By Matthew Frankel
There were few reasons for New Jersey Democrats to celebrate in the Fall of 2016, but we can take some solace that one of the only real Democratic victories nationwide came in the election of Josh Gottheimer to the 5th Congressional District.
Josh not just beat an incumbent, but created the foundation which New Jersey Democrats can build on – and by all indications, it looks like history could very well repeat itself in the 11th District in 2018.
Josh highlighted his opponent’s extreme agenda, countered with a moderate and mainstream philosophy, galvanized a community through a fair, honest campaign that contrasted the two candidates, and got into the race early and worked extremely hard. Two important anchors that created change in the 5th Congressional District was a great candidate in Josh Gottheimer and, from the outset, Josh’s ability to challenge his own district to reflect on whether the community’s values were truly being represented in Washington.
Now, for those who do not live either in Morristown, Montclair or any of the surrounding areas of the 11th District, lets recap recent activities.
Since January, a grassroots, politically unaffiliated group called NJ 11th for Change have attempted to engage Representative Freylinghuysen. The people who have lead this organization are not political operatives, seem to have no affiliation with any party, and certainly do not have a robust amount of money to spend, but, like Josh, through hard work, the use of social media, creating a clear message, and choosing effective grassroots tactics, a movement has been built in the New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, and momentum is growing.
The 11th District of New Jersey is a great example of the evils of gerrymandering. Prior to redistricting in the early 1980s, the focal point of the 11th was Essex County and a Democrat held the seat for over 40 years. Under a Republican-dominated state legislature, the focus of the district shifted to Morris County, whose population was dominated by Republicans and has since been one of the most reliable blue districts in the Northeast.
But like Josh Gottheimer, who chose to battle a popular Republican incumbent, NJ 11th for Change group has waged a highly effective engagement campaign against Representative Freylinghuysen. Every Friday morning, hundreds of people arrive to his office in hopes for a meeting to discuss his views on policy and his blind support of Donald Trump.
So far, Freylinghuysen has chosen to disregard this group. He has not addressed them during the Friday office visits and has not organized an open town hall since the election, and people are taking notice. Last month, at the last moment, hearing the new cries from the district, Freylinghuysen flipped flopped and chose not to support the Obamacare repeal, though in previous years he has had. And just this week, he finally decided to meet with some selected members of NJ 11th for Change group, but only as a response to a trip of three bus loads of members who traveled over 200 miles on a weekday to visit his DC office.
Now strong, active, progressive enclaves of the 11th District in Montclair and Morristown are demanding change and are motivated. Other areas within the District are now beginning to question Freylinghuysen. His pro-life and pro-gun stances have given voters pause. His stances against greenhouse gas emissions regulation, the Affordable Care Act, immigrants, and gay marriage have also become a liability. Most of all, voters are asking if we really want another vote in Congress that supports Donald Trump? The catalyst to this kind of district wide reflection began in the activism of the NJ 11th for Change group.
Have no confusion – the 11th District is now up for grabs in 2018. And the credit goes not to the Democratic Congressional Committee, not the NJ Democratic State Party, but to the volunteers who make up NJ 11th for Change.
Congressman Gottheimer’s 2016 victory in the 5th District stemmed from a district waking up and realizing that their representation in DC did not reflect the values of their community. Luckily, the District also had a great candidate. Now, because of the work of NJ 11th for Change, the table is being set for another domino to fall in New Jersey. The organization has challenged those in the 11th District to reflect on its representation, just like Josh did in 2016. The only question now in the 11th District, is do we have someone like Josh Gottheimer to run for office?
Matthew Frankel is a former Capitol Hill press secretary who is currently the CEO of MDF Strategies, a strategic communications and engagement firm. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his family and is represented by Representative Frelinghuysen. He has not participated in any of the activities sponsored by NJ 11th for Change