Rep. Frelinghuysen: A stranger among us
Retiring congressman, a friend of Jews and Israel, but missing in action
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11) announced this week that, after 23 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, he won’t be running for re-election this year. He may have decided differently if he’d been more attuned to listening to others — as Moses did in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.
On observing Moses trying to adjudicate every dispute the Jewish people brought him, Yitro, a priest of Midian, told his son-in-law to delegate some of his duties to others. Moses heeded the practical advice, and the rest is history. Sometimes even our best leaders can benefit from listening to their supporters, and that’s where Frelinghuysen fell short.
In announcing that he plans to retire following the 2018 mid-term elections, Frelinghuysen wrote in his statement that he “sincerely endeavored to earn” his constituents’ “trust every day.” But rather than engaging in regular dialogue to hear their concerns, the 12-term congressman, until recently confident of his prospects for re-election in what had long been a comfortably Republican district, has been in the political equivalent of the witness protection program. It’s been more than four-and-a-half years since Frelinghuysen subjected himself to a town-hall meeting with the people he represents, according to NJ 11th For Change, a grassroots community organization formed to hold the congressman accountable for his consistent inaccessibility. It kept reminding us that other than a smattering of appearances with small audiences and some town hall phone calls, Frelinghuysen was a hard man to track down.
This isn’t intended to criticize Frelinghuysen’s positions or votes in the House. On the contrary, one could make a convincing argument — as many of his supporters certainly would — that his decisions were in the best interest of the people of New Jersey, the Jewish community, and the State of Israel. He defied his own party last month by opposing the Republican-championed tax cut bill. His vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act was not popular at home, but even some Democrats believe the law is bad policy. Though he has primarily been loyal to President Donald Trump, after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, the congressman stated: “To be clear, the president’s assertion that there were two legitimate ‘sides’ in Charlottesville last weekend is flatly wrong.” And he was praised by AIPAC for his part in the decision to provide $705 million to Israel for research and development and procurement funding. (This funding was separate and in addition to the $3.8 billion per year President Barack Obama had previously pledged to Israel for security assistance.)
“He is a mainstay annually on the phones at [Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s annual] Super Sunday” event, wrote Jacob Toporek, executive director of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, in an email to NJJN. “His record on the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong,” and Toporek credited Frelinghuysen’s role as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for increasing funds for the security grant program to protect vulnerable nonprofits in the state, including synagogues, Jewish community centers, and schools.
Toporek added, “The congressman was key to securing grants for our community NORCs (Naturally Occurring Retiring Communities), which resulted in model aging in place programs in Caldwell, Parsippany, and Verona.”
But despite Frelinghuysen’s solid record, at some point in the last several years he appears to have forgotten that “Representative” is more than just a job title.
Had the congressman lived up to that expectation, NJ 11th For Change would, in all likelihood, not exist, and Frelinghuysen’s staff would be trying to determine the bare minimum of campaigning necessary to trounce whichever candidate the Democrats would have eventually chosen as their sacrificial lamb to oppose him in November. Instead, Democratic newcomer Mikie Sherrill of Montclair out-fundraised Frelinghuysen by an almost 3-to-1 margin in the third quarter of 2017, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report declared the upcoming contest a toss-up, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal.
Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, we read of the Jewish people, about to receive the Ten Commandments, begging Moses to serve as an intermediary between them and God. “…but let God not speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16). Moses acquiesced, knowing that while a good leader tries to do what’s right, a great leader acknowledges the concerns of one’s followers. That, in turn, engenders trust and demonstrates that he or she has their best interests at heart.
We needed Frelinghuysen to be our intermediary between us and the federal government. Maybe he was leading us down the right path, but it would have been nice for him to ask us if we wanted to come along.