Campaigning in a newly crafted Fifth Congressional District that now includes several Bergen County communities with large Jewish populations, Republican incumbent Scott Garrett and his Democratic challenger, Adam Gussen, are trading barbs over support of Israel and other issues of Jewish interest.
After redistricting, Dist. 5 also includes towns like Teaneck and Englewood, parts of Passaic and Sussex counties, and all 22 municipalities in Warren County.
“I think the Obama administration has been an absolute disaster from Day One in its handling of foreign affairs and Israel specifically,” said Garrett in an Oct. 4 phone interview. “When Obama came into office, he promised that the United States would be more respected because of his style of handling the world community. I think we are less respected, and we find ourselves in a more vulnerable position than we were four years ago.”
Gussen, an Orthodox Jew and insurance company executive from Teaneck who has been the town’s deputy mayor, acknowledges that President Barack Obama “has a PR problem” when it comes to dealing with Israel.
But, he added quickly, “the people of Israel are safer today than they were four years ago because of the funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile systems,” which shield southern Israel from rocket attacks.
Gussen also brands Garrett, first elected in 2002, “a fair-weather friend of Israel whose primary goal is supporting big-business special interests.”
His evidence: Rio Tinto, a mining company that is partly owned by the government of Iran and provides the Ahmadinejad regime with uranium from its mine in Namibia.
When Rio Tinto requested congressional approval to mine $7 billion of copper on federally owned land in Arizona, Garrett voted “yes.”
Gussen said that vote was a “sell-out to big business.”
“As someone who has a genuine love for the Jewish people, I find some of his positions to be hollow at best and offensive at worst,” he told NJ Jewish News at his campaign headquarters in Hackensack.
“He is making an issue when there is absolutely none,” Garrett responded. “The company is in compliance with the United Nations’ regulations dealing with Iran.”
Garrett opposes a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians as “untenable and unworkable. I cannot see how you can have a bifurcated country with the West Bank and Gaza separated. Its history is that as Israel has given up land for peace it has only hurt its position and security,” he told NJJN.
Gussen said he believes Israel needs such a solution because “the Israeli people need to live in peace with defensible borders. The critical difference between Scott Garrett’s position on Israel and mine is that mine is one of genuineness as opposed to political expediency,” he said.
The two also differ over abortion.
Garrett has voted in favor of “personhood laws” that outlaw termination of pregnancies caused by rape or that might impair a mother’s health.
That idea, said Gussen, is one he said he “cannot live with. From a Jewish perspective we have an obligation to protect the life of the mother above the life of the fetus. It flies in the face of Halacha as far as the Jewish community is concerned. To me, it literally degrades every woman.”
Gussen compares Garrett to Todd Akin, the Republican House member and Senate candidate from Missouri whose assertions about “legitimate rape” led to a national outcry.
Some fellow Republicans were deeply critical of Akin’s remarks, but Garrett has declined to join them.
“The people of Missouri are in the best position to evaluate that statement and all the statements their candidates make,” Garrett told NJJN. Asked whether he had a personal opinion of Akin’s statement, Garrett told NJJN, “I think I just answered that.”
“The real war on women over the last four years is that 800,000 more women are out of work today than they were four years ago,” Garrett continued. “This administration has hurt women more than helped them.”
Gussen also notes that Garrett, a member of the evangelical Lafayette Federated Church in Lafayette, has opposed guidelines limiting Christian proselytizing of cadets at U.S. military academies.
To Gussen, “when we look at the Jewish community’s ability not only to survive but to thrive in the United States, it is because of our protections of separation of church and state. So when Scott Garrett supports the proselytizing of Jews in the military academies it is probably the single most degrading activity as far as the degrading of my beliefs and the beliefs of my fellow Jews.”
Garrett responded: “I believe in religious freedom in all walks of life and in the services for all religions. I do not believe in coercion.”
The redrawn Fifth District, which absorbed a number of Republican strongholds, also includes much of the former district of Democrat Rep. Steve Rothman, who declined to run against Garrett.
According to Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, no one knows how many new Jewish voters there will be in the Fifth District.
“Strictly on the numbers, it is a competitive district, but in reality, no,” he said. “Garrett is a well-entrenched Republican who is running against a virtually unknown, extremely poorly funded Democratic candidate in a district that is so large in terms of square miles that it is virtually impossible for a candidate to get to know by just driving around.”