Several hundred members of an equally vigorous throng gathered in the sanctuary of Temple B’nai Abraham (TBA) in Livingston Feb. 23 for a town hall meeting to address and berate Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) — albeit without the congressman in attendance. For now, at least, a cardboard cutout of the man who would draw their ire would have to do.
A group called NJ 11th For Change, which describes itself as a “grassroots, nonpartisan coalition…monitoring the positions and voting record of our congressional representative,” ran the meeting. The temple rented the space to the organization but was otherwise unaffiliated with the group.
NJ 11th For Change had sponsored three previous town halls, and like this one, Frelinghuysen, despite having been invited, has been absent from each one. The moderator of the one at TBA, Tammy Williams, chair of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, stood beside the small cardboard figure of Frelinghuysen and invited audience members to address their questions to it, in lieu of their representative.
For 45 minutes they did so, with many expressing outrage at Frelinghuysen’s evolution from a political moderate when he took office in 1995, to his current conservative voting record.
Remarks were directed not only at the congressman, but at the policies of President Donald Trump. Speakers denounced Republican positions on such issues as health care, immigration, gun control, abortion rights, and the Trump administration’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then a five-person panel took the stage to aim criticism at both the president and Frelinghuysen.
In a Feb. 22 e-mail to NJJN, Frelinghuysen said he was “happy” that his constituents “are exercising their First Amendment rights to engage on the big issues of the day.” But, he added, “my goal is not argument. My goal is to continue the same civil discourse I have had with my constituents over the years” by holding “telephone town hall meetings” or teleconferences with citizens in his district.
During the town hall gathering, immigration attorney Karol Ruiz saluted the synagogue and the significance of the meeting for the community. Citing the slavery that the ancient Jews endured in Egypt, she said many immigrants in America are in fact enslaved today, pointing to migrant workers in Immokalee, Fla., “who were found in trailers in chains and forced to work” on tomato farms.
Joel Cantor, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, told the crowd that popular support for the Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. Obamacare — is at an all-time high, even as Republicans increase their determination to dismantle it.
Livingston’s Democratic mayor, Shawn Klein, urged audience members to get involved in New Jersey’s upcoming governor’s race, “if you care about the environment, and you care about immigration, and you care about minimum wage.”
Also in attendance was Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Dist. 27), who said he hoped Frelinghuysen has the “moral compass” to change his positions in accord with those of his constituents.
Les Leopold, executive director and president of the Labor Institute and an expert on economic inequality, introduced a note of caution into the discussion, saying that not everything was perfect before the new administration came to power.
“In resisting Trump we have to be careful we don’t back into defending the status quo before Trump,” he said. “Both political parties drank the Kool Aid of what we called the better business line,” of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, privatization of social services, and trade agreements that hurt American workers.
The evening ended with cheers when a young audience member read a 60-year-old quote of a moderate congressman from New Jersey who denounced the anti-communist actions of fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “By remaining silent, we lend credence to the view that we prefer to risk losing our freedom than to offend a questionable asset to our party.”
The speaker was the congressman’s late father, Peter Frelinghuysen, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1953 to 1974.