Paterson—Editors of several small area newspapers met with Rep. Bill Pascrell of the 37th Congressional District, a district that was re-zoned for last year’s congressional elections and now includes southern Bergen County, including parts of Teaneck and Englewood. About two dozen editors and reporters participated, most from the area’s smaller weekly newspapers. Some were veterans from long-standing hometown papers, some were young staff from newer papers. A passionate fan of Peter Zanger, Pascrell says does not believe in muzzling or misinforming the press. And, shades of the high school and college teacher he was for 12 years, he suggested that if they never heard of Zenger, reporters should look him up. Pascrell also said he reads as many local newspapers as he can to take the pulse of his constituents.
Pascrell’s district is highly diverse, with recent growth in the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Columbian, Jewish and Muslim communities. He has lived in Paterson all his life and loves that dynamic environment. He served two terms as the city’s mayor and represented it and its environs in the NJ State Assembly. He understands ethnic pride, being the long-standing co-chair of a group of Italian-American Congressmen and a devout Catholic, who nonetheless respects a woman’s right to choose, although he is personally against abortion except to save the life of the mother.
Pascrell believes his job is to stay in close touch with the people in his district and help veterans, seniors, victims of mortgage foreclosures and flood damage, and anyone else who needs it to get help from federal agencies—which is why he opened satellite offices in Englewood and Lyndhurst.
While he has to deal with problems like Syria, the Middle East, climate change, and gun violence, constituent services are just as important. “I want to be close to the people, so they know I care about them.” He laments that politicians who have never served in local office don’t understand the need for the “boots on the ground” approach to serving. “In my offices, we listen to people’s problems and try to help them.”
He admits, “It is tough to get things done “because of inter-party and inter-area battles.” When the vast majority of federal flood aid was slated to go to shore communities, Pascrell fought for aid to towns like Hoboken, Moonachie, and Little Ferry. “We have major problems there too, and if we don’t do something about them, it could get worse.”
Pascrell voted to provide federal aid to southern states that suffered natural disasters, but their Tea Party representatives refused to help New Jersey when the state was devastated by Superstorm Sandy. According to Pascrell, because of Tea Party-types’ unwillingness to fund preparations for natural disasters, there is little money left for new projects. “They wanted to get rid of earmarks, now they realize that some earmarks provided funds for essential local needs. Sequestration has cut at least 85 programs that will affect everyone. But I’m going to be like a dog with a bone on dredging rivers like the Passaic and the Saddle River and building berms along their flood zones. I have had to get the Army Corps of Engineers to do something about these problems.”
He added, “Wait until I open my mouth in the governor’s race. Who in the federal government gave them permission to use Sandy money intended to market the shore, to put the governor’s face in ads in an election year? Who said that was an OK use of taxpayers’ money?”
As a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means Committees, all areas of federal activity come under his scrutiny. “I am on the Budget Committee in order to harangue Paul Ryan and his lieutenant, Congressman Scott Garrett.” (Garrett, according to Votesmart.org is one of the most conservative congressmen in the House, and represents a goodly chunk of Bergen County, including parts of Teaneck, Bergenfield and New Milford. He voted against FEMA funding for Bergen residents. He lives in Stanhope.)
Among Pascrell’s top priorities is education. He believes the government should equalize opportunities for everyone and provide incentives for the best education possible for each person, from pre-K through post-secondary schools. “Maybe not everyone needs to go to college. Community colleges are a fantastic idea... For some reason, we have almost made labor a dirty word in America, but we certainly need plumbers and truck drivers. Such jobs provide good income and satisfaction to those who ply those trades. ...We are also short of doctors and others in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions and occupations, so instead of providing more visas for foreign STEM workers, who work for lower wages, we should be doing a better job of educating our own people.”
He said our school systems should also be doing a better job on Special Ed and ESL (English as a Second Language). “We need to provide more federal funding for Special Ed. They haven’t yet met their commitment. Special Ed kids should be able to work to their full capacities. ...The federally run Race to the Top has some good incentives, but has supplanted some old problems with some new ones. ... Yes, we have to measure what works, but we need less testing of students. What we need is more teachers and better programs. We need to give teachers more latitude. When I taught, I was always in trouble for pushing the envelope. But students want their teachers to be leaders. ...The funds we put into education are not costs, they are the best kind of investment.”
Pascrell, who visited Afghanistan last year, is well-versed in foreign policy as well. “We can’t become isolationists, either diplomatically or militarily. No one is considering the possibility of reducing our commitments to Israel, but we are now building alliances with Muslim countries to help us achieve our goals.... and as far as Turkey is concerned, they need to get smart, and improve relations with Israel. But we are learned from our military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we should not rush into Syria militarily before our intelligence agencies determine what kind of government each group there is fighting for. The president has the right approach, supplying only certain rebels with certain arms.”
But Pascrell never gave a “rubber stamp” to any of the president’s decisions. “We are not going to commit troops to Syria. You can bet on that. I would not be surprised if we could get the Russians to melt a little to permit a no-fly zone.”
Concerning Israel more directly, he said “There is hope for a two-state solution. We are closer than we have been in 13 years.” At Camp David, Yasser Arafat walked away because he was looking over his shoulder, fearing that he could not sell such a deal to his people or his allies and would be shot. Just before Arafat died, Pascrell went to meet him with a delegation of Jewish colleagues as witnesses. The Congressman was vilified by some Jewish organizations for meeting with Arafat in the first place, and was picketed by Arab-Americans for not protesting the Israeli settlements in the second. “If you’re pissing off both sides, you must be doing something right,” he said. The big problem is the cultural divide. “Not understanding the local culture is what got us into trouble in Vietnam. And calling for elections in Gaza got us Hamas control of the Strip.
“International terrorism has caused a significant shift in our need to be prepared. We are no longer defending ourselves from one country at a time, but from a multitude of widespread groups. Intelligence gathering is vital to our ability to defend ourselves. But, I voted in the minority to limit the NSA. We are on a slippery slope. While the NSA was briefing members of the intelligence oversight committees, there were no adequate briefings for regular congressmen.” The FISA Court, he says is suspect. While it is supposed to be independent, it consists entirely of Republicans, and they approve almost all warrants presented to them. Hopefully we can get some good legislation to correct these problems.”
Asked about security measures in his Northern New Jersey, Pascrell said we have extraordinary needs because the area contains many high-profile targets. “One of my priorities is to get funds for the Port Authority police and state troopers, to protect our bridges and tunnels, our large oil and gas tanks in places like Elizabeth, and our many chemical plants. It took some time to convince the chemical companies to invest in adequate precautions, but, kicking and screaming, they have come along.
“Crime may not come up as a top priority in polls, but the lack of jobs, health costs, and crime are eating away at our society. And we need a no-holds barred conversation about each of them. I have to put triple locks on my doors while we are pouring huge sums into Homeland Security rather than fighting domestic violence and other crimes. We have gangs running parts of many cities. The violence and crime problems in our suburbs are extraordinary and growing. We have not allocated the resources needed to deal with these problems. Local police forces have been slashed all over the state, and I don’t see anything on the federal or state level to adequately face up to the problem.
And when the Congressman was asked why are we afraid to put white-collar criminals in jail, he said, “Because we’re Chicken with a capital C! We’re afraid that the big banks and other financial institutions are too big to fail. “I don’t want to run Wall Street, I just want them to play fair with the people. We have to treat everyone equally. America is for everybody.”
By Stephen Tencer Special to JLBC