.”
Now Rothman is back in Englewood, eager to start his new life. “I love it here,” he said. “The love affair I had with Englewood when I was in my early 20s never left me. I left my heart in Englewood.
“Now I’m back with so many people I grew up with, who I served in office with, who helped with Englewood’s revitalization and renaissance. I feel as if I’ve come home.”