Toward the end of his debate with fellow Congressman and Democrat Steve Rothman, Bill Pascrell was asked to say something nice about his opponent in the race for New Jersey's 9th Congressional District.
"I think he has been a loyal Democrat," Pascrell said. "When it suits his purpose."
That's about as cordial as it got in a debate Monday at Bergen Community College, in which Rothman doggedly attacked Pascrell's record, while Pascrell continued to criticize Rothman for running against him instead of challenging Scott Garrett in the redrawn 5th District.
Pascrell's current district includes Bloomfield, Belleville, Cedar Grove, Verona, part of South Orange, Livingston, Montclair and West Orange.
Rothman came to the debate prepared to burnish his own credentials as a progressive and to tear down Pascrell's on issues like abortion, marriage equality, immigration, taxes and the government bailouts of the financial industry. He accused Pascrell of voting to restrict abortion rights.
Pascrell supported a bill banning late-term abortion procedure and barring taxpayer money from going toward abortions. Still, both candidates say they are pro-choice.
"I vowed in 1996 to protect Roe V. Wade," Pascrell said. "And there's nothing in my record that would indicate anything else."
Rothman would rehash the point throughout the debate, even drawing boos from a raucous Bergen Community College that cheered almost every response, despite moderator Richard French's request to hold applause. Though Pascrell's supporters were more expressive in their derision, the applause test was a draw.
The crowd responded with glee when Rothman told Pascrell to ask the crowd to calm down.
"I just asked them to be quiet, but you're always a step behind," Pascrell said.
Rothman sought to establish himself as a "progressive champion," throughout the debate. He repeated an accusation that Pascrell voted to "eliminate estate taxes for billionares," a claim PolitFact New Jersey deemed "mostly false" in April.
The biggest quiver in Pascrell's bow was his well worn criticism of Rothman for moving out of Fair Lawn, now in Garrett's 5th District, and into Englewood, rather than challenging the Republican Congressman.
"You were afraid," Pascrell said. "You ran away. That was the challenge."
Rothman was born in Englewood, and served as mayor there.
"I ran in my home district," he said. "I was born and raised in the 9th Congressional District of New Jersey."
He accused Pascrell of compromising too often with Republicans. The candidates were asked to name an instance when they took a risk to work with Republicans, and Rothman said he couldn't recall one.
"There's a difference between negotiating in good faith with people on the other side of the aisle and there's caving in to the other side of the aisle," Rothman said.
Pascrell said he had worked to get 52 Republican votes to make the Great Falls in Paterson a National Park, and tried to work with the GOP on middle class tax cuts.
"You do things when you think good will come out of it," he said.
The two men are set to debate again on May 14 at Montclair State University, before the Democratic primary on June 5.