In the event that Josh Gottheimer takes a stab at statewide office and wins, he would leave a question about the occupancy of the CD5 seat to any number of turf-pawing Democratic prospects buoyed by Gottheimer’s example.
The man defeated by Gottheimer (47-51%), former U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett of Wantage, has already been spied on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of his 2016 loss, and sources suspect a comeback.
What if Gottheimer – bulked up as a North Jersey-based senator after having seized on the opportunity of a vacancy – doesn’t run for reelection in the Fifth District?
Who would attempt to shoulder the mantle for the Democrats?
Two names emerge as early prospects:
Assemblyman Tim Eustace, 60.
Former U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, 64.
Both men have lately signaled political interest.
As chair of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, Eustace scheduled a forum in Newton, turning the heads of political watchers who noted CD5 implications. Then there’s Rothman, who this month surfaced with an op-ed on NJ.com, newly animated by Republican efforts to undo Obamacare.
Rothman was the only member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation to back Obama in the 2008 Presidential Primary.
So let’s examine a possible match-up of these two Bergen brand names, starting with Rothman.
Bounced out of Congress in 2012, the original CD9 congressman tried to make the case that Paterson was the new Englewood, an argument that the followers of U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell didn’t want to hear. Pascrell drove a big plurality of votes out of the Silk City to defeat the suburban Bergenite, leaving Rothman to wonder what if.
What if he had decided not to go after Pascrell in a Democratic Primary and instead had put the warpaint on to face Garrett in a general?
Couldn’t be done, people said at the time.
But now Gottheimer did it.
The question is whether Rothman, driven from office by fellow Democrats, would come back to correct the impression of the legacy he left behind as a guy who mistakenly tried to tomahawk a neighboring elder statesman in his own party rather than square up against what Dems identified as a truly black-hatted Republican.
At the time, Rothman didn’t like the idea of getting pinned down in rural gun country, and preferred the challenges of serving an urban district. He also suffered the political challenge of being separated from that place where he made his political bones as a mayor: Englewood. Even though he had moved to Fair Lawn, Rothman preferred the security blanket of Englewood within reach in the newly configured 9th district.
But that was then and what he has now is the reality of a history in Fair Lawn (pop. 20K, 7K Democrats) with that old irritating story line still kicking around out there.
Then there’s Eustace.
The former mayor of Maywood (pop. 5.8K, 1,900 Democrats) and one of just two openly gay men serving in the
legislature, he bull-horned it when stories surfaced about Garrett refusing to contribute money to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee because the organization gives money to gays. This was personal for Eustace, who went into attack mode on Gottheimer’s behalf.
It was personal to Rothman (the threat to Obamacare), and it was personal to Eustace (the restoration to federal office of an alleged homophobe) .
Friendly, approachable, a chiropractor by trade, tested by a swing district and now comfortable with the savored flavor of leadership in his role as chair of the environmental committee, Eustace weathers the additional very human burden of having lost his partner. He got a taste too of the greatness of U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) when Lewis landed in the 5th to campaign for Gottheimer in Hackensack in the closing days of the competitive campaign last year.
If Senator Bob Gordon goes to a Phil Murphy Administration and Assemblyman Joe Lagana makes a play for the senate perch, that leaves Eustace to take that strong crack at the congressional seat in the event of an opening.
If it came down to an opening and a buttonholing of Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato, Rothman would have to be careful. His elbows already proved to sharp for a fellow Democrat and the fight he arguably started a resulting knockout loss for himself, he wouldn’t want to push too hard if Eustace – fueled by the prospect of gay-uncomfortable Garrett in front of him – made a personal mission of wanting to send the former Republican congressman into permanent retirement.