“I shouldn’t have to be here, I voted for a Democrat,” Susan Steinberg said at the conclusion of the third-Monday-in-a-row of protests outside Congressman Josh Gottheimer’s office.
The protestors accused the Democrat of attempting to obstruct President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda by trying to trim down the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation and for requiring that the bipartisan infrastructure bill be voted on before the reconciliation. The congressman has, in the past, accused those who object to his strategy as undermining the president’s agenda.
One thing is certain among Democrats: they all say they support the president. It’s just a matter of perspective, apparently.
And Republicans? They don’t even factor into the equation.
The demonstration at Gottheimer’s office was the product of a number of statewide progressive organizations which have been hounding the congressman, keeping his feet to the fire and letting him know that they will not tolerate any cutting back of the budget reconciliation. Indeed, as many of the signs carried Monday afternoon said, the $3.5 trillion budget, a historic piece of legislation which will spell out a huge spending program over the course of the next decade, is the compromise. Originally, a six trillion dollar reconciliation was demanded, but that proved too much.
So for the New Jersey progressives, the $3.5 trillion package currently up is the bare minimum and they will not go quietly into the night.
Insider NJ spoke with Joe Marchica, the Co-Chair of Our Revolution in Mercer County, who laid out his grievances with Gottheimer. He sees the reconciliation as the beginning, not as the end. “There is a laundry list of things in the budget that are positive progressive stepping stones towards the goals of Our Revolution. If you expand Medicare, that brings us closer to Medicare for all, but it also gets more people the coverage they need. Ending fossil fuel subsidies makes it easier to do something like the Green New Deal. The green infrastructure investments are in there. They’re big on their own and gets us much closer to where we need to be as opposed to the infrastructure bill, which was basically written by Exxon Mobil and lobbyists who put a bunch of stuff in there. That gets them paid, but it doesn’t do nearly enough.”
With respect to the congressman himself, Marchica, who drove up from Trenton to get to Glen Rock, did not sugar coat his words. “You’re clearly not going to lead on this, so follow or get the hell out of the way. The whole party is behind it, you’re the hold out. You’re trying to be Mitch McConnell-lite, stop it.”
Over the summer, Gottheimer has become more of a presence on national news outlets, rising from the relatively humble congressional delegation that New Jersey sends to DC. As a leader of the bipartisan problem solvers caucus, Gottheimer recently made stirs when he successfully made the House bend so that the infrastructure bill would be voted on before the budget reconciliation. That itself prompted protests from these very organizations which had gathered again. “I think he is trying to get attention for himself,” Marchica said. “You saw some of the stuff Christie pulled during his governorship because he had his eyes on higher office. He is putting himself ahead of his party. This is the first chance in a very long time for Democrats to do really good things for working class people. It should’ve been better, it should’ve been the $6 trillion that was the original plan. Progressives are working with party leadership. This is an actual compromise. This is for working class people if he actually wants to represent his constituents, and not his wealthy donors and corporate backers. Just vote for the damn budget, you’ll get both. These are all campaign promises. This is what Democrats ran on. I’m sick and tired of representatives who are bought and paid for not having the backs of workers.”
Marchica took issue with Gottheimer’s insistence that the bipartisan infrastructure bill be voted on first. “Voting for the infrastructure bill before the budget passes is voting against the budget because it allows representatives like Gottheimer to go in there and cut things. If you want the whole budget that has already been agreed to, you have to pass that with or before the infrastructure bill. Otherwise voting for infrastructure before the budget is voting down the budget.”
Gottheimer, however, believed that the infrastructure bill was so essential that nothing could be allowed to jeopardize it—and he knew, correctly, that by withholding support for the reconciliation he could leverage what he called a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to upgrade the state’s aging, crumbling tunnels, railways, and bridges.
It was a fairly safe gamble on his part and it paid off for the congressman. Additionally, it put his name further out into the American consciousness.
Progressives have said they want to oust him with a more left-leaning challenger in the primary.
Nevertheless, Sue Altman from New Jersey Working Families seemed optimistic that the pressure being put on Gottheimer was starting to pay off. “It sounds like there has been some movement in Washington. I think our advocacy in New Jersey with all these grassroots groups has made a difference. I tip my hat to those who made the decision to come out here. We have had different groups all three weeks. I think our pressure has raised some eyebrows in Josh Gottheimer’s world, and I think that has softened him up for some negotiations in Washington.”
Altman continued as the rally-goers chanted slogans and held up signs outside the congressman’s office, enduring the hot sun. Windows and columns had signed taped on, including a very large letter to be signed, intended for Gottheimer. “Certainly his rhetoric has softened in the last few days, which indicates to me that we will not be moving just the infrastructure bill but both bills, which is very important to New Jersey. I think he realizes that these issues are really important to his district–which is one of the more conservative blue districts. In these districts, all these ‘moderate’ Democrats have been the subject of a lot of attention. We know he canceled an appearance at a Mahwah event, and we have bird-dogged him at many events in the last few weeks, so he has to have gotten the message that this is unpopular if he is the obstructionist to Biden’s agenda.”
When asked if she had spoken directly with the congressman recently, she said she had not, but, “He knows where we stand. We have seen him on various media outlets, so we are pretty clear on where he continues to stand. I think the pressure needs to continue until this gets done. We are fine with a big strong infrastructure bill, but we are not OK with major cuts to this $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. We want to see him standing up for all these priorities just as much as he stands up for brick and mortar infrastructure.”
From neighboring Ridgewood, Cathy Brienza, representing Jolt Ridgewood, said that Gottheimer not only represented a problem with respect to the passage of the legislation, but also of imperiling Biden in the long-term. “To satisfy us, he needs to stop being an obstructionist and support our president so that he can be successful so that we don’t face a threat in 2024. He needs to back this budget which will provide clean jobs for New Jersey which we desperately need, it will help his constituents with clean water and air. He needs to serve his constituents and not his hedge fund donors who don’t want to see tax increases or money spent on this. He needs to get on board.”
The intra-party Democratic struggle comes at a bad time for the president as well as the people as a whole. If the party cannot even agree on backing a Democratic president while they have a thin but workable majority, they risk losing their best opportunity to establish relevancy in the post-Trump era. Many of the progressive activists were wearing Bernie Sanders-oriented shirts and more than a few Bernie bumper stickers adorned the cars in the parking lot.
For those like Gottheimer and his allies, the Bernie Bros represent an unrealistic, antagonistic element within the party that draws away from their ability to sell a meaningful deal to the country—or at least make a more palatable option for those a little less than Left. For progressives, Gottheimer “obstructionism” endangers the best moment they have to enact the kind of legislation they want to see—legislation which could never get through with an even fractionally less blue congress.
In the meantime, the Republicans are waiting for the midterms to try to get some skin in the game once more. Fringe calls for Biden’s resignation were wisely shot down by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who prefers to focus on the days ahead and winning elections. It is likely that apathy, disinterest, and a lack of a presidential race will not stimulate the Democrats to reinforce their hold, but quite the contrary. Midterms are often framed as referenda on the president, so Altman, Marchica, and Brienza have a legitimate concern.
In short, unless the Democrats get their act together, they risk being able to make a solidly credible case to the voters in the next election cycle. Presenting and delivering tangible results is the best way of defending the case for re-election. Gottheimer knows this.
That being said, most of the demonstrators were confident that the bills would be passed, Gottheimer’s actions notwithstanding. The question is, what will the budget reconciliation actually look like when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road? “I think the reconciliation will get through,” Brienza said, “but if it’s up to Josh it’ll get through whittled back. He wants to whittle it back because it’s what his donors want and because he can save face this way. Even if they throw him a bone of $100,000, he saves face. The problem is, he’s undermining our president and he will continue to do this if this is allowed. We need to build back better. We all do better when we all do better.”
In the 2020 primary, Dr. Arati Kreibich ran against Gottheimer, taking about a third of the vote. She came down to Gottheimer’s office to make herself heard with her fellow demonstrators. “Gottheimer needs to know that $3.5 trillion is a compromise for the reconciliation. He needs to hear that what is in the package are critical in investments both in physical and human infrastructure that we need in District 5. We are talking about investments in universal Pre-K, childcare, expanding Medicare services so that they include dental and vision and hearing, making sure we have a Civilian Climate Job Corps, expanding our social safety net so we can go towards social justice, and all the things we need to start recovery from the multiple crises that we have faced.”
Anna-Marta Visky, North Eastern Organizer for Our Revolution, said that they had been following Gottheimer very closely and were less than pleased with what they heard. “Two weeks ago we bird-dogged Josh Gottheimer at a high dollar fundraiser in Englewood. We were there to hear him out on what he is going to do in Congress on these two bills. To our disappointment, he was saying that the budget bill will have to be less, more focused, and he was using [Senator Joe] Manchin and [Senator Kyrsten] Sinema as cover for a much smaller bill. We find that extremely concerning as here we have a Democrat who is proud, and touting that he wants to downsize the president’s bill, which is at the bare minimum as it is. It has provisions that we need. These are minimal things where we are so behind other developed nations. So we have a Democrat willing to cut these things out. We asked him point-blank what he would cut out, and he did not have a specific answer. That is concerning because something will be cut out and all of these issues are extremely important.”
Visky underscored the frustrations within the party that seem to be plaguing the majority-party, perhaps even ruinously, as far as progressives are concerned, and certainly as far as presenting a united front to the American people. “How many times are progressives asked to stand behind a more centrist platform, and we always do? Our group has turned out to get the Senate and the White House. Even though he wasn’t our first choice, we worked so hard to get Biden elected so we can pass meaningful legislation to make our lives better. Here we have a ‘mainstream’ Democrat tanking Biden’s agenda, and that is unacceptable. We are asking him to come to our side and support us.”
While the progressives seek to paint Gottheimer as a self-serving, corporate-money-bound Republican-in-Dem’s-Clothing, the fact remains that the congressman represents a diverse district and has received a mandate in the form of re-election. Though the speakers on the megaphone blasted NPR and MSNBC for giving Gottheimer national press—but ignoring progressive voices, they say—Gottheimer has, if anything, strengthened his position by successfully leveraging the House to ensure a vote on infrastructure before the reconciliation. Likewise, Gottheimer, along with Representatives Pascrell, Sherrill, and Malinowski, spoke in Englewood demanding that SALT deductions be included in the budget reconciliation if their votes were to be had. “No SALT, no dice,” Gottheimer said, drawing a line in the sand. Though the brinksmanship game played in both instances are hardly DEFCOM 2, they present an opportunity for Gottheimer to solidify his demands, deliver on a package, and frustrate his progressive opponents while simultaneously keeping would-be Republican challengers waiting outside in the cold.