Win or lose, is Rothman damaged goods with his party?

Even if he wins next month, Democratic Party insiders wonder if U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) hasn’t irreparably damaged himself as a purveyor of party causes.

Certainly he buried any statewide pied piper potential he ever had, according to foes still stunned and vaguely angered by his decision to run against U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9).

“That guy could have been a hero,” seethed an insider, reflecting on Rothman’s unwillingness to mount a general election campaign against Tea Party darling U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5). “He obviously had no faith in himself, and showed a split in the party’s feeling for him. I mean, let’s face it, half the district doesn’t want him in there.”

It was bad enough that he ran against Pascrell, but now the way he’s running against him just compounds the insult, say sources increasingly emotionally sympathetic to the cause of an overmatched Pascrell, who labors in a district favoring his rival.

The media took apart several Rothman ads in recent weeks showing them to be mostly panic stricken in nature and factually blurry at best, reawakening the notion among insiders that maybe they really should do more than simply bemoan the end of Pascrell.

Part of Pascrell’s goodwill in the party has to do with the fact that he served in Trenton as an assemblyman, and his oldest son, Billy Pascrell III, works as a State Street lobbyist with the most powerful firm in the state. Those are deep connections for party players in all corners of New Jersey who can’t help but regularly badmouth Rothman as this bloody primary unfolds.

Those connections explain the presence, for example, of inner-circle allies of George Norcross III operating on behalf of Pascrell in this race.

Rothman’s campaign makes no apologies.

“We ran nothing but positive ads for at least four weeks,” said campaign spokesman Paul Swibinski. “Our messaging is not negative, it’s issue-based. We’re not calling Bill Pascrell a coward or a liar. All we’re doing is pointing out his votes. He’s not a reliable progressive like Steve Rothman.”

Pascrell was the one who started throwing kicks early, said Swibinski.

“He opened his campaign with a cartoon of Steve running away (from Scott Garrett),” Swibinski said. “A cartoon! It’s just not accurate to say we’re running a negative campaign. Here are the issues. He (Pascrell) was against marriage equality until he knew he was running against Steve Rothman. It’s not unfair to say that. It’s just a fact. He’s voted to restrict Roe v. Wade. He doesn’t believe Roe v. Wade should include protection for late-term abortion and parental notification. He holds a position at odds with NARAL. It’s not an insult, it’s not a personal attack. These are two different congressmen.” 

Sources close to Rothman say the onetime palpably ambitious congressman no longer harbors U.S. senator or bust designs. They point out that Rothman once wanted to be a rock and roll singer, too, but gave up those dreams long ago. The idea that he’s going to outflank Newark Mayor Cory Booker to get to the Senate just doesn’t vibe with reality, say Rothman backers. He’s happy to be a congressman now. Period.

Moreover, they point out, it’s not like he was in the in-crowd anyway. He infuriated Norcross in 2008 when he actively blocked the Bergen County Democratic Organization’s endorsement of Rob Andrews and helped prevail on then-Chairman Joe Ferriero to support the re-election of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). 

Dismissing the notion that his boss still nurses upper house aspirations, “Steve has one plan,” said Swibinski. “It’s to serve in Congress while he is able to do so, and while he’s effective, and to continue to be the only New Jersey congressman on the appropriations committee and to continue to deliver millions to the 9th district, including Passaic, Clifton and Paterson. He’s the only person who can sit on appropriations. If Bill Pascrell wins he’s still on ways and means. Steve is not interested in anything but serving the people of the 9th Congressional District.”

Political scientist Patrick Murray of Monmouth University said he believes Rothman can repackage himself if he wins and endear himself to the Democratic establishment.

“It tends to fade,” he said of campaign time ill-will. “There are not too many long-term consequences for him. There’s no question Rothman has been nastier than Pascrell, but at the end of day the waters will calm again. It takes time but it’s doable. This will wash out.

“However,” he added, “he could lose his seat on the appropriations committee, and that would be a big loss.”

"This meeting is entirely off the record. Until somebody leaks it."
—Michael Kempner, addressing a roomful of Democratic powerbrokers organizng for Hillary Clinton