‘We Didn’t Flip this District Just to Go Home and Say We’re Done’

When a group has a well-defined name – think NJ-11th For Change – the quandary is what happens when change actually happens.

Saily Avelenda, the group’s executive director, began thinking about that last summer, months before Democrat Mikie Sherrill’s election victory over Republican Jay Webber.

In a conversation Thursday at a Madison diner, Avelenda said she was ready for two possibilities. If the election brought good news, she figured some group members would declare victory and leave. If the election turned out to be a loss, she feared many in the group would be too despondent to stay involved.

She wasn’t prepared for what really happened? After Sherrill’s win, she said NJ-11th For Change suddenly had more volunteers than ever.

“My email blew up,” she said.

But there’s still the practical matter of what happens next. Recall that the group was formed around the idea of fostering change in the 11th District. And that has occurred. The group backed no one in the Democratic primary, but endorsed Sherrill afterwards.

“The mission is the same. The idea of change is still alive,” Avelenda said.

Since the election, NJ-11th For Change, has held a meeting to plan for the future. Similar gatherings are planned for January. A lot of effort is being made into forming “town teams,” groups of volunteer activists in each municipality. Their broad purpose seems twofold –  keep tabs on local officials and also gather support for the next election.

The challenge is that the next election is normally a snooze-fest with state Assembly candidates topping the ballot. While all elections excite political junkies,  the state Assembly is not usually on the minds of average residents.

Well aware of that, Avelenda said the group’s mission will have a lot to do with education. It will strive to make sure voters understand what state legislators do and why that’s important, which is where the town teams come in.
This in some ways would be precisely what the group did with Rodney Frelinghuysen in the 11th District.

Frelinghuysen had – or perhaps still has – a reputation as a Republican moderate. But the group examined his voting record and showed that really isn’t the case.

A recent NJ-11th For Change newsletter mentioned that parts of 10 state legislative districts overlap with the 11th Congressional District. It seems clear, however, that the group will concentrate on the two districts covering most of Morris County – the 25th and 26th.

Things already are underway in the 25th where Democratic candidates Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger launched their campaign last month.

The only Republican incumbent in the race is Anthony M. Bucco.  GOP Assemblyman Michael P.  Carroll is not seeking reelection, which likely means a primary fight to fill out the party’s ticket. One man already running is Brian Bergen, who is now a councilman in Denville.

Republicans are beginning to sense the changing landscape. Bhimani ran in 2017 for state Senate and came within about 2,500 votes of winning. Bucco said in a conversation last week that Republicans, who used to take general elections in Morris County for granted, now know they have to run more active campaigns.

There are so far no announced Democratic candidates in District 26, which includes Parsippany, the county’s largest town and one that has been trending Democratic of late. The Republican incumbents are Betty Lou DeCroce and Jay Webber, who just lost the congressional race to Sherrill.

One can’t deny the Democratic leanings of NJ-11th For Change. Avelenda, however, maintains that the group does not reflexively follow the party line. She noted that NJ-11th For Change opposes a redistricting plan being pushed by Democratic legislators.

Then, there’s Sherrill, who raised some eyebrows in liberal circles by joining the Blue Dog caucus, a traditional home for conservative-leaning Democrats.

“It was very visible and it was something people were not prepared for,” Avelenda said.

One response from the group was to ask Sherrill for a “town hall” meeting. There is obvious irony here. NJ-11th For Change gained prominence by pushing – unsuccessfully as it turned out – for Frelinghuysen to hold such a meeting. The weekly protests outside the congressman’s office were called “Fridays with Frelinghuysen.” At any rate, Sherrill has scheduled a town hall meeting for the week of Jan. 14 with more details to come.

A NJ-11th for Change newsletter suggests the new congresswoman is not getting a free pass.

“Congresswoman Mike Sherrill has her D.C. office lined up and her staff is busily searching for new office space in Parsippany,” it says. “We are told their requirements include PLENTY of free parking … so it’ll be easy for us to visit. Stay posted for news about upcoming ‘Mondays with Mikie’ gatherings. We all know that showing up in person is an effective way to convince a representative that you care about an issue.”

Generally speaking, Avelenda sized up the ongoing goals of NJ-11th For Change, this way.

“We didn’t flip this district just to go home and say we’re done.”

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