Bill Clinton charges into New Jersey to help an unwavering friend against a former ally

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Bill Clinton on the stump. ()
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New Jersey congressman Steve Rothman placed a bet last week by going public with his belief that Bill Clinton wouldn’t be wading into his Democratic congressional primary.  

The veteran lawmaker’s comments to Roll Call were either an expression of supreme confidence by a man who believed he’d received a private assurance from the former president, or a desperate effort to stave off what was rumored to be coming. Whatever his motive, Rothman’s words blew up in his face on Friday morning, when Clinton threw his support behind Rep. Bill Pascrell, who is battling Rothman in one of the most intense member-on-member congressional primaries in the country.  

Clinton’s move is the biggest single development in the race so far, providing a major boost for the 75-year-old Pascrell, who is at a demographic disadvantage in the 9th District, which he and Rothman now share.  

Viewed from afar, the former president’s move isn’t surprising. His tendency to use primaries to reward Democrats who were helpful to his wife in 2008 (and to punish those who weren’t) is well-established. And since Pascrell was an early Hillary supporter and Rothman co-chaired Barack Obama’s Garden State campaign, the 9th District race was always going to be a possible stop on the Bill Clinton Payback Tour.  

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But the road to Friday’s endorsement was more complicated than this, with Pascrell leaning on ties to Clinton that go all the way back to the mid-1990s and the Rothman camp conducting an extensive behind-the-scenes campaign to convince Clinton to stay neutral.  

The story of Pascrell’s unlikely political rise is closely linked to the story of Clinton’s comeback from his darkest political hour. It was in 1996 that Pascrell, then the mayor of Paterson, N.J., announced what was widely viewed as a quixotic bid for Congress, challenging freshman Republican congressman William Martini in what was then a Republican-friendly district.   

Martini had won his seat in the 1994 “Republican revolution,” when a fierce anti-Clinton tide lifted the GOP to a midterm landslide. Clinton’s political obituary was written after that massacre, but his fortunes changed dramatically and he was reelected with ease in ’96, with coattails that were just strong enough to carry Pascrell to the year’s biggest House upset. Clinton, supposedly, has had a soft spot for the affable, street-wise Pascrell ever since.  

Pascrell confirmed his loyalty in the summer of 2007, when he provided an early endorsement to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and stood publicly with the former first lady until the end of the marathon Democratic primary season, long after it had become clear that she was going to fall short of Obama in the delegate race. 

When New Jersey’s congressional maps were redrawn just before last Christmas and he found himself in a merged district with Rothman, Pascrell immediately recognized the importance of securing a public blessing from Clinton.   

Early in the campaign, a knowledgeable member of the Pascrell told me, the congressman called Clinton and the two had a friendly chat, with Pascrell making it clear what he was looking for. Clinton encouraged him to keep in touch, and then sent word two weeks ago that Pascrell should have his people draft a statement of support. The wording was finalized on Thursday, and Pascrell’s campaign sent out the endorsement Friday morning.   

Clinton’s decision to sign off on the endorsement came just as the Rothman camp was stepping up its efforts to keep him on the sidelines. They’d long been aware of the possibility the former president would take sides, but their concern took on some urgency late last month, when Clinton’s endorsement provided a potentially critical boost to Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Critz, a Democrat who—like Pascrell—was facing a demographically challenging primary with a fellow incumbent, Jason Altmire.   

Rothman’s team knew they had zero chance of winning Clinton’s support, given Rothman’s Obama endorsement in ’08. The 59-year-old congressman, who has long harbored statewide ambitions, had seen that move as a chance to stand out from New Jersey’s Democratic establishment and to build bridges to the African-American community. He was bidding to become the White House’s point man in the Garden State.     

But Rothman and his team believed they had a loyalty card of their own to play, one that they believed would compel Clinton to remain neutral. The pitch: As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1998, Rothman had been an emphatic Clinton defender, speaking out in hearings and on television. There’s also some overlap between Rothman’s Bergen County financial and political base and the Clintons’ network of supporters, and calls were made to the former president and his circle making Rothman’s case.   

“We had received what we thought were some pretty good assurances that it wouldn’t happen,” a Rothman source told me.   

Rothman himself played up his impeachment role in the Roll Call interview, boasting that “I spoke consistently day after day and night after night in defense of President Clinton.”  

Whether Rothman thought he was simply reinforcing a private understanding with Clinton or was actually trying to ratchet up the pressure on Clinton the stay neutral is unclear.     

Primary day in the 9th District is June 5, and Rothman remains the favorite. More than 60 percent of the new district’s voters are already his constituents, and he’s making a determined effort not to be outflanked on his left, as Altmire was when he lost that Pennsylvania race. Rothman’s first television ad played up his support for gay marriage.   

But the Clinton name is particularly popular in New Jersey. It was during his presidency that the state, which had last voted for a Democrat in 1964 before Clinton’s ’92 victory, was transformed into a Democratic bastion. And Hillary won the state lopsidedly in the ’08 primaries—carrying the two counties that comprise the 9th District, Bergen and Passaic, by 20 points. Make no mistake, Pascrell is still running uphill. But now, thanks to Bill Clinton, the climb isn’t quite as steep.   

CORRECTION: Primary day was given as June 8 in the original version instead of June 5.