GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
We just heard about big money pouring into some of the congressional races around the country, and some of that money is breathing new life into the campaign of one unlikely candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHALOM IN THE HOME")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Bringing peace into the home is the meaning of shalom.
RAZ: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of books such as "Kosher Sex" and the "Kosher Jesus," and the host of a reality show that worked with struggling couples called "Shalom in the Home" is running for Congress. He's hoping to unseat the Democrat, Bill Pascrell, in a New Jersey district that is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Now, up until a few weeks ago, no one really took Rabbi Shmuley's campaign seriously, not even the Republican National Committee. That is, until a superPAC created to support Rabbi Shmuley received half a million dollars from the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is also backing many other pro-Republican groups. And now, the RNC believes the ultraorthodox rabbi may have a shot.
And when I caught up with Rabbi Shmuley this week, he admitted that after spending his life working to build bridges, it's not so easy to fight a political campaign.
RABBI SHMULEY BOTEACH: It is hard because what I'm trying to do in this campaign is translate my values into the political arena. And a lot of the things that I did on "Shalom in the Home," I'm actually trying to do in politics. I'll just give you an example. The United States really needs new values. I think that the erosion of our economy has to do with the corrosion of our values.
The problem with values in America is whenever you want to talk about values that really, really harm the country, like greed and entitlements and the breakdown of the family, we can't ever talk about those things because we get caught up in gay marriage, abortion and contraception. I call it the social-sexual trifecta. These things never go away.
So trying to change the conversation is what's really difficult. But I think it's an act of cowardice to simply say, look, you're a rabbi, you're supposed to be dealing with lofty matters. Stay in the heavens and leave us politicians to control the earth. No matter how challenging it is to our ethics or morality, we have to try to navigate these stormy political waters if we want to make things better. I care about America as much as the next guy. Am I supposed to always sit these things out?
RAZ: Well, here's a question. I mean, you know, you're a guy that lots of people like, and you had this show on TLC. And I wonder, did you ever sort of hesitate when you thought about running for office because, you know, you basically picked a side? You are a Republican. That means that there will be people who don't like you for that. And did you ever sort of think maybe I should just stay out of this?
BOTEACH: No, I never really thought that if I was going to be less popular, I shouldn't do this. Even my critics will confess that I'm not someone who's pursued popularity. I've been very disliked for many of the positions that I took. Look, I published "Kosher Sex" in 1999, and in my community, that was really frowned upon. So it was never really a consideration that I would be disliked because I would bifurcate my audience and I would suddenly be seen as a Republican. If anything, what made me hesitate was the question of whether I could achieve my goals in politics the way I've tried to do.
And the jury is out on that. I know that it largely cannot be done yet. The country's too partisan, it's too divided. But let me tell you some progress that I have made. I have been very critical of the Republican obsession with the social-sexual issues. And amazingly, I have not been attacked by the Republican Party leadership over it. I'm very close to Eric Cantor, the majority leader, who's a dear friend. We studied Torah together. He's never told me to change the message. I think I've also made some progress in just changing the language of the debate on the economy.
Right now, the debate on the economy is the Democrats say, you Republicans are coldhearted. You want to end social programs, and you want to give tax breaks to the rich. The Republican Party's response is, you Democrats are tax and spenders. All you're going to do is create a financial meltdown by just spending every last penny we have.
My language on the economy is that can't we all agree that what people most want is human dignity, and dignity comes from self-sufficiency and self-reliance? Nobody likes to be dependent on anyone else, and everyone loves to be independent. So the focus of our economy has to be to create greater financial independence at people of all strata.
RAZ: That sounds like you're trying to bring some "Shalom in the Home" to Capitol Hill.
BOTEACH: Yeah. I think with a family, it's a lot easier.
RAZ: How do you think your chances look? I mean, look, President Obama won 65 percent of the vote in your district. Bill Pascrell won the Democratic primary by something like 20 percent against Steve Rothman. You have an uphill battle, but now there is half a million dollars in a superPAC that is supportive of you. Do you feel more confident now?
BOTEACH: We have no clue whatsoever what the superPAC is going to do with their funding. So what I have to do is only focus on the things that I can control. We can control our own fund-raising. We can control our own messaging. We can - we're trying to do a lot in earned media, not just in purchased media. You know, for those who look at the congressional cycle every two years, the presidential cycle every four years and you wonder, God Almighty, I've heard this stuff my whole life. Same issues, same debates. Where are the new ideas?
I've discovered - it's only my opinion - the reason there's no new ideas in politics is that nobody has time to think. All you're ever doing is raising money. You have no time to switch on your brain and to really think through new policies, new ideas, new initiatives that will inspire the populace. So I've really tried to do things differently. I do not spend hours and hours fund-raising, much to the chagrin of the professionals who surround me. But, you know, I've said to them, if our ideas are good enough, we won't have to pay for media. And when you say to me, Shmuley, well, you can't win, look at the numbers, first of all, you know, Guy, miracles can happen, right?
And we don't think there'll just be a miracle. Bill Pascrell just announced two days ago 15 of the top political consultants in the country that he's hired to defeat a short, hairy rabbi with two full-time campaign staff. That's amazing.
RAZ: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is running for Congress in New Jersey's 9th Congressional District. He spoke to us from Engleton. Rabbi Shmuley, thanks so much.
BOTEACH: God bless you. Thank you.
RAZ: And a happy New Year to you.
BOTEACH: You too. Thank you very much.