Josh Gottheimer of Wyckoff, former whiz-kid Clinton speechwriter, FCC counselor, lawyer, Internet policy expert, and Microsoft guru, whose career has alternated between the private and public sectors since he was a 16-year-old page for Senator Frank Lautenberg, is the likely Democratic nominee for the United States Congress from New Jersey’s 5th District.
As an active member of the Jewish community, Mr. Gottheimer, 40, talks freely about his deep connection to Israel, his belief that the security of the United States and of Israel are so intertwined as to be inseparable, and that the Jewish values that have guided him throughout his life guide him still.
Those are the values, he says, that make him socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and passionately centrist, in favor of listening, compromising, and co-existing. He is, in fact, the very model of a certain kind of politician — the kind of politician whose refusal to demonize his opponent is way out of fashion now.
He holds his beliefs, Mr. Gottheimer said, “because I believe that there are places where the government shouldn’t meddle, and there are historic values rooted in our history that we must never forget.
“I believe that we should give opportunity to all and expect responsibility from all.”
That belief — which is backed by detailed positions — comes from “what our people went through.” Mr. Gottheimer, who grew up in North Caldwell, came from a family that had made its way to this country before the war. His wife, lawyer Marla Tusk, was not so lucky. One set of her grandparents met in Siberia, where they had fled to escape the Nazis. Ms. Tusk’s father was born in a DP camp. Mr. Gottheimer’s grandfather fought in World War II, and went into a concentration camp soon after it was liberated. So although Mr. Gottheimer did not inherit firsthand memories of the worst of the Holocaust, the stories he heard were horrific by any other standard.
Mr. Gottheimer’s first trip to Israel came when he was 13; after celebrating his bar mitzvah at his family shul, Temple Shalom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, he went to Israel to do it again. “My father took the whole family over,” he said. “Everyone — my grandmother, my uncles, my cousins. It was one of those things that stays with you.”
He remembers details — “the tour guide’s name was Dov” — and he also remembers emotions. Israel’s harsh bright light, the shadows it makes, and the unexpected, sometimes picturesque, sometimes stark scenes that light exposes and make a deep mark on a 13-year-old’s still growing heart. It did on Mr. Gottheimer’s.
Last summer, soon after he announced his interest in the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat, which is now held by the Republican incumbent, Scott Garrett, Mr. Gottheimer took a stand on the deal with Iran. That deal, which allowed Iran to trade 15 years of supervision of its nuclear program against readmission to the world community and a thawing of its assets that had been frozen in Western financial institution, was — to understate — highly controversial.
Debate over the deal grew highly acrimonious, in many cases breaking up longtime friendships — the split between New Jersey’s junior senator, Democrat Cory Booker, and his friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood has been chronicled at exhaustive length in these pages. It has caused friction within and between organizations, both inside and outside the Jewish world.
It was not an issue about which Mr. Gottheimer could remain silent. His position was counter to the official Democratic one; after all, the deal’s chief proponent was the party’s leader, President Barack Obama. “I lost several fundraisers, people canceled events for me, people demanded their checks back,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I was under a lot of pressure from the national party.
“But my answer was that this deal threatens America’s safety and security, and it supports terrorists. And also Israel’s safety — its future — was on the line too. Those things cannot be separated.
“I’m an American. I’m Jewish. I’m a Jewish American.” Those also are things that cannot be separated.
Mr. Gottheimer positions himself as a “problem solver, a moderate.” That is unfashionable right now because “the parties are so captive to the extremes. That’s how the process works. Most people believe that the vital center is being overwhelmed by a food fight,” the unyielding positions that national politicians feel forced to take in primaries in order to get the votes of the true believers who dominate there.
Because he spent so much of his career in the private sector, and so much of his public-service career as an FCC negotiator, Mr. Gottheimer’s approach involves discussion rather than shouting. “I would be willing to actually sit at the table,” he said. There are some members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who still do that, he added; they are overshadowed now by their louder peers, but they labor on. He would like to join them.
One thing that any candidate for Congress needs — and challengers need even more than incumbents — is money. Mr. Gottheimer has raised a lot of money; as so often happens, once enough money is in to trigger some sort of response, more and more money comes in. Even with the defections from the donors opposed to his anti-Iran-deal stance, he has raised “about a million and a half dollars,” he said. That was enough to get the district named as one of 16 in this year’s Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program.
Red to Blue supports candidates it believes have a real chance of unseating incumbents, turning them from Republican red to Democratic blue on the electoral map. New Jersey’s 5th District is the only one in the tristate area that the program is supporting this year.
Mr. Gottheimer’s positions on issues bear out his self-assessment as a social progressive and fiscal conservative. As that conservative, he talks about how his district, one of the country’s richest, gives far more in taxes then it gets back. He finds that profoundly unsatisfactory. The disastrous state of our infrastructure, as he sees it, concerns him. “One third of all the bridges in the state are considered unfit, and we are number two in the country in terms of mass transit delays,” he said. “We have to shore up our infrastructure. It is the second most important thing, right after education.”
On the other hand, he said — that would be the socially liberal hand — it is the government’s job to treat all citizens equally. That includes passing the Violence Against Women Act and ensuring that family leave is available. “It means making sure that we have strong law enforcement in our schools, shuls, and preschools,” he said. “It is about making sure that our water is clean.”
Some of Mr. Gottheimer’s strongest disagreements with Mr. Garrett center on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Mr. Gottheimer, as a social progressive, believes that it is not the government’s business to legislate their lives. “Standing by the LGBT community, like standing by women and people of color, is because we remember what it was like for us,” he said.
“Not long ago, Jews weren’t allowed to live in Ridgewood and some towns right here,” he added. Jewish families were zoned out; even if they bid on a house, their realtor wouldn’t even bother to put through a mortgage application. It wouldn’t be approved. We must remember that, Mr. Gottheimer said.
What does he want to do in Congress? Now that the Iran deal was passed, “it is very important to make sure that Israel gets all the new technology it needs,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “We need to have strong snapback sanctions,” which would work to re-impose sanctions on Iran should it break the terms of the agreement. “Senator Menendez,” New Jersey’s senior senator, another Democrat, “is a strong leader; there is no stronger supporter of Israel,” he added.
“With Iran, we have to be extremely vigilant about where every single dollar is going,” he continued. “I am worried about it.”
As alliances shift and perceived strengths and weaknesses grow in the Middle East, the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Iran seems to be gaining power in these shifts. “There is a powder keg of distrust between Iran and the world, and between Iran and us,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “Iran is not a trustworthy partner. It will not protect our interests.”
Domestically, he worries about BDS, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel and has succeeded in blackening its reputation.
To address that and many other worries, he’s a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “With the growing threats in the world, with the Middle East inflamed, with Isis on the rise, a strong relationship between the United States and Israel is vital to both countries’ interests,” he said. “AIPAC speaks for our community and the broader community in keeping the U.S.-Israel relationship strong.”
“We can’t allow Israel to be a partisan football,” Mr. Gottheimer concluded. “That is unnerving to all of us. There is no need to get into the blame game. Israel is a critical ally. If on both sides we don’t stop it from becoming a partisan issue then we risk America’s security and Israel’s longevity in the region. That can’t happen.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, who heads the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, is a longtime Democrat whose correspondence with President Bill Clinton was published in a 2013 book, “Letters to President Clinton: Biblical Lessons On Faith and Leadership.” Increasingly uncomfortable with much of his party’s direction, Rabbi Genack is enthusiastic about Mr. Gottheimer.
“I am supporting him,” Rabbi Genack said. “I think he would be a very good congressman and a very important pro-Israel voice within the Democratic caucus.
“He is very, very smart, and I think that he is right on a lot of issues. He is a middle-of-the-road Democrat, a Bill Clinton kind of Democrat.
“And most important is his deep concern for Israel. When he went to Washington as a potential candidate to meet with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, he told her that his signature issue will be support for Israel.”
Mr. Gottheimer’s rabbi, Elyse Frishman, knows Mr. Gottheimer and his family through their involvement in Barnert Temple. “Josh and his wife, Marla, have a clear commitment to Jewish education and values,” she said. “I see it in our relationship with them as members of the congregation, and I see them as future leaders in different aspects of our congregational life.
“Josh brings Jewish values, his commitment, and his passion for social justice and financial responsibility to everything he does,” she continued. “He wants to help people learn to be financially independent; not just to be supported but to succeed as American citizens. He has integrity and a real sense of commitment to the American people, as evidenced through his relationship with people in our congregation and in our community.”