The ideological divide between Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Republican challenger Frank Pallotta was clear during a New Jersey Globe debate Sunday night.
Pallotta was unabashedly pro-Trump, siding with an administration suit that seeks to strike the affordable care act, pushing aside calls to condemn a domestic terror group while condemning Antifa and downplaying the threat posed by COVID-19.
“1992 called and they want their definition of racism group,” Pallotta said when asked whether he would condemn the Oath Keepers. “My supporters are my supporters. They’re not racist, they’re not xenophobes. They’re not homegrown terrorists. They’re good people. They’re your people. They’re in your district.”
The New Jersey Department of Homeland Security named the Oath Keepers and another far-right militia organization as domestic terror groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League both list the Oath Keepers as an extremist group.
The Oath Keepers were in issue in the incumbent’s 2016 race against Rep. Scott Garret (R-Wantage), who held a fundraiser organized by the regional director of the extremist group’s New Jersey Chapter. Garrett also declined to denounce the organization.
Skylands Tea Party President Bill Hayden, a member of the Oath Keepers, is involved with Pallotta’s campaign.
“They are anti-government, anti-law enforcement, anti-Semitic, blatant racists,” Gottheimer said. “I’m just saying this group that he’s arm-in-arm with one of the guys who runs it, will he please denounce the group?”
Gottheimer sought to play to his brand as a bipartisan, flaunting early his role as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, attacking “moocher states” and pushing his work with the administration on New Jersey’s veterans’ homes.
Pallotta sought to undermine Gottheimer’s record as a moderate, citing the congressman’s record of voting against President Donald Trump’s positions and for those held by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The incumbent declined to say he’d back Pelosi for another term as speaker.
The challenger also took the opposite side on moocher states, saying it was in the best interests of New Jersey’s fifth district that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell be re-elected and his home state of Kentucky continue to receive outsized federal aid.
“The money that goes back and forth to Washington, back and forth to the states is a function of GDP and the wealth of the states,” he said. “New York and New Jersey do pay more, and they do pay in. And Mississippi and Kentucky and the others do get it — it’s fair.”
Gottheimer said New Jersey wasn’t getting much for its end of the deal, pointing to Republican opposition to aid in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and, more recently, the McConnell’s derision of direct aid to beleaguered state governments as a “blue state bailout.”
“Time and again, the moocher states — these red states — they rip us off. We’re their piggy bank,” Gottheimer said. “I think the whole thing is a joke. We should be getting far more back here in New Jersey and getting our taxes down instead of sending these dollars to the moocher states who keep ripping us off and robbing us blind.”
The two were at odds on healthcare. Pallotta backed a Trump administration suit seeking to strike the Affordable Care Act, charging it helped private insurers and few others. Gottheimer wants the plan improved, noting the administration’s suit would strike protections for pre-existing conditions if successful.
Pallotta said he was with Trump in wanting to preserve those protections, though the president and congressional Republicans haven’t built a health care plan since public outcry killed their 2017 ACA replacement.
More locally, Gottheimer celebrated the firing of administrators at two North Jersey veterans homes where 143 residents died after contracting COVID-19. Pallotta said at least one of them should’ve kept their job.
“That CEO was fired for doing exactly what he should have done when leadership was missing,” he said of the Paramus veterans home administrator.
The Republican faced fire over his disregard for masks. Numerous photos on the challenger’s Facebook page show him at indoor and outdoor events were few, if any, people are wearing face coverings. In several, he is hugging maskless supporters.
Pallotta said he was following Centers for Disease Control Guidelines, though that guidance says to “wear masks in public settings,” including “at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.”
“People have made great sacrifices here in New Jersey to get the numbers down. We need to keep them down, and the best way is for people to wear masks,” Gottheimer said. “This confounds me. I don’t get it. I don’t get why he’s a COVID denier.”
Pallotta also pointed to the state’s low virus case numbers as justification, though the state’s average daily case load and positivity rate have both doubled over the past month as the state experiences a second surge of cases.
Gottheimer hammered Pallotta on his ties to the sub-prime mortgage industry, something the Republican investment banker empathically denied.
“I think Frank’s spent his career defrauding seniors and veterans with subprime mortgages, so I guess he’s trying to pull another fraud here on the voters,” Gottheimer said.
Pallotta said he was deposed twice on the issue, which led to the 2008 mortgage crisis that helped cause the recession.
“I was never involved in the subprime business, ever,” Pallotta stated. “I know that’s the talking point that Josh likes to throw out there. He likes to quote buzzwords like subprime. I was not in subprime. It was handled by a different area of the firm. It was handled by different managers. It was handled on a different floor.”
The two congressional candidates also disagreed on systemic racism. Gottheimer said it existed, while Pallotta said the opposite.
Asked what they’d do if offered $2 billion for a border wall or the Gateway Project, both chose the latter, though Pallotta initially said he’d like to give $1 billion to each.
The debate was moderated by New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein.