Whatever their motives, the two Democratic presidents have waded into a very ugly, very personal fight.
Pascrell and Rothman were both elected to Congress in 1996. Both had been mayors of towns in North Jersey; Pascrell in Patterson, Rothman in Englewood. They were Democrats from neighboring districts who came to Washington to try to turn back the Gingrich revolution and they endured, each reelected seven times. Over the years, they developed a close friendship during train rides to Washington and over dinners fueled by red wine and cigars.
But when New Jersey lost one of its 13 congressional seats after the 2010 Census, state officials redrew the congressional map and divided up their districts. Faced with the prospect of retiring, running in another district or facing off against Pascrell, Rothman chose to challenge his friend as each tried to hold on to the most friendly territory they could find.
“Bill wanted to run where he was born and raised, and I wanted to run where I was born and raised and where I actually represented for the last 16 years in Congress,” Rothman said. And because of Rothman’s decision, the pair “haven’t gone drinking since then.”
Pascrell is clearly miffed.
“With friends like that, I don’t need enemies,” he said. “He’d rather fight against his ‘friend’ Bill Pascrell. We’re supposed to be winning back the majority in the House.”
Pascrell and Rothman face each other in one of a dozen primaries across the country spawned by the redistricting and reapportionment process that has forced incumbents of the same party to campaign against each other.
Rothman said the White House support should remind New Jersey Democrats that he’s the candidate most supportive of the president’s policies.
“With regards to the perception that President Obama supports me and former president Clinton supports my opponent, I’m extremely comfortable with that,” Rothman said.
For his part, Pascrell, who eventually endorsed Obama in 2008, said in an interview that he appreciates Bill Clinton’s support, but noted: “I have a voting record that is 94 percent in support of the president’s agenda. My opponent has a 91 percent ranking.”
As the friendship dissolved, each has called the other a liar and questioned his opponent’s Democratic bona fides.
“I’m respectful of his family,” Pascrell said of Rothman, “but I have very little respect for him now because of the campaign he waged.”
Rothman said he thinks the two could eventually heal their wounds.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.