PATERSON - Since U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell defeated Bill Martini in 1996, he has mowed through a list of six challengers with lopsided ease in defense of his 8th Congressional District seat.
There is no evidence to suggest this year will be different.
Whipped in 2008 in this more than 2-1 Democratic district, Roland Straten is back this year to challenge Pascrell, the first on a list of GOP opponents to run a campaign against the congressman after taking a beating the first time.
"That's the reason I'm running again," the businessman acknowledged when PolitickerNJ.com asked him if the times changed in the two years since Barack Obama won the presidency.
"This time, I've got a shot. The Left doesn't know what to make of the Tea Party movement."
In 2008, with Pascrell on a ticket headed by Obama, Straten collected 28.6% of the vote to the congressman's 71.4%. It's about where most of his fellow Republicans clocked in over the past six years. George Ajjan garnered 29.2% of the vote to Pascrell's 70.8%. Jose Sandoval won 27% to Pascrell's 73%.
Still, the Obama factor two years ago gnawed at Straten. He felt he got caught in a national tide that washed him under early. Things changed in the interim. Chris Christie defeated Jon Corzine, and Republicans swept to victory in last year's freeholder races. Straten told GOP chairmen Scott Rumana (Passaic) and Kevin O'Toole (Essex) that failing the appearance of a self-funding Scott Sipprelle-type candidate, he would like to take another crack at Pascrell.
No one else materialized.
If the 69-year old Straten is little more than a GOP placeholder to fill a line on a ticket aimed exclusively at winning control of the freeholder board, he gives no indication that he's in this to lose.
"Inner city voters have given their votes to Democrats without any reward to show for it," said the candidate. "We have a jobless rate in Paterson of 14%. What is that is so good about that?"
Stunned last year with the loss of his freeholder candidates, Passaic County Democratic chairman John Currie said the presence of Pascrell - and Passaic County Sheriff Gerry Speziale - adds a positive dynamic to his party's ticket.
"Their popularity at the top of the ticket helps, certainly," Currie told PolitickerNJ.com. "They're both enormously popular.
"I've been around politics long enough to know you never say anything is impossible, but I can tell you the congressman is out there working extremely hard," added the chairman when asked about Straten.
Given the chance in conversation, the GOP challenger stays focused on the national scene and animatedly gets into the issues and goes after the congressman's record. "How many times is this guy going to make a mistake?" he griped, referring to Pascrell's aye votes on the Iraq War and healthcare reform, the first of which Pascrell later said was a mistake, and the latter of which the congressman admitted was far less than ideal.
Pascrell spokesman Paul Brubaker said Pascrell "remains a supporter of the public option," but accepted the second healthcare reform bill as an advance in that direction.
Anyway, regardless of the finer issue points, the numbers don't lie. The congressman has $1.6 million cash on hand, compared to $39,000 for Straten.
The district itself is apparently tailor-made for Pascrell.
A former mayor who still lives in Paterson, the congressman to start with commands a base in the biggest city - by far - in the 8th district, home to 54,614 registered voters. The next biggest city in the 8th is Clifton, with 38,896 registreds. Straten lives in Montclair - per capita one of the most Democratic Party dominant towns in the state.
"People were friendly when I campaigned in Paterson, but they actually booed in my hometown," he said. "We were even pulled over by the cops for driving too slowly."
The Paterson-Straten connection is longstanding. His family has run their business, Associated Fire Protection, in the Silk City since 1947. Right now, the company employs about 60 people and has not laid anyone off in tough economic times.
As he heads toward retirment, Straten, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam era, attempts to make the transition to public service. "Straten" signs stand all over the company garage. A big conference room has been converted into campaign headquarters. The challenger notes that he has spent his entire life in private enterprise while Pascrell has trudged dutifully from one government job to the next.
The pair have a history.
Straten served on the Paterson Chamber of Commerce when Pascrell was mayor.
"He's a helluva politician," Straten conceded of his rival. "I don't know how he gets small buisness people to vote for him. He walks around with this pro-business image. You'd think he was 100% pro-business. Bottom line is he's not an executive. He's not a doer. He's a BS artist. We worked together on the Paterson Economic Development Corporation. Check. I worked. I did all the heavy liffting, although he will claim credit for everything. I got $200,000 to $300,000 from area businesses, and Bill Pascrell could not get the city to put up 50 grand.
"This guy, he's amazing to me," he added.
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