Although he received only 27 percent of the vote when he ran against Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 8) in 2008, Roland Straten is expecting a big upset in his return match in November.
With backing from the Tea Party and a sense that the Republican Party may take back control of Congress, Straten is optimistic.
“I see an incredible change in the mood of the country. The country is waking up. We have to change things, and I want to be one of the 100 or so new conservative people in Congress,” he told NJ Jewish News in a mid-September telephone interview.
The retired Montclair businessman said one key to dislodging the seven-term congressman lies among Jewish voters in Essex and Passaic counties.
“Pascrell takes the Jewish vote pretty much for granted, but I think that’s changing,” Straten said. “They are fed up with his anti-Israel position they’ve been perceiving. He is pro-Arab, and when there is a choice between Israel and Arab, he is a hell of a politician.
“Not that he is against Israel, but he knows he’s got the Jewish vote in his pocket — or he thinks he’s got the Jewish vote in his pocket. He is seeking the Arab vote. He wants it all.”
Straten did not respond directly to NJJN’s request to document his charge that Pascrell is “anti-Israel and pro-Arab.” However, Mark Meyerowitzof West Orange, a Republican activist, answered on Straten’s behalf.
In an e-mail, he cited reports that “in 2004, Pascrell spoke at a community brunch cosponsored by 11 Muslim organizations, including a mosque that has allegedly raised funds for Hamas.”
Meyerowitz also asserted that the Democrat had “reserved a conference room in the Capital to be used by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group criticized for its persistent refusal to disavow terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”
He also criticized Pascrell for signing the so-called “Gaza 54” letter urging a lightening of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Pascrell, whose district includes Paterson’s large Arab-American community, defended his record on Israel, as did a number of state Jewish activists. “Anyone who would accuse me of being ‘anti-Israel’ clearly hasn’t looked at my record or probably even spoken to a member of the Jewish community in the Eighth District,” he wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. (See sidebar)
“The difference between Pascrell and me,” Straten said, “is that I am going to stick to my principles. Israel right now is our only real friend in the Middle East. Maybe Iraq will be. I’ve got my fingers crossed. The jury is still out. Jordan is probably somewhat of a friend. If it weren’t for Israel, Syria and Iran would probably have nuclear weapons now.”
‘I hate extremes’
In general, the challenger describes his opponent as a “part-Pelosi, part-Gore left-wing liberal who takes the voters for granted. There is not a tax increase he doesn’t like.”
Straten said he was “very upset” that Pascrell voted against the “surge” that sent an additional 21,500 American troops to Iraq in 2007.
“With 20/20 hindsight, I think we did OK in Iraq. I basically think the jury is still out, but if we do the right thing, Iraq will be stable and we’ll have a nice Islamic democracy right in the middle of the Middle East. That would be spectacular.”
But when asked what should be done about the war in Afghanistan, Straten said, “I have no idea. It is totally mind-boggling. I think we had to go in there because that is where the Taliban were. They were doing dreadful things to women and children. There was no freedom whatsoever.”
Straten, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, graduated from Duke University and has a master’s degree from Dartmouth College. He is retired from his family’s business, Associated Fire Protection in Paterson. He and his wife, Susan, have three children and four grandchildren.
Although he has been active backstage in Republican politics for years, this is only Straten’s second attempt at elective office, and he expects “a whole bunch of support” from the state GOP. “But on the national level I’m not sure what they’re doing, to tell you the truth.”
On domestic issues, the Republican acknowledged a libertarian streak in his conservative philosophy.
He called the issue of reproductive rights “a tough one. I am opposed to abortion. I don’t think abortion is a good thing. But I also really believe government should stay out of the lives of people and a woman should have a right to an abortion if she wants one.”
Speaking of his “libertarian trend” in terms of gay rights, Straten said, “I believe everybody has a right to do what they wish as long as they do not harm anybody, so I would not want to make anybody’s lifestyle illegal or inappropriate or even discriminate against anybody.”
But he professed “a strong feeling that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
“New Jersey made a good compromise with civil unions, even though I know a lot of gay people are not happy with that,” he said, referring to 2006 legislation that established civil unions for same-sex couples but fell short of gay rights activists’ calls for the full benefits of marriage. “Marriage used to be purely a religious thing. You were married under the eyes of God. Then the government took it over. I would like to see marriage as a religious thing, not a justice of the peace thing. Where do we stop? Are we going to have multiple wives or communes or that kind of stuff?”
Straten said he considers Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — which bars gays and lesbians from serving in military if they disclose their sexual preference — one of the former president’s “more brilliant moves.”
“It is a compromise that works for most people. We have gays in the military; they just don’t advertise it,” he said.
As he looks toward Election Day, Straten said, he is concerned that “Bill Pascrell is going to attack me in trying to associate me with the Tea Party.”
Straten considers the Tea Party “a grassroots movement of people who think government is too big and taxes are too large.”
And yet, Straten agrees that the movement has attracted some unsavory supporters.
“Are there some fringe parts of the Tea Party with some radical religious types? Yes,” he said. “But that’s not the main Tea Party movement.
“I have no problem with the Tea Party. I have a problem with the radical portions of the Tea Party.”
Straten denounced what he called “the extreme polarization” in American politics.
“I’d like to see us come more to the middle. Either extreme — I hate it. The accusation on the one side is ‘Republicans want children to starve.’ On the other side, Republicans say, ‘Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country and he’s a Nazi or a Muslim.’ All of that stuff doesn’t add to what makes this country great.”
The 69-year-old Straten recalled a proud time during his boyhood in Wayne in the 1940s.
“When I went to school, we really grew up in a melting pot. When we came together, everybody’s customs were brought in. We had Christmas trees from Europe, we had Hanukka bushes from Israel, we had Shinto shrines, we had pizza from Italy. We all took a little bit of that. Right now, we have to have our separate identity….. That’s losing the melting pot.”