Rather than fight, Rodney P. Frelinghuysen is heading to the sidelines.
That’s the inescapable and harsh conclusion emanating from Frelinghuysen’s announcement Monday that he won’t seek reelection. And in no way can this be the way Frelinghuysen, R-11th, who has just risen to chair of the House Appropriations Committee, wanted to go out.
As the news reverberated throughout Morris County, reaction was three-pronged.
First, of course, was who would run to replace him?
Second was the realization Frelinghuysen was leaving the race only four months or so before the primary.
And third was the acknowledgement Frelinghuysen simply didn’t have the proverbial fire in the belly.
Let’s look at those points in reverse order.
The feeling here is that Frelinghuysen never has been the type of politician who liked a good fight. That has not been his style.
And it’s worth remembering once again that when he got to Congress in 1995, it was because Dean Gallo, who was fatally ill, resigned and recommended Frelinghuysen to replace him. Gallo was so respected in the party, there were no serious challengers to Frelinghuysen at the GOP convention.
Getting handpicked for a seat in Congress is pretty nice.
While in Washington, Frelinghuysen simply did not make much news and he always stepped away from controversy. When Picatinny Arsenal, a historic Morris County institution, was periodically threatened with closure, Frelinghuysen would publicly say only that he was “concerned.” Nothing more than that.
This under-the-radar approach worked fine for a long time.
Frelinghuysen was always easily reelected and applauded when he appeared at local functions.
But then politics changed. To say the least, Donald Trump has given a different edge to the Republican Party and he has also energized the opposition. There never had been real Democratic opposition in the 11th District.
Now there is. Part of it has to do with redistricting after the 2010 Census that moved the district a bit east into parts of Passaic and Essex counties. But the main factor was Trump.
Fueled by opposition to Trump and by extension, Frelinghuysen, a grassroots group, N.J. 11th for Change, has sponsored rallies every Friday outside the congressman’s office in Morristown, They have not missed one week and the rallies are now in their second year. That’s impressive.
Their initial goal was really very simple – get the congressman to hold a town hall meeting.
Frelinghuysen refused. An astute politician would have not only held a town hall meeting, but would have come out to engage the protestors.
If things got a bit hot, so what. That is, as the protestors like to say, what democracy looks like.
The congressman compounded his public relations problem over the last year with the profoundly idiotic move of writing to a bank official to say one of the bank’s employees was demonstrating against him. This stunt made the aristocratic and often well-mannered Frelinghuysen look like a street bully. And the person in question eventually left her job.
All that had to take a toll and one gets the impression the congressman’s internal polling was not exactly splendid.
But he did wait a long time to exit. There are many retiring Republican House members this cycle, but most of them announced their plans last year.
Now, would-be candidates have to do a lot of scrambling to quickly put together a campaign. The average voter probably couldn’t care less about that, but Frelinghuysen should have.
A seeming multitude of names are being thrown around as congressional candidates, not all of whom should be viewed seriously.
Some Republicans like Freeholder Christine Myers, but she just got a job with the federal Small Business Administration. How would running for Congress jibe with that?
Nic Platt, the former mayor of Harding Township, Frelinghuysen’s home town, also has been mentioned. But he just spent a lot of money on a losing effort for freeholder. That’s hardly a launching pad for Congress.
Of the state legislative candidates being mentioned, which is just about all of them, state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-26th, may have the best shot. He’s held state office since 2001 and has shown a willingness to take on challenges.
He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008, losing in the GOP primary, and way back in 1994, he unsuccessfully challenged the aforementioned Gallo in the primary. A big part of his campaign that year was opposition to Route 80 sound barriers. Really. One assumes Pennacchio will concentrate on more relevant issues if he runs again.
Perhaps a bit lost in all the planning and predicting is how Frelinghuysen’s exit impacts the general election, It may end up helping Republicans.
Democrats have been all hyped-up to run against a veteran congressman who is hiding from the public. Now that issue is gone.
Mikie Sherrill, who is presumed to be the leading Democratic candidate for Congress in the district, released a statement thanking Frelinghuysen for his service.
That was nice, but you have to think a lot of Democrats wish she would have been a tad more forceful. How about something like, “Because of my campaign and fundraising, Rodney saw the writing on the wall.”
No matter. One thing is clear. New Jersey’s 11th congressional district is going to be front and center this year, and that hasn’t happened in a long time, if ever.