Democratic challenger Dennis Shulman, left, faces incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett in an Oct. 19 debate moderated by Dan Kirsch, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern NJ.
Photos by Robert Wiener
October 23, 2008
In a stormy session filled with charges and countercharges over Israel, medical care, and stem cell research, Republican Scott Garrett faced Democratic challenger Dennis Shulman Oct. 19 in debate at a Woodcliff Lake synagogue.
Shulman, a psychologist and rabbi who happens to be blind, is trying to unseat the three-term incumbent congressman who represents New Jersey’s Fifth District.
Appearing at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, the two men met for the first of three encounters — this one cosponsored by the congregation, the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern NJ, and the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Just moments after being introduced, Shulman launched into an attack on his opponent.
“These Bush-Garrett years are a disaster,” said Shulman. “Scott Garrett tells us he is an independent voice for change. No, Scott. Let’s get real. You are a Republican who voted 85 percent of the time with George Bush and 15 percent of the time to the right of Bush.”
Garrett responded by saying he has devoted his six years in office to “fighting taxes and the growth of government and trying to put the focus back on the taxpayer and the middle class.”
Questioned about the federal government’s role in stabilizing the troubled economy, the congressman said he has been fighting “against the special interests that bring us to the problems we have today. Look at my record,” he urged the 250 people in the audience. “I have been one who stood up and called for a special investigation of the sweetheart deals.”
“When you look at the record, the votes are not on the record that you voted against special interests or asked for regulation,” Shulman answered back.
“My record is clear on trying to fight back on the misregulation of the past,” Garrett retorted.
Turning to the issue of affordable health care, Garrett asked, “Who should be in charge? In my view it should be you and your doctor, not some bureaucrat down in Washington…. My opponent apparently looks at some nationalized health-care system where bureaucrats we don’t know get into a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter arrangement. That is not what I’d like to see for Americans.”
Dennis Shulman, left, and Scott Garrett continue arguing over issues after the debate’s official end.
“The idea of a faceless bureaucracy — that’s what’s happening now,” Shulman responded, referring to insurance companies and HMOs that must approve medical procedures and often limit patients’ choices of physicians.
He criticized Garrett for supporting a Bush administration veto of S-CHIP, a program that provides health care for uninsured children.
Garrett argued that the version of S-CHIP that he opposed extended health care coverage to families with incomes that allowed them to afford private insurance.
“I voted against S-CHIP because that dollar does not go to that child, but somebody who is making a quarter of a million dollars who has health insurance elsewhere,” he explained.
To Shulman, that answer was “such a false claim. We should be providing health insurance for every child in this country,” he said.
Israel and foreign aid
When the subject turned to Israel, the two candidates began in agreement.
“My feelings as a Jew are extremely intense,” said the Democrat.
Garrett said he felt “affinity toward Israel as a Christian.”
But the mood soon turned confrontational when Shulman criticized Garrett for joining House Republicans’ attempts to reduce the foreign aid appropriations bill in 2007.
“If his vote were in the majority — which it wasn’t — it would have immediately reduced the budget of Israel by five to seven percent. People who watched these things very carefully were very troubled by that vote,” said Shulman.
Responding indirectly, Garrett asked Shulman, “If you are such a strong supporter of Israel, why is it you would allow negotiations to go on with terrorist organizations such as Hamas without any preconditions to them? Why would you be willing to have negotiations with the leadership of Iran?”
Shulman denied making such a statement.
(A day after the debate, the Shulman campaign e-mailed NJ Jewish News a copy of a June 2006 letter signed by Garrett and 11 other Republican House members applauding President Bush for “recent moves toward a possible dialogue with Iran” without allowing “a disagreement over preconditions to scuttle negotiations.”)
Shulman said “Bush and the Republican administration have essentially distracted themselves from the broader Middle East because they were so concerned about Iraq…. We did everything possible to bolster the power of Iran. Diplomacy should be done. It must be active and it must be smart. This administration has not been smart.”
Garrett chided his challenger for accepting an endorsement from J Street, a political action committee that describes itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.”
The organization supports “a negotiated agreement to end the conflict that includes arrangements whereby the Palestinian neighborhoods would be part of the capital of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem.”
Garrett called on Shulman to “renounce that endorsement.”
Denying that a divided Jerusalem represented his position, the rabbi said, “J Street is talking about getting America to do what it didn’t do for seven or eight years and to take this issue seriously…. We should have more peace in the region, and we’ve blown it.”
When the topic turned to stem cell research, Shulman spoke of a friend suffering from Parkinson’s disease “whose only hope for a cure was dashed by both Garrett and Bush.” Garrett backed limits placed on federal funding for research on stem cells derived from fetal tissue, which they view as a destruction of potential human life.
Vote of confidence for Shulman
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY likes the blind rabbi’s chances in New Jersey.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week upgraded Dennis Shulman from one of its “emerging races” to “Red to Blue,” meaning that the Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s Fifth District will get additional financial, communications, and strategic support from the party in his race against three-term incumbent Rep. Scott Garrett, a Republican.
The change in designation also serves as an important signal to potential donors that the race is competitive and that their dollars could make a difference.
“Dennis Shulman is running a solid campaign and is committed to making things easier for middle class families in their districts,” said DCCC chair Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in a statement. “With less than 21 days to make his case for change to voters, the Red to Blue program will give Shulman the financial and structural edge to be even more competitive in November.”
“Our grassroots campaign for change has been growing so rapidly in Northern New Jersey, and we welcome the additional support,” said Shulman in a statement released by his campaign.
In response, Garrett told The Star-Ledger that Shulman is an “empty suit” and a “tax and spend pawn for Washington elites.”
— ERIC FINGERHUT, JTA