WASHINGTON — History was made in the race for New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District even with Election Day some six weeks away.
On Sept. 21, two blind men — Democratic challenger Dennis Shulman and Barry Honig, a surrogate for the Republican incumbent, Scott Garrett — squared off at a campaign forum.
“My guess,” said Honig, a failed state Senate candidate who served as Bergen County chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, is that “you could search the annals of history” and not find another instance of “two very affiliated blind Jews” engaging in a political debate.”
Of course, Shulman has higher aspirations. He not only is seeking to become the first blind person in nearly 70 years to serve in the U.S. Congress, but also the first rabbi.
In Garrett, a three-term incumbent, the 58-year-old Shulman faces a conservative Republican known in many pro-Israel circles as a reliable friend. Polls show Garrett with a comfortable advantage.
Israel has not yet been an issue in the campaign, despite a clear clash of visions and attitudes in that area.
Garrett has the support of the New Jersey-based NORPAC, the largest pro-Israel political action committee in the country. Shulman, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the new J Street PAC, which sees itself as an alternative to traditional pro-Israel groups because of its championing of increased U.S. involvement in the peace process.
“It’s a great microcosm” for the debate going on in the Jewish community, said J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. Shulman, he adds, is “the perfect person” to be carrying the J Street message.
NORPAC’s president, Ben Chouake, expressed admiration for Garrett’s record and said his group’s “general policy in a race” is to “support a friendly incumbent.”
Shulman says J Street has a “pro-peace, pro-Israel agenda” that reflects what he describes as “most people’s attitudes here in the United States and in Israel” — support for “muscular diplomacy” in the Middle East.
Garrett counters that he believes Israel should make its own decisions on such matters and “not be interfered with,” and that J Street and the Democratic candidate support a “divided Jerusalem.”
Shulman has been taking his shots at Garrett, including accusing the incumbent of taking an improper tax break on his property and claiming that he is too close to a mortgage company that contributed to the current financial crisis.
Garrett responds that the Shulman campaign “does not know what the facts are” regarding his property, stating that his brother farms the land in accordance with state property tax law. As for being too close to Countrywide Financial, Garrett says his “actions have been contrary to the positions of Countrywide,” such as his vote against the bailout bill and his past calls for investigation into the mortgage crisis.
Shulman’s campaign stresses that Garrett is too conservative for the district, which includes the upper-middle-class towns of Ridgewood, Paramus and Tenafly in Bergen County, as well as parts of several other counties, including Sussex.
Shulman cites Garrett’s continued support of the Iraq war, the incumbent’s 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, and his opposition to abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
In response, Garrett tells JTA, “If it’s conservative to say we need to help the middle class, then I’m a conservative.” The congressman says he believes that his constituents are sending “too much money to Washington” without getting enough benefit in return.
Garrett rebukes Shulman for running a negative campaign.
“My opponent has done nothing but criticize me,” Garrett said.
Shulman started losing his sight as a child due to bilateral optic atrophy and was blind by the age of 15. He is a graduate of Brandeis University and earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from Harvard.
Always “involved in synagogue life,” Shulman’s interest in becoming a rabbi was piqued when he did research for a psychology lecture dealing with the binding of Isaac. Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 2003, he currently serves as associate rabbi at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine, N.J.
With the potential to be the first rabbi, and the first blind person to serve in Congress since 1941, Shulman has been the focus of the national media — including the New Yorker and Time Magazine — as well as a bunch of jokes that begin, “Did you hear the one about the blind rabbi?”
Shulman says he doesn’t mind.
“I like it if it helps to get the message out,” he said.
Shulman says technological developments should prevent his blindness from posing any problems on Capitol Hill. A “speech synthesizer” reads him e-mails and anything else on his computer screen.
Blindness, Shulman says, has taught him that “people get too wrapped up in ideology” at the expense of simple problem solving.
Emphasizing that he is a “major proponent of the separation of church and state,” Shulman says voters often are intrigued by his background as a rabbi.
Fellow “people of faith” can identify with why he wants to run, he said, while others are interested in the “ethical tradition” he promises to follow.
Even with Shulman’s aggressive campaign, Garrett remains a clear favorite. A September poll had the incumbent ahead, 49 percent to 34 percent, and the Cook Political Report rates the race “likely Republican.” An expert in New Jersey politics says Shulman has an uphill climb over the next month.
“He has an outside shot,” said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s very difficult for any Democrat” to win in the district, he said, because it was drawn to favor a Republican.
While independents comprise a plurality in the district, many lean toward the GOP, Dworkin said. The same September poll showing Garrett in the lead had John McCain winning the district by 15 points in the presidential race.
Dworkin says Shulman will spend more money than any previous challenger against Garrett, but isn’t sure if some of the Democrat’s negative attacks will resonate when the economy has become such a dominant issue.
If Shulman does overcome the odds, he won’t leave his rabbinic career behind. He has continued to lead a Shabbat morning minyan at his synagogue throughout the campaign, and says he plans to return every Shabbat once elected, congressional duties permitting.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, “to have a certain balance in one’s life.”