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Ex-Republican hopes to unseat Scott Garrett
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Ex-Republican hopes to unseat Scott Garrett

As he runs for Congress in New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, Republican-turned-Democrat Tod Theise believes incumbent Scott Garrett “may have a mile-wide support, but it is an inch deep.” Photo courtesy Tod Theise
As he runs for Congress in New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, Republican-turned-Democrat Tod Theise believes incumbent Scott Garrett “may have a mile-wide support, but it is an inch deep.” Photo courtesy Tod Theise

Tod Theise recognizes the odds are against him as he takes on Rep. Scott Garrett, the Republican incumbent in New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District.

Garrett has held onto upward of 55 percent of the vote since he started running in 2002.

“Garrett is a very accomplished politician,” Theise told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 22 phone interview. “However, I think he carries with him the burden of the last 10 years because of his handiwork with the financial problems we’ve had. He was one of the chief proponents of deregulation and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — things that have come back to haunt us.”

Theise, a Republican turned Democrat, said he is pinning his chances on reaching out to disaffected GOP members.

“I go to business organizations and very conservative organizations and leave the room with 90 percent of the votes,” Theise said. “I am a common-sense fiscal policy type, and I am fairly conservative with fiscal issues.”

It is from that vantage point that he criticizes Garrett’s economic policies and voting record.

“He supported the Bush tax cuts. I am not against tax cuts per se, but when you have tax cuts unfunded and there is no offset to them, they created $700 billion of deficit spending…. It is no coincidence that in 2008 we had the economic collapse; it was a direct repudiation of Scott Garrett’s policies.”

A member of the National Guard since shortly after 9/11, Theise said he finds sympathetic ears when he speaks with veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars about Afghanistan.

“They said, ‘It’s quicksand over there. We’ve got to get the kids out.’ They are very sympathetic to the message that we are making the same mistake we made in Vietnam,” he said. “Putting a lot of boots on the ground isn’t the way you solve the problems over there. You get a lot of people killed by doing that. Work with the tribal leaders, get them on our side, and Al Qaida will never flourish.”

Theise also thinks it is “critically important” to push forward with the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Israel is very important to American interests; we have a tremendous connection spiritually and culturally — in every way,” he said. “We can never back down on that. We have to realize they have unique problems in dealing with Hamas and other people. The biggest problem is negotiating with people who don’t think you have a right to exist….”

Once that issue is settled, he said, “I think you will have meaningful dialogue.”

Asked to comment on whether Israel’s prime minister should extend the settlement freeze White House officials have been seeking, Theise seemed ambivalent.

“I don’t want to tell Benjamin Netanyahu how to govern his country. But I might tell him: ‘If it is going to affect the peace process, maybe you could refrain from this or that.’ I support a two-state solution, but you can’t expect Israel to give up the store….” he said.

Theise, 48, who works as a litigation analyst at a Manhattan law firm, lives in Washington Township with his Zambian-born wife, Belliah, their daughter, Agatha, and five dogs.

Theise said many of his social views are based on his religious beliefs. He was raised as a Presbyterian in West Orange by a Jewish father and a Christian mother.

Explaining his support for same-sex marriage, he said, “As a person of faith, I don’t want the government telling me who I can marry and who I can’t marry. That is a basic human right.”

Similarly, Theise supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion, even though he is “personally pro-life.”

Theise got his start in politics as a Republican, starting in 2000 as press secretary to James Treffinger, the former Essex County executive.

But when Treffinger pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2004, “it got me out of politics,” Theise said. “I knew Jim for a long time and trusted him. I was shocked. I had no idea of what was going on.”

His political faith was also shaken during George W. Bush’s presidency, when the federal deficit started “mushrooming” and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began.

Then, in 2009, Theise made a break with his past and ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Warren County freeholder, discovering along the way, however, that his new party’s principles were definitely in line with his own.

“I am pro-union, pro-labor. I believe in the dignity of people in the workforce. Civil rights are very important to me. That is where I have always been, and I have a libertarian streak,” he explained.

But those qualities have not helped him draw much support from the state’s Democratic Party. “It’s a sore spot,” he said. “They have written off the district. That is unfortunate because Garrett may have mile-wide support, but it is an inch deep.

“Once you give the moderate Republicans a reason to vote for somebody by marriage, you can get them to vote for a Democrat.”

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