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RIDGEWOOD – Trouble may be brewing on Josh Gottheimer’s left flank.
Multiple liberal groups invited the 5th District Democratic congressman to a Monday night town hall meeting in this spiffy, and at times pretentious, Bergen County “town.” (The locals call it a “village.”) But the congressman didn’t show up.
Undaunted, the organizers put a desk and chair on stage at the Unitarian Society hall that included the congressman’s name in big letters, his photo, a note pad and even a bottle of water.
Then, the program ensued with many of the more than 100 people in attendance asking questions to the empty desk. But there was no reason to fret. Organizers said the queries would be sent to Gottheimer’s office to at least give him a sense of what was on people’s minds.
The first questioner really did size things up well. Acknowledging political reality makes it hard for Gottheimer to be as liberal as many in the room wanted, the man still wanted to know if the congressman could do more to publicly expose Donald Trump’s lies and alleged misdeeds.
Perhaps even a better observation came at the end of the 90-minute program. It was Naomi Weinberg of River Vale who said she wished Gottheimer could see that more than 100 people, all of whom likely voted for him, came out on a Monday night to ask questions of a man who wasn’t there.
Anna Wong of Indivisible NJ-5, one of the organizing groups, said the first communication to Gottheimer requesting a town hall occurred last December with follow-ups in February and earlier this month. Wong said Gottheimer’s office said the congressman routinely meets with residents at diners around the district in what he calls “Cups of Joe” events. Wong said that would not do. She and others said the diner events don’t allow for the broad engagement and debate that a formal town hall meeting does.
She said she thought this week would be ideal for a town hall because Congress is in recess. Wong said she was told Gottheimer was out of town on Monday.
Broadly speaking, it always seems puzzling why congressman balk at formal town halls with constituents. By nature, congressional representatives are able to speak on their feet and they should be well versed on the inns and outs of issues. So,what’s to fear? Declining to hold town halls can create a problem that doesn’t need to exist.
And in the extreme, steadfastly refusing to hold a town hall can turn out pretty badly. Just look at Rodney Frelinghuysen in nearby District 11.
Of course, the situations are different and in truth, Gottheimer must walk a pretty narrow ideological line in a district that combines affluent Bergen with more blue collar and conservative Sussex and Warren counties. Last fall, Gottheimer won reelection by carrying the Bergen part of the district by 51,000 votes; he lost Sussex and Warren by a combined 8,000. He also lost Passaic County, which only has two towns in the district, by about 1,200 votes.
Many of those in attendance Monday night said they long have been politically active. Democratic and liberal groups in Bergen County struggled for years before they helped Gottheimer beat the reactionary Republican Scott Garrett in 2016. So, some disappointment at Gottheimer’s often centrist views probably is understandable.
Not surprisingly, the questions posed for the absent congressman had a leftist bent.
At least five questions on what was the 49th anniversary of the first Earth Day were about climate change and the Green New Deal. Why isn’t Gottheimer supporting that idea? One woman said a communication from the congressman told of his support for climate change initiatives, but offered no specifics. Why not?
As for health care, if Gottheimer doesn’t back Medicare for all, a signature liberal issue, what are his ideas?
There were also questions about the congressman’s views on impeaching the president.
Gottheimer’s centrist views are bolstered by his leadership position in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan House group that says it seeks to beach the fierce partisan divide in favor of common sense solutions, The congressman sees his role as a huge positive.
But not everybody does.
Questions were asked about the long-term goals of the caucus with a few people fearing it can end up hurting progressive values. One woman wondered if by making nice with Republicans, Gottheimer will inevitably “give away our voice.”
But let’s come back around to the comment that virtually all of those in the room voted for Gottheimer in 2018.
Notwithstanding any growing angst, that’s likely to happen again. And Gottheimer must know it.
But does that get him off the hook in terms of holding a town hall meeting?
The Congressman issued a statement.
“Organizers of this event recently told the The Record that I am ‘accessible,’ which is, in part, attributable to the 37 ‘Cups of Joe with Josh’ Town Halls I have hosted, including two Town Halls past week. Although we invited them, I’m sorry that the organizers of last night’s event weren’t able to attend either of our Town Halls.
“Our Town Halls are not exclusive to one group of people; they’re open to everyone and my constituents can ask whatever they’d like. I’ve invited all of the participants of the groups hosting this event to my Town Halls on multiple occasions — and I hope that they will attend the next one on May 7.”
The statement was accompanied by invitations to Gottheimer’s most recent town halls in Ridgewood and Wantage.