New Jersey Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, a moderate who ousted a conservative Republican when he flipped his district blue in 2016, is getting primaried from the left, by a progressive who once counted herself among his supporters.
Arati Kreibich, a Glen Rock councilwoman and neuroscientist, is challenging the incumbent -- and his $7 million war chest -- hoping to capitalize on the same progressive energy that helped New Jersey Democrats flip four of the state’s five GOP congressional districts in the 2018 midterms.
The race in the 5th district contains many of the elements of the debate facing Democrats across the country as voters grapple between centrist and more leftward-leaning forces of the party heading into Super Tuesday’s primary contests.
Kreibich says voters in down-ballot races need to rally behind progressive candidates, like her, who will serve as a bigger check to the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. She says the proudly moderate Gottheimer is out of sync with his district’s growing Democratic base.
“Most of us feel really betrayed by his votes by the fact that he hasn’t really reflected our values,” Kreibich, 45, said.
Listen to reporter Karen Yi's story on WNYC:
Kreibich said she backed Gottheimer’s previous two runs for Congress -- she put up lawn signs and knocked on doors for him. But Kreibich said Gottheimer’s voting record has been disappointing, particularly when he helped whip up votes to kill a House amendment last year that would have added more oversight to migrant child care at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“He made me morally complicit,” Kreibich, a mother of two, said from her campaign headquarters in her Glen Rock home. “As someone who supported him, I couldn’t stand it.”.
Gottheimer constituent Cathy Brienza is a member of Jolt, one of more than a dozen grassroots progressive groups that popped up in the district after the 2016 election. She says the district needs someone like Kreibich, who she says better represents the district's values.
“It's not that we're gung-ho ideologically left-wing, we have a candidate who is a problem,” she said.
New Jersey’s 5th is the northernmost congressional district in the state. It runs from Warren and Sussex counties -- more rural parts of the state that both voted for President Trump in 2016 -- eastward to the dense and more diverse suburbs of Bergen County, right up to the Hudson River.
While there are slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, more than a third of voters in the district remain unaffiliated.
Gottheimer defended his border security vote and said he wanted to make sure migrant children received emergency aid right away.
“At the end of the day if you insist on getting 100 percent of what you want every single time, what ends up happening is you get nothing,” he told WNYC.
Gottheimer was first elected in 2016, beating out seven-term incumbent Scott Garrett. It was a bright spot for the Democratic Party on an otherwise bruising night when Trump was elected president. It was the first time the district -- which was redrawn to include more of Bergen County in 2010 -- elected a Democrat in 84 years.
Garrett was an arch-conservative, who had held the seat since 2003, and his far-right positions had even turned some members of his own party against him. He made national headlines when he refused to pay dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee because the organization was recruiting gay candidates. An anti-tax zealot, he went so far as to block a Republican mayor’s federal grant application for a fire truck, because he felt such federal programs siphoned taxpayer money.
Democrats targeted the seat, saying Garrett’s views were out of step with his district. Gottheimer, a former Microsoft executive and Bill Clinton speech writer, eked out his victory in 2016.
Since his election, Gottheimer has voted in alignnment with President Trump’s position 34 percent of the time, according to the data news site FiveThirtyEight -- that’s the fourth highest among Congressional Democrats. He also co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group in Congress that seeks to foster cross-party cooperation.
He said it's tough to be an elected Democrat in the district, and his supporters say they can’t afford to lose such a hard fought seat.
"When I had Garrett here, I was getting zero bread crumbs. With Josh, I'm getting a loaf of bread,” Warren County Democratic Chair Tom Palmieri said.
“Now, some people say they say he’s not enough of a loaf, they say, he’s not pure enough. I say, I was starving before. My district was starving for resources. He’s bringing resources,” Palmieri continued. “I don’t get how they forget that.”
Palmieri said Kreibich’s supporters make up a small fraction of progressives in a district which is just starting to trend blue, and there’s not enough of them to topple the deep-pocketed incumbent, who has secured endorsements from party leaders all the way up to Governor Phil Murphy.
Kreibich has raised $200,000, her staff said. They know they can’t go head-to-head with Gottheimer on the fundraising front, but they’re banking on a wide canvassing effort and brewing resentment to the Congressman’s compromises in the House.
For his part, Gottheimer said he can’t get stuck in ideological throwdowns, and prefers to focus on bringing resources back to his constituents. He trumpeted his successes in clawing back federal dollars to local communities, like federal money to buy fire and police gear.
“I want to deliver results for people in my district, that’s the job,” Gottheimer said. “The only way you do that is by actually working together and to me that is what people want us to do. They don’t want us to scream and yell and tweet, they want us to figure out a solution.”
On Tuesday, voters in 14 states will decide what direction they want the Democratic Party, and its eventual presidential nominee, to go in. New Jersey Democrats will have a bit more time than that. The state's primary is not until June 2nd.