N.J. House Race Up For Grabs After GOP Incumbent Loses Wall Street Support

Oct 26, 2016
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New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett is facing the toughest reelection battle of his career. He's the chairman of an influential House subcommittee on banking. Wall Street firms have been among his biggest donors, but that was before the seven-term Republican made some comments about gay people, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: By pretty much any measure, Scott Garrett is the most conservative congressman in New Jersey.

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SCOTT GARRETT: If you say being for fiscal responsibility is conservative, yeah, I think I'm a conservative.

ROSE: That's Garrett speaking earlier this year on NJTV. He's the chairman of a powerful subcommittee that regulates the stock and bond markets. That job traditionally comes with some perks, including lots of support from Wall Street. But Garrett alienated some of his biggest donors last year. In a closed-door meeting with the National Republican Congressional Committee, Garrett reportedly said he would withhold his dues unless the party stopped supporting gay candidates. After those comments leaked to the press, Garrett found himself doing damage control.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If the party supports a gay candidate, do you have a problem with that?

GARRETT: Yeah. I have no problems with anyone running for office, and I support the Republican platform, which, I think you just mentioned, is supporting of traditional marriage.

ROSE: Garrett's campaign did not respond to interview requests for this story. In 2012 and '14, financial firms donated an average of $600,000 per cycle to Garrett's campaigns. After his anti-gay remarks, that number dropped by half. Todd Sears is a former investment banker and the founder of Out Leadership, a group that promotes LGBT awareness in financial firms and other industries.

TODD SEARS: There are real risks from a brand perspective and from a talent-recruiting perspective from being associated with anti-LGBT or anti-inclusive policies.

ROSE: Garrett's troubles come as the Republican Party is wrestling with how to approach LGBT issues. The party has supported a handful of gay candidates, which is what prompted Scott Garrett to withhold his dues in the first place. Democrats have been trying for years to paint Garrett as too conservative for moderate voters in the New York suburbs. It's never worked before, but Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, thinks this year Garrett is vulnerable.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: His anti-gay comments are just one part of a very extreme Tea Party record that's now out there. You know, and I think as you peel back the onion here, people say, wait a second; I didn't realize how extreme this guy is.

ROSE: People like Karen Gaerbotch (ph) - she's a registered Republican and self-described fiscal conservative who's voted for Garrett before.

KAREN GAERBOTCH: I started looking at Scott Garrett and what he represents, and it's not me. The woman's right to choose isn't there. Legal rights for people of all sexual orientation to get married is not there.

ROSE: Gaerbotch lives in Oakland, N.J., a leafy suburb about 25 miles from Manhattan, but if you keep driving west across this congressional district, the suburbs give way to fields and forests near the Pennsylvania border. The northwestern corner of New Jersey is where Scott Garrett lives and where his support is the strongest.

KEVIN KENNEDY: I know I've changed his oil many times before some of the big votes.

ROSE: Kevin Kennedy runs an auto repair shop near Garrett's house in Wantage, N.J. It's easy to spot thanks to a bunch of Garrett for Congress signs on the lawn. Kennedy says Garrett is soft-spoken, serious - a regular guy.

KENNEDY: I heard on radio they called him bigot and all kinds of different things. I mean...

ROSE: Do you think he's a bigot, or does that stuff seem unfair to you?

KENNEDY: I don't - I think it's totally unfair. I mean I don't know what it was all about. I don't follow it that closely, but anything I've seen from the guy - he's a gentleman.

ROSE: Kennedy says they've talked a couple times about this year's election, and he says Scott Garrett seems pretty nervous. Joel Rose, NPR News, New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.