UPDATE: Adds comments from GOP and Democratic officials.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen ( R-11th Dist.), a congressman from Harding whose support for President Trump and the conservative GOP agenda has prompted the first serious opposition of his career, announced on Monday that he will retire when his 12th term expires.
Referring to his father and mentor, the late Rep. Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen Jr., the Congressman said in a statement:
“I have worked in a bipartisan manner, not just in times of crisis but always, because I believe it best serves my constituents, my state and our country.
“My father reminded me often that we are temporary stewards of the public trust. I have sincerely endeavored to earn that trust every day and I thank my constituents and my home state of New Jersey for the honor to serve and I will continue to do so to the best of my abilities through the end of my term.”
The former Morris County freeholder and state legislator chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
He is the eighth Republican committee chair to bow out of this year’s midterm elections, according to Politico.
Frelinghuysen’s district was once considered so safe–he never received less than 58 percent of the vote–that filmmaker Michael Moore ran a ficus plant against him to underscore the point.
But Trump won the District by only one point in 2016, and Democrat Phil Murphy won there in last year’s gubernatorial race. On Monday, the nonpartisan site Inside Elections changed its 11th District prediction from “likely Republican” to “toss-up.”
Since President Trump’s election, Frelinghuysen has resisted constant pressure from grassroots organizations such as NJ 11th for Change to hold town hall meetings to defend his voting record. He has not held such a gathering since 2013.
“Frelinghuysen’s retirement is an example of what can happen when engaged citizens challenge the status quo, raise their voices, and take action. This is exactly what democracy looks like,” NJ 11th for Change said in a statement.
“For over a year, we asked nothing more than an opportunity to meet with our Congressman. Instead, Frelinghuysen hid from us, refused all invitations, and actively avoided interactions with those in the 11th District — the very people he was supposed to represent in Washington. With vote after vote, we were betrayed. And yet, his constituents continued to call and rally at his offices, writing letters and asking to be heard.”
At least one Republican, Martin Hewitt, was preparing a primary challenge, and several Democrats — including Mikie Sherrill, Tamara Harris and Mitchell Cobert--also are aiming for Frelinghuysen’s seat.
Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, said she disagreed with Frelinghuysen on many issues, but “as a fellow veteran I deeply respect his service to our country and to this community. From serving in Vietnam, to the New Jersey legislature, to the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Frelinghuysen dedicated himself to protecting this country.”
Hewitt wished Frelinghuysen well, adding: “I look forward to working with my fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, if elected, in order to rise to the many challenges that face all the people of my district and the nation.”
Thanking Frelinghuysen for his service, Cobert said public voices had been heard. “We now have an opportunity for new leadership in Congress that will work to stop the reckless partisanship that divides our country,” the candidate said.
“I think it’s a tremendous loss for Morris County,” said attorney Joseph Bell, a member of the county Republican Committee and former Morris County Clerk. Bell praised Frelinghuysen for “his honesty and his integrity,” and suggested that after nearly 50 years of public service, “maybe it’s time for him to enjoy his children and his grandchildren.”
“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 Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25th Dist.), calling Frelinghuysen’s weekly protesters “embarrassments” out to “create a media circus.”
Although he usually voted with the GOP majority, Frelinghuysen at one point opposed the proposed Obamacare repeal. He also voted against the Republican tax bill, contending it was unfair to New Jersey.
In his statement, Frelinghuysen, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, encouraged young people to enter public service, and emphasized his record of constituent services and support for the military. He thanked his wife Virginia and their two daughters for their support.
Frelinghuysen said he proudly secured “key federal investments for New Jersey to strengthen our economy, our institutions of higher education, our hospitals and public transportation systems, to preserve open space and protect the environment and to better serve our veterans and our fellow citizens with mental illness and disabilities.”
The New Jersey Sierra Club criticized Frelinghuysen for backing Trump cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency, and for not vigorously pursuing cleanups of New Jersey Superfund sites.
“We are glad to be part of the efforts to replace him with a better Representative for the people of New Jersey: One that will fight to protect our environment and our state from Trump rollbacks,” Jeff Tittle, director of the Sierra Club state chapter, said in a statement.
Immediately, the rumor mill was churning with names of potential GOP contenders, names like state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-26th Dist.), Assemblymen Jay Webber (R-26th Dist.) and Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.) and Morris Freeholder Christine Myers.
Bucco lauded Frelinghuysen for helping save Picatinny Arsenal from closure, and for advocating for the stalled Gateway tunnel project to ease rail congestion into Manhattan. The Congressman’s position leading the powerful House Appropriations Committee was important to New Jersey, Bucco said.
“He’s going to be sorely missed,” said the Assemblyman from Boonton Township. He does not think Frelinghuysen became too conservative for his District, which includes portions of Morris, Sussex, Passaic and Essex counties.
“He had his finger on the pulse, and he represented [his constituents] accordingly,” said Bucco, who acknowledged he’s exploring a congressional bid.
“I have received a few phone calls today encouraging me to think about getting into the race,” Bucco said. “You don’t just jump into a race like this. Can you raise the funds necessary to run a race like this?”
NJ 11th for Change Co-Director Elizabeth Juviler noted a paucity of campaign contributors for Frelinghuysen; three Democrats were outpacing his fundraising in the third quarter, according to Politico.
One key supporter, real estate developer Finn Wentworth, told a newspaper last fall that he was switching to Sherrill’s side because of Frelinghuysen’s votes for the GOP health plan and concealed carry gun law.
The Morris County Democratic Committee is endorsing Sherrill, from Montclair. While thanking Frelinghuysen for his military- and elected service, the organization said the lawmaker had traded his once-moderate agenda for the far-right policies of Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“The brand of Republican politics championed by President Trump and many other leaders in the Republican party has worked to drive out moderates like Congressman Frelinghuysen, and to weaken their own party,” the committee said in a statement.
Morris Democrats won 20 municipal races in November, and now it’s “time for us to elect a candidate who can truly represent the changing 11th District and not just the far right and President Trump,” the committee said.
Here is Frelinghuysen’s full statement:
Today as I announce my retirement at the end of this session of Congress, I want to use the opportunity to strongly encourage the many young people I meet to consider public service. Public service is an incredible way to turn your convictions into something that serves the greater good and to do it alongside people from every walk of life and background.
That has certainly been my experience here in this House, and during my Army service in Vietnam. I thank my friends and colleagues with whom I have served.
My years in public service have allowed me to represent my home county of Morris for over 40 years, and also Essex, Passaic, Sussex Counties, and earlier on, Somerset! That would not have been possible without the love and support of my wife, Virginia, our two girls and my late father and mentor, Peter. The unsung heroes of my time in Congress are my staff, both in Morristown and Washington, who tend every day to the needs of 730,000 constituents!
During my time serving here there have been times of great tragedy including the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy on my home state.
In my role on the House Appropriations Committee, I made sure that New Jersey’s needs were met in both the immediate aftermath as well as over time in the wake of these events.
I have proudly been able to secure key federal investments for New Jersey to strengthen our economy, our institutions of higher education, our hospitals and public transportation systems, to preserve open space and protect the environment and to better serve our veterans and our fellow citizens with mental illness and disabilities.
As Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, this past year I have had a singular focus on “getting our work done.” We completed 12 appropriations bill left over from 2017, we passed all 2018 bills in record time through regular order, and three Disaster Supplementals Appropriations bills, historic in scope, and the expediency with which we acted to help our fellow citizens. I
n my remaining year as chairman, I am determined to finish the FY18 bills and pass our FY19 bills through regular order. Every member, Republican and Democrat, will continue to have ample opportunity to directly impact the Congressional power of the purse and decide the best and highest use of limited taxpayer money. This will require — and I will happily devote — all my energies to this task.
Throughout my service in this House, my deepest devotion has been to supporting our Armed Forces, all volunteers, and their families, here and abroad, and those warfighters who have returned home with injuries and who depend on a functioning veterans’ health care system. To those of you I have met while you served us overseas and to those of you that I have sat by your bedside, I hope and trust I have served you well.
I have worked in a bipartisan manner, not just in times of crisis but always, because I believe it best serves my constituents, my state and our country. My father reminded me often that we are temporary stewards of the public trust. I have sincerely endeavored to earn that trust every day and I thank my constituents and my home state of New Jersey for the honor to serve and I will continue to do so to the best of my abilities through the end of my term.
Stay tuned for more.