|Rep. Pascrell stands by his record while Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, seated at right, aimed sharp criticism at Pascrell. Moderator Don Kirsch is at center. Jeanette Friedman.|
On Sunday, the rabbi talked fast and the congressman spoke with slow deliberation.
The first face-to-face disputation between the candidates for the newly drawn Ninth District -Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr., the Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, took place in Tenafly at Temple Sinai on Sunday, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Standard and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
The back-and-forth kept going into overtime, with both sides getting chances for additional rebuttals on top of rebuttals.
Pascrell defended his record and that of President Barack Obama, while attacking the Republican policies of President George W. Bush and those proposed by former Governor Mitt Romney.
Boteach attacked Obama and the Democrats but repeatedly singled out Pascrell for direct criticism.
Pascrell defended his support for Imam Mohammed Qatanani (whom Pascrell mistakenly referred to as “rabbi” a couple of times), saying he had been assured by the FBI that it has no evidence that Qatanani was anything other than “a good American.”
Pascrell introduced himself as a lifelong resident of Paterson, born to parents who had only a sixth-grade education. “My grandmother and grandfather came here from Italy. They had no formal education.”
He attributed two guiding principles to his parents and grandparents. “Every person has dignity. Treat every person with integrity,” he said.
“And two. Build bridges. I think it’s critical.”
“I want you to be proud of what I do regardless of your party affiliation,” he added.
“Congressman Pascrell, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” said Boteach, whose campaign had released four videos attacking the congressman for not campaigning actively against him.
“This is a momentous election where America is facing seemingly insurmountable problems,” Boteach continued. The problems confronting us “are not the result of an economic collapse – they are truly the result of a values corrosion.
“There’s no dignity for any of us to be the wards of the state, or to lose our financial self-reliance through an entitlement-addled society.
“What happened to the cry of a great Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’? Where is the great cry of dignity through self-reliance and self-sufficiency?” he asked. Then he addressed Pascrell directly.
“With all due respect, you accused me on television of running a negative campaign twice this week. As a marriage counselor, I know that the ultimate form of disrespect is not where a husband and wife fight – because I can save those marriages – but where the husband and wife choose to ignore each other.
“Congressman, you have yet to say my name once during this election. You have decided not to even campaign. You decided to rely on the structural advantages of being a Democrat to win.
“These people deserve to hear the issues. They deserve a vote,” he said.
In the end – spoiler alert – Pascrell would address Boteach by name – but not until he received more jabs on the topic from Boteach.
Talking about jobs
The first question from the moderator, Daniel Kirsch, was about jobs.
“There’s no question where we are is not where we need to be,” said Pascrell.
But he contrasted President Barack Obama’s record with that of President George W. Bush. Between 2001 and 2004, during Bush’s presidency, “there was an increase of 1.4 million jobs, of which 900,000 were public sector,” Pascrell said.
Under Obama, “We have seen 32 straight months of increases in private sector jobs. The unemployment rate has come down – to a point where it would have been below 7 percent did we not let go of 650,000 workers in state and local and federal government – policemen, firefighters, and teachers..
“I have introduced legislation to begin that process of getting back to where we should be. I want to stop the outsourcing of American jobs. One of the candidates for president defends outsourcing, says in the long run it will be a plus. Just like we heard in 2001 and 2003 that cutting taxes for the rich would primarily lead to an investment in jobs. It didn’t happen.
“We have to stop giving corporations tax cuts to send jobs overseas. We need to return those jobs to the United States, and provide tax incentives for those companies,” Pascrell concluded.
Boteach began his answer to the question by saying that the way to create jobs is by cutting taxes. “You create jobs by rewarding industriousness, by rewarding job creators,” he said. “You must bring down the corporate tax rate, which is one of the highest in the world.
“We will only create jobs through bipartisan efforts. Unfortunately, Pascrell voted with his party 94 percent of the time. Pascrell keeps telling us that he’s a bridge builder. That 6 percent is a mighty weak bridge.”
Boteach said that “we need to reexamine some of the aspects of President Obama’s health care reform,” particularly “the new taxes associated with it.
“I salute Mr. Obama and his efforts to renegotiate health care. But the timing was wrong. We have to reduce taxes and increase growth to show that this is a nation that rewards growth and industriousness,” he said.
“Where do I start?” Pascrell began.
“It was the Democratic congress that cut the payroll tax. It is the Democratic congress and the president that want to continue the payroll tax cut. We have 90 tax cuts that are expiring. If you think we’re going back to the era of trickle-down economics – we had enough of it. That’s why we elected a new president in 2008.
“We need private sector jobs, but we don’t need balanced budgets on the back of teachers, firefighters, and police officers,” he said.
“Trickledown economics?” Boteach answered. “The only thing your voting patterns have brought us is trickle-down debt. We’ve gone 44 months with eight percent or higher unemployment. The president spent a trillion dollars for a stimulus package that brought us more debt.”
Pascrell retorted: “By 2020, 40 percent of the debt in this country is from the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Take a look at the debt and who caused it. Your party did not pay for two wars. Your party did not pay for the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. Your party did not pay for the prescription drug plan, which turned out to be a real doozy and did not really help seniors and left them a huge hole. That’s what your party did.”
Boteach responded: “My name is Rabbi Shmuley. It’s not ‘you.’ It’s not ‘my opponent.’ It’s Rabbi Shmuley.
“President Obama and the Democrats and your voting has led to $4 trillion to the debt. Let me be clear: I will be critical of both parties in Congress. President Bush and the Republicans jacked up the debt as well. You have to vote outside your party. You have to be a real bridge builder. Voting 94 percent of the time for your party is hardly the bridge your parents spoke of.”
The moderator then raised the question of Israel.
“Israel is America’s foremost ally, its most dependable ally, most reliable ally, and the only functioning democracy in the world’s most volatile region,” Boteach said; earlier, he had noted that his daughter is serving in the Israeli army. “Its security is absolutely essential to America’s security and vice versa.
“President Obama has unfortunately been an unreliable steward of that relationship. I need not go into some things that are well known,” he said, referring to the president’s March 2011 address “that turned out to be a speech about returning to the suicidal 1967 borders with land swaps,” and the president seemingly blaming Israeli settlement policies “for absolutely everything” in the stalled peace process.
Boteach praised Pascrell’s “good voting record” on assistance to Israel. “God bless you and thank you,” he said. But he criticized the congressman for having signed “one of the most vicious attacks on Israel, the Gaza 54 letter, which falsely accused Israel of denying food and essential medical supplies to Gaza. It accused Israel falsely and fraudulently of collective punishment against the Palestinians.
“Hamas is the reason that Palestinians suffer. Hamas is the terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction.
“And when I wrote the most polite public letter to Congressman Pascrell to repudiate that in the Jewish Standard, he repeated the slander and said that essential supplies were not getting in to Gaza.”
Boteach also attacked Pascrell for refusing “to either repudiate or object to” Qatanani, the Passaic religious leader whom Boteach called “a confessed and admitted member of Hamas, who continues to give speeches saying that the creation of the State of Israel was the darkest day in human history, an imam who tells his followers they should be reading the speeches of Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi of Cairo, who called Hitler a blessing to the world.
“Congressman Pascrell said he would do everything in his power to keep Imam Qatanani in this country against the efforts of INS, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security to deport him,” Boteach said.
Pascrell responded: “I will never, ever indulge in character assassination. My record on Israel is clear. In fact, some have called it perfect. So now we have to reach out to extraneous events.
“I have condemned Hamas. I have condemned Hezbollah. That’s what my record is.
“I met the imam several years ago. He helped in the community after 9/11 to make sure we were respectful, that everyone was respectful of human dignity. That’s what he did. He was a help. The FBI said he was a big help.
“I was on the homeland security committee. I was on there for 10 years; I helped start the committee. I had briefings with the FBI. I asked several times, I said we have heard stories, I wanted to confirm.
“The FBI said, ‘We have nothing, Congressman, that would indicate this individual is anything other than a good American. The FBI, the U.S. Attorney of New Jersey, even the leader of your party in this state” – Governor Chris Christie – supports Rabbi Qatanani, Imam Qatanani.
“But I will tell you this: You don’t have the proof that what you say is correct, and I am not going to renounce anyone, anyone, on hearsay. There’s going to be a trial for that. One judge said, let’s set this aside; he should become a citizen here.
“I can assure you, if the rabbi [sic] had any essential connections with Hamas or Hezbollah or any of them, I would not in any way or shape or form be a friend of his,” Pascrell said.
“About the other issue – the question is who will be supportive of Israel. You have my record, what I attempted to do when I was on Homeland Security. There is not one scintilla of doubt of where my allegiance lies.
“I believe in a secure Israel. I believe in a two-state solution. I believe we need to work toward that, and the United States should not impose a peace.
“I’ve spoken for tough sanctions against Iran. That was a year and a half ago.
“The letter – I’m proud of it and I’ll tell you why. The 54 of us were not opposing Israel; Israel has every right to defend itself, every right to make itself and its people secure. I’ve said that time and time again. But to deny some humanitarian aid to people who have nothing to do with it, to me that does not make sense.
“Isn’t it interesting that the prime minister feels exactly as I do, because a month later that was the policy? And I support that policy.
“We can be strong on Israel – my record speaks for itself – but we’re still going to go back to the principle you and I agreed on, that every person has dignity,” Pascrell said, concluding with “God bless America.”
Boteach fired back. “There is zero truth to the charge, Congressman Pascrell, that Israel denied food, medicine, humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza. The only person saying that is you. The U.N. said the blockade was completely legal under international law. You have no proof other than that vicious letter. I regret you repeated that slander in a synagogue to a Jewish audience.
“Israel, my friends, is a nation of the highest morality. Israel is a nation of the highest humanitarian principles.
“Hamas and those who target women and children for murder have erased the countenance of God from their visage. They have no dignity. The Taliban who fought a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan have no dignity.
“You say you will not renounce anybody. You just renounced Chester Grabowski,” the Clifton newspaper publisher, “when you found out he was a classic Holocaust-denying anti-Semite.”
Boteach recalled telling Qatanani that “I will personally become an even bigger supporter of yours to remain here in the U.S., under one condition: simply get up and call Hamas an abomination to Islam, which is a nation of peace.”
Instead, “Qatanani continues to give speeches to this day saying that Israel is the worst thing ever to happen to the world. He says we should renounce our First Amendment and people should be criminalized for criticizing Islam. That’s not what America needs!”
Pascrell responded that “the implication of my character and integrity I find appalling. I have never ever entertained any sort of anti-Semitism ever.
“That was not the Chester Grabowski I knew. That is why I withdrew my support at that time” from a proposal to name a Clifton park after him. Anti-Semitism has no place anywhere, here or over the sea.
“I’m telling you this: We’re running for the Congress of the United States of America. Not only do our votes have consequences, our voices have consequences. You either make matters better or you make them worse. I say to you – and looking into each of your eyes – there is nothing in my record which would implicate me. I was a member of the Homeland Security committee. Why would I try to cover up for the imam? Why?” Pascrell said.
Boteach said: “To say anyone God forbid ever insinuated any iota of anti-Semitism against you is absurd. I don’t believe Congressman Pascrell has a bigoted particle in his body. I think he is a man with an open heart and a dedicated public servant.
“The allegation is rather that you are pandering to constituents and are prepared to overlook things that dare not be overlooked. The allegation is that you have become, not a 100 percent New Jersey fighter, but a 100 percent Washington politician; that you are now in the game of pandering.
“Even if you lose some votes, you need to call Qatanani on his statements today against Israel,” Boteach said.
The moderator’s third topic was about the diversity in the newly redrawn Ninth Congressional District. Pascrell, who was the mayor of Paterson before he entered Congress, used the opportunity to talk about his record. “Every part of my life before I was a congressman dealt with constituent services and legislation that would help those constituents,” he said. “Most of my legislation is nonpartisan. The record is the record and I’m very proud of it.
“If I’m elected, we’ll have an office in Bergen County as well. I’m getting to know every town in Bergen County. I’m not doing them any favor. That’s my responsibility, to be available for people.”
Boteach said, “The people of the Ninth District in New Jersey are as beautiful as they come. They are the perfect tapestry of the most diverse America. Twenty percent of our district are Asian or Korean. Many have escaped from North Korea, where over the past few years 3.5 million people have starved to death. Twenty percent are Jewish. Ten percent are African American. We have one of the largest Arab American constituencies in the country. Each has separate needs and issues that apply to them, but there’s the overarching issues where they all agree.
“The number one issue is the economy and jobs. We continue to have partisan gridlock that won’t fix the problems and I will be an outside voice that won’t push a button because it has an R or D in front of it.”
Boteach complained that instead of campaigning, Pascrell has been relying on “the structural advantage” of being the Democratic candidate in a gerrymandered district. “I’m fighting the entire Democratic establishment here in this room,” he said.
“Congressman Pascrell is of the opinion he can win without running. The fact that he will not say my name even once, it’s the negativity of contempt. That’s not directed at me, that’s directed at all of you. He wants to be anointed the congressman of the Ninth District. He wants to be chosen by the fact that there’s a D in front of his name. That’s been the whole problem. Only 15 seats change hands most years because of gerrymandering.
In contrast, “I’ve been out there,” Boteach said. “I campaigned. I heard your stories.”
Pascrell responded: “This campaign is about us. I’m not going to give an ‘I, I, I’ speech. This campaign, this candidacy, and this election is about us.
“I don’t have to send you my schedule every day, but I guess you did not take me at my word that I only took one day off in the past two months.
“My job every day is to reach out to the entire community. It’s not my job to go before the people and say, ‘look at the wonderful things I did.’ You, rabbi, are doing what I will never do. The people will judge on the record. You’re not the police, the oversight; you’re not the judge and jury. The people go to the polls and they elect their leaders.
“I want to be your representative in Washington because I will represent you with every part of my body and mind, and the rabbi knows it,” he said.
Boteach didn’t back off. “Never trust what people running for office say,” he said. “Trust what they do. He never updated his web site for two months. As far as he was concerned, it was over.
“You know what I’ve learned running for Congress? I’ve learned that American democracy is broken because people in Washington gerrymandered these districts and they don’t give all of you a choice. Don’t vote for me because I’m a Republican. I go against my party all the time. To vote for someone simply because they’re a Democrat – America is better than that. Our problems are bigger than that. America deserves more than that,” he said.
Tackling women’s issues
The JCRC had been criticized because there had been no questions on women’s issues during the debate it hosted last week between the fifth district candidates, the moderator said. So the next question was this: “Do you support your party’s platform on abortion?”
Boteach said, “I was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to allow me to have a Jewish education. I now have six daughters and three sons. That’s a large family.
“The Jewish position on abortion is different than the Catholic and Christian Evangelical positions. It is much more lenient. I would not overturn Roe v. Wade. Period. The last thing America needs is a cultural war for the next 40 years, which will stop us from discussing the real moral issues.”
He repeated his call to make marital counseling tax deductible. “The best way to prevent abortion is to save the culture of marriage,” he said. “We need to obviate abortion by creating a culture of marital commitment. Why aren’t we doing that? Because many people in the Republican party are obsessed with abortion and gay marriage. I don’t want to talk about gay marriage. Us straight people have done a fine job in destroying marriage, thank you very much.”
“Much of what the rabbi has said I would agree with,” Pascrell responded. “I have fought every day since I have been in Congress to defend Roe v. Wade.
“My position about equity, though, is just as important. Not only do we talk about women with regard to reproduction; the first piece of legislation the president of the United States put forth in Congress was not on abortion or minimizing the right of women to protect their own bodies. It was the Ledbetter legislation giving equal pray and equal treatment for women. I’ve devoted my entire life both in state legislature and as a congressman for that end. It was a long fight and it was successful,” Pascrell said.
He said the Affordable Health Care Act also “brought some of the same kind of equity into health care. Why should a woman have her health insurance cost more than a man’s?
“When Republicans and Republican candidates say, ‘there is something I like about the Health Care Act,’ where is our plan? The Affordable Care Act isn’t a perfect bill. We’ve never passed a perfect bill. But we couldn’t sustain any longer the health care system that existed. We needed to address that,” he said.
“When it comes to the American Health Care Act, the Republicans must put forward a plan, and some have and some haven’t,” Boteach replied.
“The problem with the plan as it stands, the taxation is just too high. We live in New Jersey. We know about taxes. All these taxes have done is lead to the flight of the middle class. There used to be 15 congressional seats in New Jersey. People are leaving because of all the taxes. They’re voting with their feet,” he said.
The final question concerned policy toward Iran.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing is off the table,” Pascrell said. “I fought in Congress for the toughest sanctions possible. There cannot be any equivocation. It seems in the past three months they have had an affect on the ayatollahs and the leadership of Iran.
“I want sanctions to be even tougher. Iran is not only a threat to Israel; it is a threat to the entire Middle East. Not only can Iran not have a nuclear weapon, we should be very careful that they do not develop the weaponry to deliver a nuclear weapon. That’s very important.
“The sanctity and the security of Israel is a priority, and we should never deviate from that. We are allies. That does not mean we have to make enemies in order to accomplish everyone knowing where the U.S. stands on this.
“It seems to me the less stress we have in the Mideast and the more cooperation we have with Mideastern countries, we can have a tremendous deterrent to whatever Iran has planned.
“When I say everything is on the table, I mean that. If it comes to the point that our intelligence – our intelligence with Israel is on course and has been since we passed legislation in 2005-2006 – It would seem to me that we are the greatest deterrent for Iran going forward. I don’t believe they’re going to risk going to war. And that’s a horrible thing to even mention that word, war. We were clear at the U.N. What our intentions are, that we will defend our ally, we will not wait until last second. I trust our president and our secretary of state,” Pascrell concluded.
Boteach said, “I am very grateful to President Obama and Congressman Pascrell for everything they have done to try to enact very strong sanctions. He has voted repeatedly for very strong sanctions. Unfortunately, they are not working.
“We know this because the International Atomic Energy Agency just told us that amidst these very strong sanctions, the Iranians are still enriching uranium at a very strong rate. Crippling sanctions will not be enough because Ahmandinejad learned from North Korea that if you have a nuclear weapon, the world leaves you alone. Also, there are so many loopholes in the selling of the oil contracts that some of the biggest buyers, like China, are given a pass.”
Boteach said it undercuts the message to Iran “when President Obama will not meet with the prime minister of Israel because he doesn’t have the time. This is a leader of a country who had a genocide two generations ago.”
“President Obama was very late in condemning Ahmandinjad’s slaughter of his own people on the streets of Tehran.
“One of the things I said to Congressman Pascrell is that it’s imperative – as a congressman with one of largest Muslim populations – to speak out very strongly against the slaughter in Syria. I believe an Arab life has the same value as a Jewish life or a Catholic life. Not once has he called for a bounty to be placed on the head of Bashir Assad as an international criminal. If I am representative of the ninth district, I will speak about Arab freedoms every single day.”
“We asked Assad to resign over a year ago,” Pascrell replied. “Should we arm the rebels? Should we have air strikes? And should we arm those rebels when we don’t even know who many of them are?
“I think that would be foolish. I think that would make matters worse. Things can get worse, and innocent people can continue to be killed. We can make two wrongs here. We can make the situation worse.
“We are attempting to bring together a coalition of Arab nations, many of whom have condemned Assad and told him to leave. Why he is insisting on this insanity is something I think only God knows. Because he cannot get out of this whole. So I support what the European countries and the Arab nations are doing in order to talk some sense into his head.
“I would – from the intelligence I know – not arm the rebels, not have air strikes from American forces, not bring troops to Syria. We cannot go down that path and I will not vote for that,” Pascrell said.
“I never said anything about arming the rebels,” Boteach responded. “I recommended that the president get up at the United Nations and declare Assad a war criminal. You don’t tell a killer and a mass murderer and a genocidal dictator to resign – you indict him for crimes against humanity. As for Iran, we need more battle troops, we need more aircraft carriers there to show we are prepared to use force.”
“Do you know how many naval ships we have there right now?” Pascrell asked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”
In his closing remarks, Boteach said, “this discussion should have taken place a long time ago.
“My friends,” he continued, “help me create a new values agenda for America. Let’s stop with the distractions like talking about gay marriage and abortion and contraception. Let’s talk about a national year of service for high school students. Let’s teach our kids selflessness and self-sacrifice. Let’s help them out of their narcissism. We have to teach them about the greatest generation, people like Congressman Pascrell, who served in the military.”
He also called for “vouchers, so parents can choose an educational environment for their kids. When I go to Paterson and I campaign among my Arab brothers and sisters, they want vouchers. ‘We want our kids to be raised in the glorious Arab tradition,’ they say.
“Let’s create tax incentives for businesses to be closed on Sunday so parents can be at home with their children. Let’s create a values renaissance in America, so we fix our problems, not from the outside – let’s fix them from the inside. I see a new country, a rebirth to a new set of values, where we are not red states, not blue states, but as Obama said, the United States of America,” he concluded.
Pascrell began his closing by thanking his hosts, the debate organizer, his family, attending Democratic officials, and “Rabbi Shmuley Biyotech,” slightly stumbling over his opponent’s name.
“I never felt I was entitled to the position of mayor or assemblyman or congressman,” he said. “Let’s talk about what this is all about. On September 18, 2008, Secretary of the Treasury Paulson came into the room. He said to Congressional leadership, ‘if we don’t act in a few days, we’re going off the cliff.’
“Two people were running for president at that time: Senator Obama and Senator McCain. They could have put politics ahead of the common good. They didn’t. They rose above the situation of the politics. Respecting each other, they rose above the fray and supported what President Bush recommended.
“There is nothing in my record that indicates that I should be demonized because I’m a Democrat. Nothing in my record.
“I’m proud of my record. I’m proud of my family. I’m proud of America.
“I want to make Bergen County proud of me. God bless America,” he concluded.