The issue of Muslim rights arose early in the hour-long debate between Democrats Bill Pascrell and Steve Rothman as the two men battled for political survival on a stage at Montclair State University.
They met May 14 at the John J. Cali School of Music in the second of three debates, this one sponsored by The Record and Herald News and broadcast by NJTV, the state’s public television network.
On June 5, primary election day, Democratic voters will decide which man will be their candidate in the newly drawn Ninth Congressional District.
In an opening question, Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor of The Record and Herald News, asked Pascrell his views on the federal government’s moves to deport a Paterson imam, Mohammad Qatanani, a native of the West Bank who has been accused of aiding Hamas. Qatanani denies the charge.
“I do not support the deportation,” said Pascrell, whose current Eighth District includes both Jewish communities in Essex County suburbs and the nation’s second-largest Muslim enclave in his hometown of Paterson.
“I’ve talked with the FBI and I’ve talked with the imam and I’ve talked with many people who are experts in this area. They feel he got a raw deal,” said Pascrell.
“My parents taught me to treat every religion the same. I have never broken from the principle, ever,” he said, adding, “I support Israel.”
It was the only time the subject of Israel was mentioned in the hour-long discussion.
Rothman said he was “waiting for the results of an investigation to come up with my recommendation as to how to proceed” with the imam’s possible deportation.
He described Muslims as “my brothers and sisters, as is every group and nationality. That is the way I was brought up. This is America,” he said. “And when the FBI was investigating Muslims in New Jersey, I was the only one of the two of us who wrote to Attorney General [Eric] Holder demanding an investigation.”
As he sought support from liberal Democrats among the 170 people in the auditorium and others watching on NJTV, Rothman identified himself as a “progressive” and a “Democrat’s Democrat.”
“Why not say you’re a liberal?” asked a panelist.
“I’m a liberal,” he acknowledged to a flurry of laughter, then used the opportunity to attack Pascrell for his stands on abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
“In 2008 he said, ‘Marriage was only between a man and a woman.’ Now all of a sudden he is for marriage equality,” Rothman said.
“This is a question of conscience,” responded Pascrell. “This is not a question of seeing how the votes are going to go. I respect my opponent’s position. I didn’t feel that way in 2008. Maybe my opponent has never changed his mind.” He said he arrived at the position of supporting marriage equality “when I felt I was comfortable with it.”
Pascrell added that he has fought consistently through the years for the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. “I believe in equity. I believe in pay equity. I believe in marriage equity. I believe in health equity,” he said.
Roe v. Wade support?
Attacked by his opponent for opposing late-term abortions, Pascrell said his position “is very consistent. I still support Roe v. Wade.” But, he added, “I don’t believe in late-term abortion, which by every review I’ve ever read is horrendous. But that doesn’t make me any less of a Democrat,” he insisted. “If I cannot follow my conscience I don’t belong in the Congress of the United States, period.”
“People can vote their conscience but they can’t then claim they are upholding Roe v. Wade,” answered Rothman. “Roe v. Wade allows for a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body within a certain set of restrictions.”
Pascrell, continued Rothman, “voted 18 times to restrict Roe v. Wade and voted to restrict a woman’s right to choose, even when her health was in danger. That’s wrong. It is certainly not progressive.”
Pascrell countered that he has been “more liberal than my opponent. I am working for the middle class. I am working for the working poor. I am proud to be a progressive. I am proud to be a liberal.”
Challenged to defend a TV commercial attacking Pascrell for allegedly opposing inheritance taxes — an ad that has been criticized as “deeply misleading” — Rothman said, “Bill voted to eliminate the estate tax for billionaires. He voted for that. I voted ‘no.’”
Explaining that his vote was a “strategic” one aimed at protecting “the middle class and small farmers from getting hurt,” Pascrell called Rothman’s criticism “a distortion,” adding, “I’ve always felt an inheritance tax was necessary.”
Also questioning the candidates were Michael Aron, NJTV’s chief political correspondent; Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University; and Charles Stile, a political columnist at The Record. The debate was moderated by NJTV anchor Mike Schneider.