UPDATE: Includes comments from Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.
Nobody could blame Saily Avelenda if she felt like gloating on Monday.
After all, the man who “outed” her to her boss last May announced his pending retirement from Congress.
But Avelenda kept cool when asked about Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s bombshell.
“This was a good day,” was as far as the co-director of NJ 11th for Change would go.
In a campaign fund-raising letter to Lakeland Bank’s board last spring, Frelinghuysen, the Republican chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, cited liberal opposition and scribbled a note saying, “One of the ringleaders works at your bank!”
He attached a newspaper article about Avelenda.
Feeling the heat, Avelenda resigned from her job as senior vice president and assistant general counsel.
Despite her experience and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Avelenda said she’s been unable to find another corporate gig.
“Apparently, a ‘ringleader’ is not easy to employ… It’s amazing what happens when you’re in the news. Recruiters stopped talking to me,” said Avelenda. The mother of two said it’s hard getting by on her husband’s salary as a warehouse manager.
“I am living off my retirement,” she said.
But as a daughter of Cuban exiles, she is proud of her activism. “We grew up politically minded,” she said.
Avelenda is especially proud of NJ 11th for Change. Following a playbook from the Indivisible movement, the grassroots group has amassed 8,000 Facebook followers who have been pressing Frelinghuysen for a town hall meeting for the last year.
Every Friday, in all kinds of weather, activists demonstrate outside Frelinghuysen’s Morristown office.
The notion of toppling an incumbent –the scion of a New Jersey political dynasty who breezed to re-election every time –seemed “crazy” at first, she conceded. Yet “we were so convinced we could do it, because we were right.”
For most of his 12 terms, Frelinghuysen, 71, was known as a moderate on social issues. But he took a sharp right as the 11th District began veering left, Avelenda said.
Group members, including many Republicans, according to Avelenda, were angered when he voted to repeal Obamacare, and to allow concealed weapons to be carried across state lines, and to support environmental cuts in President Trump’s budget. Frelinghuysen voted against Trump’s tax overhaul–after supporting earlier rounds enabling it to advance.
“This is really about looking at his record and saying, ‘Is this really the person I voted for, to represent me?'” Avelenda said.
“He never met, he took his position for granted, he forgot who he serves and he lost the support of his constituents,” Co-Director Elizabeth Juviler said in a statement.
“We’re just getting started!” added Co-Director Lori Heninger.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25th Dist.), saw it differently.
“If you look in the dictionary, right next to the word ‘gentleman,’ you’ll find a picture of Rodney. But area politics is no longer gentlemanly,” said Carroll, calling Frelinghuysen’s weekly protesters “crowds of leftists” and “embarrassments” out to “create a media circus.”
While she may be the group’s “torch-bearer,” Avelenda described Monday as a victory “for all those people who stood in the rain, the cold, the crazy heat, every Friday.”
“Fridays Without Frelinghuysen” will continue for the rest of the Congressman’s final term, the Hudson County native said.
“He’s more dangerous for the district now. He has no reason to listen. We have to make sure we’re out there with our voices,” said Avelenda, who has a countdown clock to Election Day on her phone.
Gloating? No. Just don’t expect this ringleader to shed any tears when Frelinghuysen says goodbye.
“It’s a shame that he set it up so he’s leaving with a whimper,” Avelenda said.
“But that’s on him, not us.”