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Frelinghuysen shows his public face
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Frelinghuysen shows his public face

NJ Hadassah hosts conversation with elusive congressman

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen chats with Stephanie Bonder, immediate past president of Hadassah’s Northern NJ region. Photos by Robert Wiener
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen chats with Stephanie Bonder, immediate past president of Hadassah’s Northern NJ region. Photos by Robert Wiener

Peppi Glass of Morris Plains is both a member of Hadassah’s Northern New Jersey region and a participant in NJ 11th For Change, an advocacy group that opposes Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s (R-Dist. 11) votes on many domestic issues. The group has sought in vain to schedule meetings with him since their formation after President Donald Trump’s election.

“He has avoided every opportunity to hold town meetings and he is not responsive to calls or letters” she told NJJN. “He has not been responsive to us as constituents.”  

So far Frelinghuysen has held five phone-in meetings with constituents in 2017, according to his office. He’s been criticized for not appearing or scheduling public town hall meetings. 

Though Frelinghuysen has not been willing to meet in recent months in public town meetings with other constituents, “over the years Hadassah has developed a relationship” with him, according to Stephanie Bonder of West Caldwell, immediate past president of the Hadassah chapter and a member of the organization’s national advocacy team. That relationship smoothed the way toward convincing the oft-under fire congressman to meet with the members on July 10 at the Caldwell Diner.

Anxious about proposed cuts in foreign aid that could adversely affect its two hospitals in Jerusalem, members of Hadassah won a tentative commitment from Frelinghuysen that he would support two measures affecting medical care overseas.

At the top of Hadassah’s agenda is continued funding for two programs. One would affect federal aid to American hospitals abroad. The other would waive import taxes on medical equipment shipped overseas. Hadassah estimates these programs are worth $30 million a year for the organization.

“That is really our highest priority,” said Bonder.

Although the congressman gave no guarantees of support for either request during the 22-minute meeting, his field representative, Nick D’Alessio, told Bonder that Frelinghuysen would probably support the two proposals.

The aide seemed to assure me and he said he would, but I can’t say it was anything definitive,” she told NJJN after the meeting.

When it came to Israel, the congressman told the women who attended Monday’s gathering, “I support what you do. I’ll be very frank. I’m very much in favor of the Iron Dome program and the David’s Sling program,” two anti-missile defense systems. He pledged his continued support of those programs. 

A congressman since 1995, Frelinghuysen wore a white, long-sleeved button-down shirt and sported a red-on-beige tie adorned with elephants, the symbol of the Republican Party.

Turning to medical issues, Bonder said she was troubled that far more research funds are spent on men’s heart attack research than on women’s, noting that “heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined, and yet only 30 percent of those in clinical studies are women…and women present symptoms different than men.” 

She urged that “essential benefits” not be stricken from the Trump administration’s proposed American Health Care Act, which was approved by the House but has stalled in the Senate. “Women’s health care is a primary concern and it is very distressing when you see a roomful of men deciding whether women should be able to get mammograms.”

Without responding directly, Frelinghuysen tried to convince the attendees of his dedication to women’s causes by touting the five “very important women” in his life, including his wife, daughters, and granddaughters. 

Until a decade ago, Frelinghuysen said, federal agencies “really hadn’t factored women into the human equation,” and “oftentimes children were being neglected.” Now, he said, there is bipartisan focus on women’s issues, particularly on those in the military and in the workplace. 

Questioned as to whether he has weakened in his support of abortion rights, Frelinghuysen said, “I serve in a Congress where there are probably a handful of us Republicans who are pro-choice. I can’t change the dynamic of the men and women who have been elected.”  

When one of the Hadassah members urged him to “stand firm,” he responded, “Don’t worry.” 

“It is a very pro-life caucus, but I have always been very pro-choice.” 

Pressing Frelinghuysen on his opposition to gun control legislation, Bonder urged him to back stronger regulations on guns.

“On the Republican side, most people believe in the right to bear arms,” he responded without taking a stance, noting that “We have very much of a Second Amendment Republican caucus.”

After he left the diner, Hadassah members had varying views about his presentation.

“I think he was very positive to us and he said what we wanted to hear,” said Bonder. “He may agree with our way of thinking, but the majority of the Republicans do not.”

Despite being pleased that he took time to meet with them, some Hadassah members are concerned that the once-moderate Frelinghuysen is becoming more conservative and less sympathetic to their domestic agenda.

West Caldwell resident Gail Block, president of Hadassah of Northern New Jersey, said, “he used to be on the moderate side, but on issues of gender equity and gun control he has been leaning toward the other side. I think he votes along party lines, but we want to open his eyes.”  

Harriet Sepinwall of Pine Brook wasn’t satisfied with Frelinghuysen’s answers, but she acknowledged the congressman has been on their side on certain issues in the past, and he has the power to do more. 

“I have known him for 30 years and he had been a supporter of Planned Parenthood,” said Sepinwall, a retired professor of Holocaust studies at the College of St. Elizabeth. “He has a leadership role in this Republican Congress as chair of the House Appropriations Committee and he could lead in that area.”

One of the attendees disagreed with the notion that the congressman was only willing to meet with Hadassah because of their mutual support of Israel.

“It seems to me he is in a precarious position right now, as many of his Republican colleagues are,” said Beth Haiet Meyer of South Orange. “They have the power in the three branches of governance and he is probably somewhat concerned about the positions of those who are liberals and the positions of Hadassah. But he wanted to show his face and say, ‘at least I cared enough to come.’”

For one day, that was enough, but the goodwill may not last if he doesn’t show up tomorrow.

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