There are some things that you think you can imagine and then you go there and it’s more and bigger than you had imagined, because you couldn’t quite imagine that much, that big, or that real.
Josh Gottheimer of Wyckoff was sworn in as the representative for New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District on January 3. He’d fought a hard and occasionally ugly campaign against his opponent, Scott Garrett, the Tea Party Republican whose courtly, even pacific manner belied a strongly right-wing governing philosophy. Mr. Gottheimer, a former Bill Clinton speechwriter, FCC staffer, and Microsoft executive, campaigned as a centrist Democrat, in favor of choice, equal pay for equal work, clear air and water, eased regulation, lower taxes, and — as some of these items make clear — bipartisan work on the many issues that should unite rather than divide the two parties.
While his wife, lawyer Marla Tusk; his father, and his sister sat in the gallery — his mother, who is not in good health, was not up to the trip, which saddened Mr. Gottheimer greatly — his two children, Ellie 7, and Ben, 4, accompanied him to the floor. “I was able to sit with both of them on my lap on the House floor,” he marveled. “Ben doesn’t quite understand it — he understands the basics, but he doesn’t really understand it — Ellie is completely plugged in. She’s fascinated. She always asks me what happens each day.
“It’s really incredibly humbling and overwhelming,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “You just don’t really realize, until you are there, raising your hand, the enormity of the responsibility you have been given. And that’s when you also really realize the honor that the voters have given to you.
“And then there is no time to find your way around. You have to dive right in.”
On Monday, he was back in the district, at a press conference in Teaneck, with Bill Pascrell, the Democrat who represents the neighboring 9th District, to announce the beginning of the SAFER grant program. SAFER stands for “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response,” and the two congressmen were there to “urge local fire departments to apply,” he said.
“Part of my job is to call around to all the mayors to let them know about the program and help them apply for it,” he said.
Although every new member of Congress most likely is overwhelmed by the majesty and weight of the new task when the new class is sworn in, and although the form and ritual of that swearing in has not changed over the last eight years, this is a brand-new world that Mr. Gottheimer is facing. Neither he nor his colleagues have any time to adjust to it, though. “You have to build a staff, your team, and also immediately begin to read the bills that are given to you to vote on,” he said. “There was a procedural bill on Tuesday.” That was the day after the swearing-in.
This week, Mr. Gottheimer was named to the House Financial Services Commitee.
Mr. Gottheimer also made good immediately on his pledge to consider each vote separately, not along party lines but reflected against the campaign promises he made, which of course are based on his consistent centrist philosophy.
“And on Wednesday, I voted against a regulatory bill. I was one of four Democrats to do so, but I ran on a platform saying I was in favor of lower taxes and less unnecessary regulation.”
Mr. Gottheimer also has been steadfast on his support for Israel, and he was not convinced by fellow Democrat John Kerry’s defense of the United States’ decision to abstain on what was seen as an anti-Israel vote in the United Nations in late December.
On Wednesday, the House voted on a bill condemning the United States’ abstention from the bill, which hinged on Israel’s support for settlements.
“There were a lot of people lobbying on both sides of that issue,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I went to a dinner on Tuesday where the vice president spoke, and I sat next to someone who was trying very hard to convince me to vote against that bill. And I spent a bunch of time on Wednesday calling fellow freshman and encouraging them to vote for the bill.”
On Wednesday, 342 members of Congress voted for it, and only 80, all of them Democrats, voted against it; a few Democrats also abstained. That means that many Democrats — including Josh Gottheimer — voted for it.
Mr. Gottheimer’s stand on another contentious issue, Obamacare, which the Republicans have vowed to kill, “has been consistent,” he said. “There are aspects of Obamacare” — more formally known as the Affordable Care Act — “that need to be fixed, and in a significant way. And other parts of it — previous conditions, 26-year-olds — we have to keep.” (He was talking about some of Obamacare’s most well-loved provisions, which did not allow insurance companies to reject people who already had developed health problems, and allowed parents to keep their children on their insurance plans through their mid-20s.)
“But the idea of repeal and delay instead of repeal and replace” — the idea that the Republicans could repeal Obamacare but delay implementing another plan, which they have yet to devise, instead of repealing it to replace it with another, theoretically a more efficient and cheaper one — “is not something that I think we can do.
“My grandfather used to have a great saying. He said, ‘Complain — but with a solution.’ To just throw it away, without any certainty about what you’d be replacing it with, would have an abysmal effect on the marketplace. The marketplace needs certainty.
“At Microsoft, when Obamacare happened, the amount of planning that went into it, just for benefits, was immense. And that’s true for businesses of all sizes. The market can’t sustain the uncertainty.”
Anti-Semitism has been more visible during this election year, and on far higher levels, than has been the case for decades. The climate, including what we as a culture decide is acceptable, has changed. Mr. Gottheimer was barraged by anti-Semitic messages during his run for office. “Unfortunately, it continues to be a problem,” he said. “As Jews, we know that it never has gone away. You see it with BDS” — the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement — “on campus, and then I think that U. N. resolutions like this one further reinforce the problem.
“Anti-Semitism and Israel are not the same issue, but they are related,” he continued. “When the president turns his back on Israel, and uses the U.N….
“I believe in a two-state solution, but one of the challenges is that to get there, there have to be talks between two parties, and who is the other one? Hamas? Hezbollah? And there has to be a precondition on the Palestinians’ part to abandon its stated desire to see the end of Israel. So there are certain steps that have to be taken. So I don’t necessarily always agree with what Netanyahu is doing or saying, and certainly, like a lot of Jewish people, I disagree on certain tactics, but I fundamentally believe that the U.N. is not the place to settle any of this.
“The U.N. has been pretty clear about how it feels about Israel. It hasn’t taken any time on Syria, or what’s been going on in Turkey, or other powder kegs around the world, but it has the time to keep denouncing Israel. That’s why I was so appalled by the vote.”
Any discussion of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States inevitably winds around to the presidential election, the influence of Breitbart, the rise of Stephen Bannon, and the ever-growing presence of online anti-Semitic trolls and increasingly of their real-world occasionally gun-toting white supremacist counterparts.
Stephen Bannon will be President Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist — a newly created position — once Mr. Trump is sworn in. Mr. Bannon is just one of Mr. Trump’s appointees. Congress will have to approve many of them, but some, like Mr. Bannon, who will be working in the White House, is not subject to such approval. Many of the nominees are controversial.
“I have not made a lot of public comments on appointments, because I want to hear them testify, but I have commented on Bannon,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I know what Breitbart is” — it’s a website that basically functions as central institution for the white supremacist movement, often called the “alt-right.”
“A lot of the comments on Breitbart are deeply disturbing. I know that there are a lot of people out there who say that’s not Bannon — who say that Bannon is not anti-Semitic — but it is unsettling.
“I am hoping that President-elect Trump, who appears to be supportive of Israel, will stand up for Israel, but I am confounded by an appointment of Bannon. I know that I have friends who tell me that Bannon isn’t really anti-Semitic, but I know that a lot of what I have read on Breitbart — and a lot of what I faced personally — came from that alt-right community.”
What about Russia, and the intelligence community’s message that our elections were hacked? “A lot of people, even on the right, are standing against the incoming administration and standing by the intelligence community,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “It is critically important that we stand by the intelligence community, and the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect us. They might not have a perfect record, but they always have been perfectly clear that they are not partisan.”
Mr. Gottheimer has a background in security, at the FCC and at Microsoft, he said. “Russian meddling is an enormous threat to our national security,” he said. “We can’t take it lightly. Not for a second. And I plan to dig into it.”
So how can he be bipartisan in an environment that seems to be as deeply divided as any within living memory? “I can tell you that the transition was done in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Gottheimer said; his photo, with his family standing joyously with the Republican speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, at his swearing in, makes that clear. “And I already have had a bunch of conversations and I’ve already made some friends on the other side of the aisle.
“I’m very involved with groups like No Labels” — the nonprofit organization headed by former Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, and Jon Huntsman, a Republican who was the governor of Utah, he said. Last summer, Mr. Lieberman came to Teaneck to endorse Mr. Gottheimer.
“My experience so far is that there are certain bright lines that I will not cross, which are not something you discuss at the table — things like choice, or standing by first responders, or veterans, or family leave, or equal pay. Things like that. There are no discussions about those things. But there are other things, like tax reform and infrastructure, which will be on the table. On those things, we can find agreement in the middle. And things like lowering taxes or cutting unnecessary regulation, which would be helpful to business — here we really can find common ground, and solve problems.”
So, despite everything, Mr. Gottheimer remains hopeful. “Given this climate, I’m sure that we will have areas of fierce partisanship, but I am hopeful that we can find places where we can work together,” he said.
He has a message for his constituents. “My office door is open,” he said. “And it’s not just to the Jewish Standard readers, but writ large. I really feel that a big part of my job is being on the ground, to take calls from everyone, on everything, from fixing potholes to questions about social security to Israel.”