Over the past year, I have received a fair share of news alerts that I couldn’t believe. After a while, the feeling of shock became unusual while sadness or rage became typical. But on Monday, January 29, my phone lit up and I was surprised in a way that I had not been in a long time. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey’s 11th District (and Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee) will not be seeking reelection in 2018.
During my senior year of high school, Representative Frelinghuysen came to speak to my small learning community, the Civic and Government Institute. He gave a short speech then took questions. It became obvious during the Q&A that he expected this to be an easy speaking event. What he got was a town hall, something he is not a fan of doing.
The students came prepared, after reading about his Congressional record, with heavy hitters. What he gave us were soft ball answers. The question I asked was about student civic engagement. After his almost 20 years in the House of Representatives, he lacked any formidable Democrat opponents that would lead him to need to engage more with voters. I asked him what he thought about the typically low turnout of voters aged 18-24 and how he plans to engage with that demographic in his next election. The June 2016 primary would be my first time voting. I was excited and would vote no matter what his answer was, but I wanted to hear from him why he thought I should go to the polls.
But after a few “hums” and “huhs”, the most Representative Frelinghuysen could tell me was that voting was important and that the way to get civically engaged with politics and elections was to “get off my fanny.” Yes, he really said fanny.
It was not the answer I was looking for, but I did end up taking his advice. I spent the summer of 2017 working for Democrat Mikie Sherrill’s campaign in a race for his seat. I joined the campaign team in the early weeks after her announcement and spent the summer working closely with Mikie and the main campaign team members. My perspective of the campaign and my enthusiasm for the prospective change is shaped by getting to know Mikie and the people of the 11th district I met along the way.
After 2016, there was a sense of Democratic skepticism that permeated the 11th and other districts around the country. Not towards the possibility of Democratic success, but this skepticism formed a strong litmus test for a capable candidate. Cook Political Report had NJ 11 at Lean Republican +3. How was this district any different that Jon Ossoff’s in Georgia’s 6th? This seat has never been competitive, and in the path to gaining 24 seats in the House, was the 11th worth the time and money? There was no more room for heartbreak. It may have seemed like a high road to take in the past, but that’s only because Mikie had not taken a shot at it yet.
Throughout this past summer, I watched skepticism turn into excitement. Mikie truly is the real deal. Her accomplishments include 10 years flying helicopters for the Navy all over the world, handling Russian and American naval communications, receiving a degree in Global History from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown, becoming a federal prosecutor and a mother of four. She has an incredibly qualifying resume. But when you meet her, you’ll see she’s more than that. She brings back a warmth to politics that reminds us why local connections are the backbone to the House of Representatives. On weekends we often went to picnics and community gatherings hosted in different towns around the 11th. After she would address the crowd, the line to talk one on one would extend a great length. I watched from the side holding the volunteer sign up sheet as people walked away smiling. When people came to me to sign up, they often shared their passion for Mikie to me. Then they would ask me, “Do you think Mikie has a real shot of winning this thing?”
My answer was always yes. Our country is in a turbulent time but we must not forget the power of the people. And the power of the people has driven this campaign’s success. It is the grassroots unaffiliated coalition, NJ 11 for Change, formed to hold Representative Frelinghuysen accountable for his voting record and promote positive Congressperson-to-constituent communication, that finally brought Representative Frelinghuysen’s harmful agenda to light in a local and national context. It was people who met Mikie or heard about her who in turn volunteered, spread the word and donated, giving momentum to this campaign. People showed up all summer and into the winter, in this district and virtually around this country, to support this race because Mikie has captured us all with her grit, might, heart and unflinching desire to serve this country.
Her success thus far led Cook Political Report to now label the 11th a toss up district. It also led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to mark this seat a key seat to taking back the House in 2018.
And after all that, Representative Frelinghuysen decided he was not up for this tough fight.
It might seem exciting for the Sherrill campaign that Representative Frelinghuysen has chosen to not seek reelection but this is not the final obstacle. We knew how to organize against him and his choices in Congress. But the field is now open on the Republican side for an opponent to jump in. The energy that pushed New Jersey’s 11th to become a toss up district and catch the eye of the DCCC cannot die. To win this seat we must not treat this race as one that is ultimately defined by beating the opposition. We must continue to strive for the triumph of democratic ideals. We need Mikie Sherrill to be our representative. We cannot tire now.
Contact Glynnis Harvey at [email protected]