ENGLEWOOD, New Jersey – A New Jersey congressional race deemed “not competitive enough” to have any pre-election polling is also the most expensive campaign being run in the state.
That’s the race between eight-term Democratic incumbent Bill Pascrell and political newbie, Republican and Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District.
Boteach, considered a longshot to win the seat, received a boost from casino mogul and major Romney supporter Sheldon Adelson, who injected more than $1 million into the race to support him.
Outside a polling station in the Ahavath Torah synagogue in Englewood, – moved there due to power outages in the traditional polling place – Boteach greeted residents and cast his own vote on Tuesday morning.
“It’s a David and Goliath battle,” said the 45-year-old father of nine, about his campaign.
“I’m the first serious Republican challenger in this district in three decades.”
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 3-1 in the 9th district, which is also home to large Jewish and Arab populations.
The rabbi said that his campaign was “adversely and severely” impacted by the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which battered the area last week.
“It affects the campaign because your campaign becomes irrelevant,” Boteach told The Jerusalem Post, “you’re trying to get votes and promote your message when there are 100 people dead.”
“We had no electricity in the house, offices, no heat, no Internet,” he said. “Our campaign was reduced to going into crowded Starbucks just begging people to plug in our phones and computers for a few minutes.”
As he stood on a street corner near the polling station, a handful of residents – including the Englewood chief of police, stopped on foot or in cars to tell Boteach they voted for him. “I hope you win,” said one. “From your mouth to God’s ears,” Boteach replied.
He told the Post that he originally decided to enter politics after former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi sought, in 2009, to stay in a house next door to the rabbi in Englewood, owned by the Libyan government as a diplomatic residence.
“A murderer tried to move in next to me and I saw that I was powerless to get my city to give a damn.”
The rabbi said one of his first priorities after being elected will be to institute term limits for congressmen and senators.
“The democratic edifice of this country is in severe need of reform,” Boteach told the Post.
“Only [an average of] 15 congressional seats change hands every election – unseating an incumbent is like moving a mountain.”
“How could you have a country that fixes its problems when its elected leaders can’t be thrown out?” he asked, “When they can’t be held accountable?”
Boteach pointed to congressmen like New York City’s Charles Rangel, who has been in office for more than 40 years, as examples of elected officials that should be replaced. In 2010 Rangel was reelected with 80% of the vote, the lowest amount in his 21 elections, likely due to ethics charges against him earlier that year.
“It’s not just an issue of people staying in office too long,” Boteach said, “but Washington changes you, and you become part of the entrenched political class.”
Israel has also been a wellworn point of contention between the congressional candidates.
“A lot of people were wondering whether because I’m a rabbi and Orthodox Jew and a great lover of Israel with a daughter in the [Israeli] army, whether I would make Israel a primary issue,” he said. “The truth is, it is a campaign issue, regardless of my identity.”
Boteach has criticized Pascrell both for signing a letter to Obama asking him to call for Israel to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and for opposing the deportation of New Jersey-based Imam Mohammad Qatanani, who has been accused of supporting Hamas. Pascrell countered that there was no proof of the accusations against Qatanani, and he would not serve as judge and jury against him.
In one of three debates between the two candidates held last month, Pascrell said his support for Israel has been clear and unflinching. “I believe in a secure Israel,” he said. “I believe in a two-state solution... Israel has a right to defend itself, but to deny some humanitarian aid to people who had nothing to do with this did not make sense to me.”
Boteach countered that the letter to Obama on Gaza was “libelous,” and that “Israel never denied food, medicine, humanitarian supplies to Gaza.”
More than $6.2 million has been spent on the race for the 9th district, according to the online NJ Spotlight, partly because of the bruising primary Pascrell ran against Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman, who chose to face his fellow incumbent after redistricting.
Boteach says he has known Adelson for years, due to both of their involvement in the Jewish community, but could not comment on his SuperPAC funding, since “whatever outside groups do we have zero coordination, zero control.”
Aside from his political career, Boteach is a well known author and lecturer, who bills himself as “America’s rabbi.”
His 1999 book Kosher Sex gained national recognition and he also had a short-lived reality TV show called Shalom in the Home as well as a muchpublicized relationship with the now-deceased singer Michael Jackson.
In a separate race, in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, Teaneck Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen, a Democrat and Orthodox Jew, challenged fiveterm Republican incumbent Scott Garrett. According to NJ Spotlight, $858,695 was spent in that race – only $16,304 of it by Gussen.