HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY -- The Washington Post couldn't resist this one: "A blind rabbi walks onto a roof and announces he's running for Congress." And why not? The subject was Dr. Dennis Shulman.
Shulman, who is indeed a blind rabbi, is running for Congress. To judge by the coverage, one hopes he does not mind blind-rabbi jokes. As the August 2 Post reported, the New Jersey Democrat stood atop a D.C. rowhouse before dozens of Democratic fundraisers one Thursday last month to announce his challenge to Republican Rep. Scott Garrett. The host made cracks about fixing the railing.
This was two weeks or so after friendly New Yorker and Time magazine profiles made Shulman this year's illustration of the axiom that biography earns its own coverage in politics. A close corollary: Biography within driving distance of Washington or New York earns even more coverage. In this case, we get to enjoy it because one party -- the Democrats -- all but wrote off the district.
As both pieces recounted, the rabbi Dr. Shulman, born to a modest family in Massachusetts, earned a Harvard Ph.D. and became a well-known New York City psychoanalyst who trained many others before undergoing a midlife rebirth of sorts. He was ordained a rabbi in his fifties in 2003.
The author of The Genius of Genesis: A Psychoanalyst and Rabbi Examines the First Book of the Bible, Shulman looks the part of Homer and reads in print like a more Biblical and American Viktor Frankl. His book quotes Wittgenstein and T.S. Eliot. It's all a bit brainier than other recent literary efforts by members of Shulman's party. As far as anyone can recall, he would be the first rabbi ever in Congress and the first blind lawmaker since the World War II era.
Again, biography: Of all the hundreds of House challengers around the country, we wouldn't be hearing much about this one if competitiveness were the reason. New Jersey's Fifth Congressional District is at best a B-list race and probably a C-lister. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently upgraded the contest to its "emerging races" list -- which only underscores the write-off. It implies no real funding commitment.
An upset is not out of the question in the case of a "wave" or top-of-the-ticket McCain implosion. But the real action is downstate, where retiring Republican Reps. Mike Ferguson and Jim Saxton create genuine toss-ups.
THIS QUIRKY DISTRICT reminds us that "Red state" and "Blue state" often don't mean much at the local level. Even though the district edges within 20 miles of New York City, the incumbent Scott Garrett is the Northeast's most conservative Republican lawmaker (second-most, if one counts Pennsylvania's Joe Pitts). In fact, he'd be among the most conservative anywhere. Over three terms, he has a 100 percent lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union.
Garrett's press secretary contests the superlative. She prefers "fiscal conservative." Garrett himself, reached by phone Thursday, seems to fancy himself a "quality of life conservative." And indeed he has a suburban lawmaker's record of "open space" activism.
So, right outside New York City, shouldn't Garrett be vulnerable? No. New Jersey's Fifth is a district that hasn't helped elect a Democrat president since Woodrow Wilson. In 2006, an awful year for Republican office-seekers, Garrett was re-elected to his third term by a comfy 11-point margin. Despite the extinction of Northeastern Republicans generally, voter registration in this island of Republicanism leans noticeably rightward just as the post-2000 Census gerrymandering intended it to.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, explains that "It would not be realistic to expect the DCCC to spend a million and a half to take that seat without a poll everyone respects showing Shulman to be very close." He pointed to registration, election history, and post-2000 Census gerrymandering.
If Dworkin is wrong, the numbers don't show it. The October 2006 voter registration figures for the four countries of the Fifth District show a 191,500 to 176,500 Republican primary registration advantage. This actually understates the GOP advantage. The district slices four counties in a gerrymandered cleave-off of eastern and southern Democratic portions.
MSNBC's Chuck Todd, asked about it last month in a Washington Times Webchat, agreed, with a caveat. "Dems targeting Scott Garrett and NJ 05 in general is something I've seen a few times and Garrett always seems to win comfortably," Todd wrote, nodding to the obscenely expensive New York City media market: "It's just so expensive to win the seat." Short of a landslide, that is.
The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin sees it a bit differently. "Like New Jersey as a whole, the district has been leaning Democratic in recent years," he wrote in the July Shulman profile.
That's a bit of a head-scratcher. The best to be said for Toobin's case is that the two more populous counties voted for John Kerry at the top of the ticket in the 2004 election, and "name brand" Democrats like Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg can carry the two more populous counties. Meanwhile, in the same year, Garrett was re-elected to his second term by a 17-point margin (and 11 percent last cycle). Republicans retain a clear registration advantage. That's not the same as "Leaning Democratic."
Shulman's platform seems to be within conventional Democratic bounds for 2008: anti-wiretapping, pro-choice, and in favor of a "rapid and responsible withdrawal" from Iraq. He sides with big labor on trade ("I firmly oppose all NAFTA style trade deals, including Peru") and card-check legislation. On no issue does he stray noticeably from the party.
SHULMAN'S CAMPAIGN did not respond to repeated interview requests from TAS -- and, really, with the New Yorker and Time in the bag, why risk it? But I did have the opportunity to exchange e-mails with Carrie James, regional spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
I asked the basics. Will the DCCC upgrade Shulman from "Emerging Races" to "Red to Blue," which implies a funding commitment? Why don't Democrats target a very conservative Republican right outside New York City more aggressively? How is it that Garrett survives?
James didn't answer those questions directly. She instead touted Shulman's "powerful personal story," fundraising gains and grassroots campaigning as reasons that Garrett is running "scared."
The evidence proffered was a Garrett fundraising letter citing recent GOP special-election defeats in normally very Republican districts. "For the first time in Congressman Garrett's political career, he is being held accountable for his extremist record in Congress," James wrote, in language that might rankle 2006 challenger Paul Aronsohn.
Relentless pumping of a longshot candidate with a great personal story is routine stuff in both parties. But it highlights the ironic relationship here. Had the DCCC managed this race more heavily, we'd likely see another guy in a suit taking on Garrett. But it wrote the Fifth off, opening the door to a blind rabbi psychoanalyst with expertise in the Book of Genesis.