Democratic voters see many losers in party schism, and one winner: Trump
By Tracey Tully
On Election Day in 2018, Cathy Brienza opened her light-blue colonial in a New Jersey suburb to dozens of Democratic activists for a get-out-the-vote rally. A freshman congressman, Josh Gottheimer, addressed a crowd filled with voters angered by Donald Trump’s presidency and hopeful of regaining Democratic control of the House.
It worked. Fueled by a so-called blue wave, Democrats flipped four seats in New Jersey, reelected Gottheimer and won the House.
Now, as another midterm election looms, Brienza is again thinking about Gottheimer. But this time, she is disappointed — and scared.
“He is undermining President Biden’s agenda,” said Brienza, 62, founder of Ridgewood JOLT, which grew after the 2017 Women’s March into a 1,400-member political organizing group based in Ridgewood. “President Biden is under siege. If he is not successful, we are going to end up with another Trump.”
A moderate in a swing district that bends at a hard right angle along the western and northern edges of New Jersey, Gottheimer, 46, has emerged as a key player in high-stakes negotiations that have cleaved the Democratic Party’s centrist and liberal factions and consumed Washington.
He is a leader among nine conservative-leaning Democrats in the House who initially said they would withhold support for a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that includes far-reaching initiatives, including measures to combat climate change and expand child care, until a landmark, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was approved.
Progressive lawmakers are now holding firm to a similar ultimatum, only in reverse, bogging down the infrastructure bill, which is seen as a pillar of Biden’s agenda. It includes funding to improve roads, bridges, airports and railways and expand high-speed internet access. It cleared the Senate with rare bipartisan backing, and polls show it has broad public support.
The standoff has imperiled both initiatives, and Friday, after meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill, President Joe Biden said that a vote on the popular infrastructure measure would have to wait until Democrats passed his far more ambitious social policy package.
“These so-called moderates, who really are acting like Republicans, are getting in the way of the president’s agenda,” said Harry Waisbren, 36, a Democrat who lives in Gottheimer’s district in Glen Rock.
Waisbren said he believed delaying sweeping action on climate change would be “catastrophic,” noting the torrential flash flooding in New Jersey that led to at least 30 deaths last month in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
“I’m concerned that they’re acting on behalf of their corporate donors rather than our children,” he said.
Gottheimer represents a large and varied district that includes some of New Jersey’s few remaining Republican strongholds as well as populous, affluent regions closer to New York City that are filled with liberal-leaning Democrats who helped propel him to victory in 2016.
“What I have said consistently is I believe both parts of the president’s agenda are critically important to New Jersey and to the country,” Gottheimer said in an interview Saturday. “I just don’t believe that we should hold one up for months on end.”
At lunchtime Friday, Jeff Bolson, a self-described “die-hard Democrat” who, like Gottheimer, lives in Bergen County, said he was worried that the brinkmanship in Washington could jeopardize the infrastructure bill and the climate change initiatives, both of which he supports.
“We neglected the infrastructure,” he said. “If the economy is going to move forward, we need to build it up.”
Still, Bolson, a certified public accountant, blanched at the sheer size of the $3.5 trillion package, which includes paid family and medical leave, an expansion of Medicare, funding for universal prekindergarten, and initiatives to slow and combat the negative effects of a warmer climate.
“There’s a lack of accountability when everything becomes free,” he said. “People need to have skin in the game.”
In rural Sussex County, where Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2020, many residents said they were supportive of Gottheimer’s approach.
“Anybody that’s willing to take a pause and seriously look at things, I’m behind,” said Rick Wahlers, who twice voted for Trump and owns a clock- and watch-repair shop down the street from Gottheimer’s district office in Newton.
“The government hands them the money and does not have any accountability for how it’s spent,” Wahlers said, adjusting the magnifying loupe he wears on his eyeglasses and uses to repair tiny clock machinery. “It’s way too much.”
Gottheimer, a prodigious fundraiser, has $10 million on hand for his reelection campaign, according to a July report filed with the Federal Election Commission — nearly five times as much as that for Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who has emerged as the voice of the left in the House.
Brienza, the Ridgewood activist, said she was concerned that Gottheimer was more worried about catering to the needs of wealthy donors than “creating an economy that works for everyone.”
On Friday night, after talks had reached a new standstill, Gottheimer issued a statement that criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for not holding a promised vote on the infrastructure bill and pinned fault for the delay on a “small far-left faction.”
“We can create these jobs and help invest in infrastructure this week if we just pass it and send it to the president’s desk,” Gottheimer said Saturday. “The other one’s not written yet.”
Still, fear that it all might fall apart and intensify pressure on Democrats trying to defend a slim majority in Congress in next year’s midterm elections was not far from the minds of many voters.
Sherouk Aziz and Yusuf Waiel, a newlywed couple who live in Hackensack, a midsize city, said they were watching the negotiations carefully, worried that the process could spell trouble for the future of the Democratic Party.
“This is kind of just one more issue that makes them look more divided and more broken,” said Aziz, 28, a software engineer and a Democrat who said she “votes left.”
“We are going to lose an opportunity to reinvest in our own country,” said Waiel, 25, also a software engineer. “And it’s going to cost them in the midterms.”