The Frelinghuysen name long has been magical in Morris County politics. But as Rodney P. Frelinghuysen’s 24-year stay in Congress is winding down, the magic is vanishing.
“This is what I’ve been hearing,” said one Republican source. “He had a great 24-plus year run and he blew it all his last year.”
A harsh assessment to be sure, but the sentiment is not unique. Many of the GOP’s rank-and-file are unhappy Frelinghuysen was largely absent from party life and affairs during a time when Republicans lost his 11th District seat to the Democrats. There also is some discontent that Frelinghuysen dropped out of the race so late in the game – about four months before the primary, thereby putting Republican candidates at a huge financial disadvantage.
That absence continues. On Saturday, Morris Republicans and also some Democrats came together in Mountain Lakes to highlight the 40-year career of Frank Druetzler, who has served as both Morris Plains mayor and county freeholder. There were freeholders and legislators past and present. Assemblyman Jay Webber, the man who was on the losing end of the aforementioned race for Congress, joined his District 26 colleagues, Sen. Joe Pennacchio and Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce, in presenting Druetzler with a commemorative state resolution. There were speeches by many people who knew Druetzler through politics or even before he entered public life.
This was the type of event that’s made to order for the local congressman, but Frelinghuysen, who has been in public life about as long as Druetzler, was not there.
It’s hard for Morris Republicans to criticize Frelinghuysen publicly.
There is, as is said, a lot of history here.
The Frelinghuysen clan has produced public officials dating back to before the United States was the United States. Frelinghuysens have served as secretary of state and U.S. senators. One of them, Theodore Frelinghuysen, ran for vice-president with Henry Clay in 1844 on the Whig ticket. Their slogan was, “The country is a-risen for Clay and Frelinghuysen.” Actually, it wasn’t. The Whigs lost to James K. Polk, but the slogan is still catchy.
Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen served northern New Jersey in Congress for about 20 years, so it was only natural for his son, Rodney, to follow in his footsteps, That time arrived in the summer of 1994 when an ailing Dean A. Gallo gave up his reelection bid and recommended that Rodney Frelinghuysen replace him.
And that was that.
Frelinghuysen was endorsed by the county’s Republican committee to replace Gallo on that year’s GOP ticket and eventually in Congress. That really was a remarkable thing. Here was an open congressional seat – a juicy political prize if there ever was one – and all in the party just fell in line and essentially gave it to Frelinghuysen.
Sure, part of this was out of respect for Gallo’s wishes, but a lot of it had to do with respect for Frelinghuysen and his family legacy. Affection for Frelinghuysen, however, really went beyond all that. Money begets money and Frelinghuysen, whose ancestry includes ties to the families that ran Proctor & Gamble and the old Ballantine beer company, is enormously wealthy with a net worth conservatively exceeding $20 million according to financial disclosure forms.
But he never acted that way. Think of the old cliche about the difference between “new money” and “old money.” The former group is always anxious to boast about how much money they have; the latter group never does. That long has described Frelinghuysen. Anecdotes abound among long-time Morris politicos of the man everyone calls “Rodney” acting, relatively speaking, as an everyday guy. The late state senator, Leanna Brown, who served with Frelinghuysen on the freeholder board, told me that “Rodney” once borrowed cash from her to buy lunch.
As someone who began covering Morris County politics with the Morristown Daily Record when Frelinghuysen was still in the state Assembly, I must offer some anecdotes myself.
On a chilly and rainy day years ago, I was waiting in the foyer of the Famished Frog Restaurant in Morristown for a friend to join me for lunch when I saw a guy bundled up against the weather trudging up the street holding a bag. This was the congressman, who I did not immediately recognize. When we saw each other, he told me he was taking his shoes to a local shoemaker to get them repaired. Really? Here was a multi-millionaire getting his shoes repaired – in a rainstorm no less – as opposed to simply buying new ones. He made it seem as the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it was.
Frelinghuysen never was what reporters call “good copy.” He was always courteous, but never outspoken or willing to publicly criticize political opponents. Still, back in February of 2011 when I was departing the Daily Record, I got a call from Frelinghuysen wishing me luck and expressing sympathy that I had been laid off. That was a very nice gesture.
All of this makes it puzzling to see how the congressman’s career has evolved over the last year or so. Political observers know all the details. The congressman’s refusal to respond to weekly protests outside his Morristown office. His refusal to meet constituents at town-hall meetings. His bizarre letter to a bank executive pointing out that one of the protesters outside his office was a bank employee. And now, the fact that in the words of another Republican source, “He has dropped off the face of the earth.”
Party politics tends to be a series of campaign events, meetings, fundraisers, and other celebratory functions, When prominent people simply stop showing up, others notice. I tried twice recently to talk to the congressman. Both times, his designated spokesperson didn’t respond to my request. Of course, not talking to me in itself is no big deal. But Frelinghuysen still represents the 11th District in Congress. Part of that obligation is to communicate with the public and the press.
Now, the notion that Frelinghuysen is blowing all his good will is probably over-stated. You really can’t destroy a long career in a few months. But it’s fair to say that the way Frelinghuysen’s departure is unfolding is not helping his legacy.