From the Hudson riverbank of Edgewater to Oakland, and at its widest from Kearny to Teterboro, in a more or less straight northwest-southeast line, New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District is sandwiched between CD-5 (Gottheimer) and CD-11 (Sherrill), occupying a dense but politically diverse slice of North Jersey. Anchored heavily on the City of Paterson and its junior city, Clifton, the 9th District has been represented in the House by Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr., for a decade. But the times have also changed, and the public responds to divisive events happening overseas. The Russian invasion of Ukraine galvanized many New Jerseyans, which has a large Ukrainian population, around charitable endeavors and peace vigils. The current Israel-Hamas War is an altogether different situation. Unity is harder to come by. Antisemtism and Islamophobia are on the rise nationally.
CD-9 has people of all faiths, but it does notably have a large population of Palestinians and Jews. In Paterson and in the suburbs, people are expressing their views along with their frustrations with their political leaders who either disagree with them or opt out of making formal stands. It is here where a critical base of support for Pascrell could hang in the balance and potentially shift for another figure such as the current mayor of Paterson.
According to Ahmet Akdag, a leader and insider with deep ties into Passaic County’s Turkish and Arab communities, irritation has been mounting with their congressman. Pascrell has condemned the violence in the conflict overseas and even went so far as to decry the censure of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Tlaib was censured by the House of Representatives for using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” This phrase is interpreted by some as a call for the extermination of the Israeli state and the Jewish people—a stated goal of the terrorist organization Hamas. Hamas is the governing party of Gaza and attacked Israel on October 7—the worst pogrom of the 21st Century—precipitating the Israeli counter-operations that have pulverized Gaza and caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Others say the phrase is a Palestinian liberation slogan.
Pascrell bit back at Tlaib’s censure on November 1. “I oppose the partisan censuring of Congresswoman
Tlaib for the crime of speaking her mind,” Pascrell said. “This is America and in America you have a freedom of speech. That is the central element of our Constitution. Censuring a congressmember should be reserved for corrupt criminals, charlatans, and those who actually perpetuate hate speech or incite violence, not for people with whom you disagree with on matters of morals or politics. I do not always agree with her, but it is an outrage for Republicans to try to censure my colleague because they do not agree with her.”
Indeed, Pascrell turned his argument against Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “That this foolish measure falsely accusing my colleague of ‘leading an insurrection’ was written by Marjorie Taylor Greene is grimly ironic. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a prominent Republican who vocally supported the January 6, 2021 insurrection and the overturning of the 2020 election. If any member of our Congress should be censured and even expelled, it is Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
According to Akdag, leaders in the Muslim community of CD-9 have been calling on Pascrell to publicly demand a ceasefire, but, they say, Pascrell’s been silent on the issue.
Pascrell did, however, issue a statement after the October 7 attacks. “Hamas has committed heinous acts of murder against Israelis. Israel has the right to protect its people and respond and America stands with Israel today. I pray for peace and extend my condolences for the innocent lives lost in these unprovoked attacks.”
Now, however, large, vocal sections of CD-9 are not content with simply praying for peace. They want to see their congressman call for an outright ceasefire. This is not the position of the Biden Administration at this time, but the administration has called for humanitarian pauses so that supplies can be brought into Gaza, where approximately 12,000 have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes with nowhere to go. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected such calls, saying the war on Hamas, “…has one goal, to win. There is no alternative to victory.” A ceasefire, the Prime Minister said, would only be used by Hamas to regroup and reorganize for more attacks.
Neither congress nor the US President can force Israel and Hamas to stop fighting, and Biden has pledged full support to Israel, although the administration has warned that restraint must be used with a mind for avoiding civilian casualties whenever possible. Netanyahu has laid the blame for civilian deaths on Hamas.
“Before this happened, the relationship with Pascrell was relatively good because he was involved in the community, he was always talking and open to communication,” Akdag said. “Now it is like he did a one-eighty. There has been a huge complaint in regards to actually getting any communication from him. You have someone like Gottheimer, for example, where there’s some criticism of him because of his stance, but he has been public and open. With Pascrell it’s a situation where it’s like ‘nothing’ per se. He made one statement along the lines of what everyone else was saying in Congress early on, when the conflict started. But then after that, there has just been silence. He is not saying anything, they haven’t been able to get in touch with him. They’ve had protests outside of his district office here in Paterson. So, there’s been a growing sentiment that they either don’t want to vote for Pascrell, they want to vote against him, or they want to support somebody running against him. Essentially, it’s reached the point where it’s become a situation where they’re like, ‘anybody who is willing to at least speak with us, listen to us, we want to support them.’”
Pascrell is expected to run for re-election. If he does, however, he may have to do so with a diminishing level of support he can ill-afford, both within the Passaic and Bergen County Democratic machines and with the voters themselves.
At a point in life where most people would have enjoyed retirement, Pascrell remains active, keeping his staff busy. A staunch critic of former president Donald Trump, Pascrell has made his character that of a pugilistic, straight-talking, no-nonsense Italian-American from the Paterson streets. Since representing CD-9, Pascrell has been challenged by Shmuley Boteach, Dierdre Paul, Hector Castillo, Eric Fisher, and Billy Prempeh twice. In each case, Pascrell has won re-election with a comfortable mandate. In the 2018 Trump-era mid-term elections, Pascrell took 70% of the vote, the second-highest percentage since his first election against Boteach, where he took 73%.
However, after facing Republican Billy Prempeh in 2020, when the country was locked down by COVID restrictions, civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd, and an imploding economy, the incumbent held firm but declined with a 65% takeaway. Voter turn-out overall, however, was high, with Pascrell taking just over 203,000 votes to Prempeh’s 98,629. Fast forward to 2022, in Round Two with Prempeh, the MAGA-styled African-American Air Force veteran gave Pascrell his lowest margin of 55%. Prempeh took 43%. Compared to 2020, however, 2022 was a low-turnout year, where Pascrell got only 82,457 votes, or about 123,000 fewer than two years before. Prempeh also garnered fewer votes, seeing about two-thirds of the support in his second campaign compared to his first. In this sense, Prempeh’s base was stronger than Pascrell’s in relative terms. Being a non-presidential election, perhaps this is not too surprising.
A Reddening District, Still Safe for Democrats
Following redistricting, before 2023, CD-9 was more concentrated on the east, with its Hudson flank reaching from Englewood up to Cresskill and Hawthorne represented its farthest north-western point. Now stretched out and straightened, CD-9 shed those Hudson pieces of Bergen in exchange for redder territory with Oakland, North Haledon, parts of Wayne, Pompton Lakes, and Franklin Lakes. This has boosted Republicans in CD-9. It is enough to cause Democrats to require a more energetic and spirited campaign for the future than before, but the shift has not overwhelmingly upended the political balance of the district—only by virtue of the sheer number of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters to Republicans.
Democrats had previously been the largest political bloc, but now they are almost on parity with unaffiliated voters. Republicans, on the other hand, have seen their previously small numbers get a significant boost—enough, perhaps, to swing a future election if general voter apathy is high and the Democratic base is unmotivated. Considering the specter of a Trump/Biden re-match in 2024, this is almost impossible for the next election cycle. It should give Pascrell or another Democratic candidate a very realistic chance at another term. They will, however, need to mobilize their bases of support. Muslim apathy or hostility toward Pascrell could spell the end of his political ambitions, even if CD-9 remains safely blue.
This is where Pascrell himself might prove to be the Republicans’ best bet for their chances going forward, as opposed to another Democratic candidate like Mayor Andre Sayegh. Given the past trends for Republican gains by percentage with a candidate like Prempeh, one who did not enjoy the full support of the Republican Party apparatus and did most of his own legwork, the Democrats could find themselves on less secure ground. At a time when age is increasingly a talking-point in political matters (Trump is 77, Biden is 80, Pascrell is 86), younger voters are feeling a greater disconnect between themselves and those who govern them. Further questions arise as to the factor that age will play with regards to being able to keep up with the work-pace as well as understanding new and emergent issues, especially those related to technology, artificial intelligence, media, and digital intellectual property.
Nothing in politics, however, stays the same forever. Change might just be what will save the Democrats from succumbing to a decline of apathy and discontent. While Pascrell continues to be a voice for the district in Washington DC, with plummeting support among the district’s Muslim community, a future, younger figure to continue carrying the blue banner must be a moderate to strike the balance in the now-redder constituency. Winning the critical unaffiliated voting base, which will be best courted with bread-and-butter home issues such as the high cost of living and property taxes, will mandate that candidates can demonstrate a willingness to deliver on federal funding while advocating for a fiscally conservative posture in the Capitol. A municipal executive would be a highly credible candidate to fit that profile.
Enter Andre Sayegh?
The mayor of Paterson is regarded in Passaic County circles as the most likely successor to Congressman Pascrell. Sayegh has been particularly active outside his own city, mixing and building up a network throughout the district to solidify name recognition and political capital. When Insider NJ asked Sayegh if he had designs on becoming a congressman, the mayor did not say yes, but he did not say no, either. Sources, however, are almost certain that a Sayegh congressional bid is in the works. Sayegh would be a strong Democratic figure to run to represent CD-9 whether in 2024 or 2026. A Syrian-Lebanese Roman Catholic, Sayegh, unlike many past Paterson mayors and councilmembers, has had no serious legal trouble to hamper his name. Affable, gregarious, and present, Sayegh has been spotted at numerous events in the area, both political and non-partisan. These are sure signs of the foundations being laid for the next step up the political ladder. A known figure, Sayegh has proven himself a shrew political survivor, having no particular “home base” in Paterson in an ethnic or religious sense, as so much of the city’s political landscape is drawn along those lines. Being able to bridge those tenuous divides and capably defending himself against challengers from the likes of Jose Torres, Alex Mendez, Aslon Goow, and others, Sayegh has proven that he has the political credibility and tenacity to project that power further.
Regarding the Israeli-Hamas War, Sayegh, unlike Pascrell, has been vocal about calling for a ceasefire. It is an easy thing to do, politically, as Sayegh has no influence on foreign affairs, but that might not matter for the district’s constituencies who see him as a public figure saying what they want said.
On Thursday, November 16, Sayegh hosted a peace vigil at City Hall in Paterson and publicly called for a ceasefire, flanked by members of multiple faiths. Rabbi Ester Azar led the group in prayer followed by Basma Bsharat, speaking on behalf of Palestinian American Community Center; Jon Moscow of Northern New Jersey Jewish Voice for Peace; another prayer by Imam Qatanani; remarks by Wassim Kanaan of American Muslims for Palestine; Ahmed Abukwaik speaking on behalf Dr Faisal Shah of American Pakistani Public Affairs Committee; Kathy O’Leary of Pax Christi New Jersey; and Helga Moor of NJ Peace Action. Pastor Kuykendall of Agape Christian Ministries closed the gathering with a prayer.
“Today we gather in the name of peace, peace for everyone,” Sayegh said. “Paterson is a place of peace. Hate has no place here. We’re a city of hope. Tonight, we make a plea together as a community for an immediate ceasefire to end the violence, to end the pain and suffering. We recognize that too many innocent lives have been lost over the course of the past month. Too many Jewish lives, too many Muslim lives, too many Christian lives. We want an end to any lives being lost anywhere, we condemn violence, we promote peace in this vigil. We understand that this is a challenging situation, but our voices need to be heard. We need to speak in one voice.”
The mayor continued, remarking on the city which is home to one of the largest Palestinian populations in the United States. “For those that don’t know about Paterson and its Palestinian population, I want to explain why we’re so proud that we have Palestinians and Paterson is a better place because Palestinians call our city home. Palestinians add to the social and economic fabric of our city. As a matter of fact, I invite anyone to see for themselves where the safest and strongest section of the city of Paterson is and it’s where Palestinians are. So, we’re reaching out in the name of peace, in the name of justice. Today we stand in solidarity, and we will be led by leaders in prayer, the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith, and the Christian faith.”
Sayegh’s statements may win him strong supporters from communities which are both disappointed with Pascrell and wary of Republicans. Former President Trump, after all, instituted travel bans on select Muslim countries during his time in office. If Muslim voters are unhappy with Pascrell and leery of a Republican, they may stay home and not vote at all, unless someone like Sayegh was an option.
“I know that the community has had their concerns with [Sayegh], but the fact that he has been proactively engaging with them, and has been openly calling for a ceasefire, I would say he is trying to fill in that gap that the community is now seeing,” Akdag said. “If he’s actually going to be running [for Congress], I feel like what he’s been doing now seems to be an effort to tap into that community, show some goodwill and try to build a relationship. If he decides to run, I think the community might get behind him simply because he’s pretty much filling in the gap of being someone there to listen to them.”
Akdag said that the Muslim community may not be 100% behind Sayegh at this point, if only because he has “played his cards close to his chest” on certain issues. But the more vocal he is, and the more he continues to build his network in the communities of CD-9, the more attractive he could appear as a successor or replacement to Pascrell.
Who the Republicans would ultimately decide to put up against a Pascrell or Sayegh figure remains to be seen. Congressman Gottheimer in neighboring CD-5 has promoted himself as a bipartisan leader. He champions the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and has managed to pull off victories in a purple district. Republicans have been looking to flip CD-5 red again following the 2016 fall of Congressman Scott Garrett. In CD-9, while Democrats still maintain the edge, the path to victory would compel the candidates to likewise forge a middle-of-the-road approach in order to balance the ideological and socio-economic composition of the reconfigured district. Likewise, they must be viewed credibly and authentically as public mouthpieces for their home constituents’ concerns and demands.