Rothman (D-Fair Lawn) sat on a wooden stool in the commissioners' chambers of North Bergen's Town Hall Wednesday afternoon, conversing with some of the township's residents.
However, North Bergen is North Bergen, a township filled with political opinions and differences. When a meeting is held in the chambers of Town Hall, it's usually heated and contentious. Opposition ideas flow from the audience, even when not requested to speak. It becomes almost like a scene from "The Jerry Springer Show," without the chanting and fist-pumping.
While Rothman was answering questions from approximately 100 concerned citizens in the audience, the topics ranged from immigration concerns to the environment to the big business of pharmaceutical companies to Social Security identity theft, enough to keep the affable Congressman on his toes for the first hour. But when the topic turned to the war in Iraq, that's when the conversation became much more heated.
It turned into a typical North Bergen public meeting, complete with hecklers and dissenters, with the conductor of the meeting - in this case, Rothman - getting more and more vociferous with each passing syllable.
"I voted for the war," Rothman told the audience. "I was told by every expert that there were weapons of mass destruction there and I wasn't about to wait for another 9/11, so I voted to back the President to take them out. We were told by everyone in classified meetings that the threat of WMDs was imminent, that it could happen at any minute. As it turned out, none of what the President and his experts said was true. Do I regret that decision, voting for the war? No. I read everything from the far left to the far right and made a decision to protect our people."
Rothman's comments were met with some disdain, some of whom lashed out immediately out loud and didn't wait for a turn to speak. At that point, it was evident that Rothman knew how North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco feels at practically every meeting he presides over.
"I'm here to listen," Rothman pleaded with the audience. "The gentleman asked me a question and I'm trying to answer it."
"You're spinning it now, Congressman," a voice bellowed.
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In all, Rothman has visited 37 of the towns in his district (21 in August alone).
"We were going to make mistakes over there," Rothman said, in response to one heckler. "However, what part does the series of mistakes play? It's safe to say we did a bad job over there, but who's responsible? You can that it's all 20/20 hindsight now, but who's held accountable? "
Someone mentioned the President Bush's prescription drug program, and that touched another nerve with Rothman.
"I voted against it because I wanted to give the $187 billion to Medicare," Rothman said. "I love the drug companies and we need them, but I don't think they needed a $100 billion gift. Why can't we negotiate with them to drive the price of prescription drugs down? Could you imagine if they just gave that money to Medicare? There are times I do vote with the Republicans, and this was not one of them."
Another resident, Bill McLellan, asked Rothman about the overdevelopment along the Hudson River.
"I share the feeling on overdevelopment and building on every square inch of land," Rothman said. "It's absolutely nuts, just so you can get some ratables? At some point, it has to be enough. In terms of quality of life, we already live in the most densely populated area in the most densely populated state in the country. That's saying a lot. I think I'm passionate about it. It's a disgrace the way these municipalities overdevelop."
Rothman, who has fought for open space in the Meadowlands region, found himself saying these words in a town that has approved four new residential housing complexes in the last year to be built along the Hudson River waterfront.
With all the topics and controversies jammed into 90 minutes, it's not easy for everyone to get their say and hear the congressman's response. Even though Rothman had another "listening session" scheduled in Edgewater Wednesday afternoon, he remained with his North Bergen constituents for over the 90-minute allotted period.
"It's good for the people to see me and it's good for me to hear them," Rothman said later. "It's scheduled for 90 minutes, but the time goes by in a heartbeat. Everyone has so much to say, and I feel the same way. I could stay there forever. People enjoy these opportunities, and so do I."
Was North Bergen more spirited than others?
"I think this is one of the great satisfactions that the people of North Bergen have," Rothman said. "They have an opportunity to come to Town Hall and speak to their congressman and say what's important to them. Then I go back to Washington and figure out if there's a way to solve their problems. It's important to have them ask why things are happening. I think this was typical of about 70 percent of the sessions we had. I just wish we had more time. This was great. The people are usually very knowledgeable about the issues."
After the session, some of the more vocal people in the audience applauded Rothman's appearance. North Bergen resident John Amato is a conservative Republican who believed that Rothman's appearance was in conjunction with the upcoming presidential election - although Rothman never once mentioned Democratic candidate John Kerry.
"I respect his viewpoint, although I believe his stance on the war is biased," Amato said. "He spoke of some legitimate issues like immigration and the borders. You can't answer everything in a setting like this. I give him credit. He did have his moments."
Amato was quick to point out another factor that gave Rothman distinction over other elected officials.
"You don't see Nick Sacco doing something like this or [Assemblywoman] Joan Quigley or Albio Sires," Amato said. "This was definitely good to hear what he had to say."
Joe Chesaris, a fellow North Bergen resident who was concerned about the overdevelopment of the Two River Meadow Bay area in the Meadowlands, also applauded Rothman's efforts.
"I attend a lot of public hearings and this was one of the best," Chesaris said. "In others, you have the police there ready to take you out if you have something to say. I give him a lot of credit for doing this."
Rothman said he would be glad to return to North Bergen to conduct a similar session in the future.
"I loved it," Rothman said. "These people got my juices flowing."