A Race for the Ages
NJ’s 5th District Congressional race is catching national attention. I actually think of it as the Milennial vs. the Dinosaur race. The youth vote may be pivotal here. 32 year old Democrat Roy Cho is challenging Tea Party elder Scott Garrett for what had been a safely Republican seat for many years. The differences in the candidates and their positions could not be more stark.
At Roy Cho’s HQ opening on August 4th, where I took the above photo, even I was surprised by the turnout. I had attended fundraisers for Congressional candidates in the 5th district for a few years now. I even hosted a few. I know the district and I know the candidates, but Roy Cho has been by far the most promising according to many of the experienced campaign hands I have talked to recently. Especially the ones I met opening night.
The Invisible Man
This time I went as a blogger trying to get a sense of exactly what the chances might be of a challenger finally defeating Congressman Scott Garrett in NJ’s 5th District. Scott Garrett, the current Congressman in NJ’s 5th was “Tea Party, before there even was a Tea Party” according to Cho. In previous blogs I have dubbed Congressman Scott Garret “The Social Darwinist Against Evolution”, and “Punxatawny Garrett”, because while voting against aid for Katrina victims, as well as threatening to vote against aid for Sandy victims (an easy position for him, because the only town in his district on the Hudson shore affected by Sandy was Alpine and Sandy struck an Interstate Park, not voters), constituents like me only hear from Garrett once every two years. In fact, we see the famous Groundhog from Pennsylvania more often than the agoraphobic NJ Congressman who emerges from his bunker once every two years. According to Cho, Garrett’s public office actually has locked doors keeping the public from accessing him.
I thought it telling that I have been receiving more Garrett Robocalls than usual. I received an email from Garrett trying to defend his colleagues in what has been dubbed the “Do Nothing Congress” the day after Cho’s successful campaign roll-out. Hundreds of Cho’s supporters were packed in the large room and even spilling out the door.
The reason this seemed extremely unusual for a 5th District rollout was the enthusiasm. Many formerly jaded politicos, the kind I could never ever get to a campaign event for a Democrat in the 5th District when I was a committeewoman here think Cho has a real chance. This is definitely new.
Speak Quietly and Carry a Large Warchest
For years, Scott Garrett seemed content in the knowledge that he didn’t have to debate, didn’t have to say anything and large donors would keep his seat intact. The district had been gerrymandered originally to be very rural and extremely Republican. Although the Republicans in the district and indeed my own town are the old fashioned “cloth coat” type, in the most recent redistricting, Democrat Steve Rothman had the money, and indeed the demographics, but not the courage to face Garrett in the new race. I was deeply disappointed when Rothman decided to leave the 5th to fight instead for Pascrell’s seat. I said at the time I thought that cloud of dust was the cavalry coming to save those of us in the 5th district from Scott Garrett’s non-representative brand of representative government. Instead that cloud of dust was Rothman getting outa’ Dodge to avoid facing well-funded Garrett in November. I still don’t think I can forgive Rothman for abandoning us like that.
Redistricting – The Double Edged Sword
But, in that redistricting was a ray of hope. Now, part of Teaneck – a very strong Democratic stronghold – was included in the 5th. Diversity and progressive activism are hallmarks of Teaneck’s fame. Teaneck was the first town in the entire country to integrate its schools voluntarily. I have quite an affection for the progressive elected officials I I know from Teaneck. One of them is a Senator named Loretta Weinberg and another, is newly elected Councilmen Jason Castle, who I had supported last time, as a primary candidate for Garrett’s seat. Teaneck Mayor Lizette Parker also gained my admiration while fighting corruption at the County level.
The Accessibility Gap
Roy Cho has captured the hearts of a lot of political junkies in Bergen as well as Passaic County. He has ventured well into rural Northwestern New Jersey, where Garrett has always stayed well hidden. Cho is charismatic in an open way and greets his supporters warmly with a big hug, an infectious smile and a joke. In NJ it is also important to be funny. Extremely opposite of Garrett, who prefers to avoid contact with voters. Even Mayors in his district. A few years ago, I was told by one Mayor that Garrett liked to round up a bunch of Bergen County Mayors for a diner meeting perhaps once a year. Very informal and in a group therapy session each Mayor would go around the table and have just a few sentences to tell their tales of woe in front of the other Mayors, while Garrett would pretend to listen according to this Mayor and then promptly forget all that was said.
Being hidden does not go over well in northern NJ where people like to see their candidates on their doorstep asking for their votes. Cho has the requisite energy and sense of humor needed to win a race here. Fortunately, the County Committee members I have spoken to feel he also has the experience to get the job done should he win. The fact that this is the very first 5th CD race I have actually seen not just young volunteers, but formerly jaded Bergen County politicians invest their time and energy surprised me. Everyone who was anyone in NJ politics was at Cho’s HQ opening.
Sussex & Passaic – Speed Bump to Gas and Oil Exports
Changes may be part of the reason, besides redistricting. The residents of Northwestern NJ have had their world shattered recently. Although they are predominantly Republican, they live in one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of the state where most of our drinking water comes from. This is the land the Lenape really call home. It is home to rolling hills and verdant fields and beautiful mountains and the cleanest air and streams . In the past few years, residents have been battling Energy Companies like Tennesee Gas – a subsidiary of Halliburton when a fracked gas pipeline was unceremoniously foisted on the Highlands region. If there is one thing that rural Republican voters care about, it is property rights. When Tennessee Gas came through, it angered a lot of voters in the region. Now there is more talk of an oil pipeline coming south through the district. Scott Garrett could count on Republican votes when the North stayed pristine and rural residents were left largely alone. Now that the Highlands region is considered a mere speed bump on the road to shipping oil and gas overseas from Pennsylvania and points north and West, the residents of the 5th are feeling under siege and the fact that Scott Garrett got thousands of dollars from oil and gas may not sit well with 5th District voters.
The other major issue facing Sussex County are foreclosures. Sussex County has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state of NJ.
Prior to the financial crisis the area had its share of rural poverty, but the crash of 2008 caused extreme hardship in Sussex and Warren Counties. The fact that Scott Garrett gets most of his support from the Securities, Banking and Real Estate industries may hurt him this November.
Garrett generally keeps a very low profile and does not call attention to himself and rarely appears in public and lately keeps the doors locked at his official office. Hence the Punxatawny moniker. I sometimes wonder if he hopes that people still think moderate Marge Roukema is still their Representative in Congress. Garrett is not the new breed of Tea Party, that is loud and in your face. He is very old-school. Which is a funny way to describe Garrett because Garrett is against public education altogether because it doesn’t teach Creationism and it costs money. Chris Matthews once remarked how polite Garrett was. Which is why it is necessary for others to call out Garrett’s voting record, one of the most extreme in Congress.
For years, although many Democrats wanted to defeat Garrett, up until now, most did not even try because they thought there was no chance of winning in a mostly rural Republican district. The demographics shift, the NJ economy and the foreclosure rate, as well as the new infusion of a diverse electorate in his district with the addition of more Bergen County towns may be Garrett’s undoing.
What surprised me was the devotion of Cho volunteers I met Monday night. In addition to Kathy Maher, who had been lobbying her own brother, Bill Maher, to Flip the 5th District, the most heartfelt endorsement came from Terri Driller, who although she is battling advanced cancer, said she is working on the campaign because she wants to spend time on something important to her children and grandchildren. She does not feel she has much time left, so she wanted to make her time count. Talk about a powerful endorsement.
Supporter Carol Evans came out for the very first time to a political event like this because she also wants to support Roy Cho and get involved. She is extremely concerned that Congress is not spending time on the important issues. She reminded me of early Howard Dean supporters who got involved for the very first time because a candidate inspired them.
There had been candidates before but nobody had captured the energy of not only the idealistic progressives bent on unseating one of the most conservative members of Congress, but the jaded politicos who think they can spot a candidate who will be a disappointing money pit. In NJ if the State and County Committee heads don’t think a candidate can win, or if they don’t have enough money, that candidate gets no boots on the ground support. The County Committees will throw all their efforts into maintaining control of the County Executive seat – like they did several years ago when Paul Aronsohn ran in the 5th. (The Executive is the county equivalent of Mayor, while Freeholder is equal to a County Councilmember.) Bergen County Democrats spent 3 million on the race for Executive and next to nothing for Arohnson. But at Cho’s opening, both the NJ state Chair and the County Chair gave gushing endorsements of Cho and pretty much anybody who is anybody in Bergen County politics was there. It appeared that these folks not only thought Cho could win but that he had actual coattails to sweep in the rest of the ticket. This time it appears that Cho might help the Democrats sweep the Republican incumbent County Executive out.
The most refreshing sight were young volunteers. There were so many. Many of the new young volunteers were from the Asian community. When I was a Councilwoman I tried so hard to bring members of the growing Chinese and Korean community in Tenafly into the political process when I was there, but not many residents felt welcome to participate. That is fortunately no longer the case in Bergen County. I have never seen any candidate win over all the many factions of Democrat in Bergen County as I saw together in one room on Monday night. Now with adequate representation from young supporters in the Asian community, that room finally looked like Bergen County.
The reason Cho gained national support and local support so quickly may be as simple as experience. His resume is impressive and includes work on Clean Energy, Campaign Finance Reform, Transportation, Immigration, and Education. After graduating from Brown University, Cho attended Georgetown Law School at night where he was Editor in Chief of the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal and worked as an aide to Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota in rural wind turbine country. He has also worked at the Port Authority and as an aide to NJ Governor McGreevey. He is no stranger to public service. To gain experience in the public sector to round out his experience, he recently worked in the world of finance which is also crucial to the problems facing NJ now.
His experience was formed when his parents arrived in NJ from Korea when he was an infant and then moved to Jersey City. His father was able to get help to launch his own business from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Government could work. It did work, and it made Roy’s American Dream come true because his father was able to succeed in business here with the help of government programs. Roy then spent most of his time since college working for Government to pay back the political good will his family had prospered from. A recurring theme he stresses is public-private partnerships that work.
The Gender Gap
The other issue that will impact the race is also Cho’s popularity with women. The politically powerful women in Bergen County I talked to Monday night agree that Cho is a great candidate. They despair over Scott Garrett’s extremely conservative votes. Garrett voted against the Violence Against Women Act and is obviously anti-choice. Politically experienced women support Cho so strongly they will do anything (even while fighting late stage cancer) to help Cho win.
Flipping the 5th
This race has been capturing attention nationwide. Although it did not garner one of the four top spots in Bill Maher’s Flip a District campaign, Cho succeeded in the next best thing. Kathy Maher, Bill Maher’s sister lives in the district and is working on Cho’s campaign. She had even made a video in support of Roy. I spent time talking to her about why she is supporting Cho. She was one of the politically savvy campaign veterans here that sincerely believe Roy Cho has a great chance to beat Scott Garrett. Her most impassioned comments were regarding Scott Garrett’s voting record. She was concerned that the public did not understand just how extreme Garrett is.
Kathy Maher is a teacher of English to students who learned other languages first. She is extremely passionate about education – a major issue in this race. NJ has always been a top ranked supplier of students attending colleges around the country. Public school education in NJ has been consistently higher quality than the US average. In the 5th District when towns started cutting public education funding while pushing Charter schools, things began to heat up. Particularly in areas like Teaneck which is new to the 5th District. Many supporters of public education see this as an effort by some to profit off our children. In the case of Scott Garrett, who lives in the rural part of the 5th, his view appears even more extreme. Garrett homeschools his own children and is against funding for public education. Garrett is against public education, while education is a cornerstone of Roy Cho’s platform.
What has been most encouraging for Democrats is that Cho has also raised more money than any other candidate than they have ever had for this seat. Which is why he garners County level support, he has the money to justify the County Committee putting boots on the ground for him. The support is coming not just locally but nationally. Another extremely good sign for Cho who coincidentally counts campaign finance reform as a big issue he supports.
New Ball Game
This is definitely a new ball game in the 5th District and should be an intensely interesting race to watch. It will be a nail-biter for me. After trying for years, supporting challengers to Garrett with no support from the County level and finally giving up, I think Garrett may finally lose to Cho because of redistricting the Republicans used to get rid of Steve Rothman and because Garrett has failed to represent the new Generation of savvy Millennials like Cho, who care about educating all children, clean energy alternatives like wind, mass transportation and inclusive, transparent, accessible government.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.