For those who lived through it, the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee meeting on May 8, 2017, is seared into their memories.
Josh Gottheimer never wanted to be there in the first place. The New Jersey Democratic congressman hated town halls, but across the country, activists fired up in the wake of Donald Trump’s election were demanding their representatives hold them. If they refused, Indivisible or other local activist groups would hold the events anyway, putting cardboard cutouts in place of the representatives, affairs that the local news would eagerly cover.
So Gottheimer capitulated to the Teaneck Democrats, but with some major conditions: He’d take questions, but they had to be written ahead of time. And it would not be called a “town hall.” And it would be public — but no press.
The event was going well until Gottheimer’s staff noticed an elderly Teaneck resident in the audience taking notes. The man, Jim Norman, had been thinking of starting a community newspaper, a weekly that he planned to call the Teaneck Independent. As it was, he occasionally posted his community dispatches online. Gottheimer’s aides tried to get the representative’s attention to warn him that a potential member of the Fourth Estate was in the audience. They also told Norman that no press was allowed at the event, but he told them that it was a public event, and the press couldn’t be barred.
Norman said that Ron Schwartz, the committee vice chair, stood up for Norman’s right to be there as a member of the press, saying that the committee would not bar press from a public event. “A little disagreement was developing around me,” Norman said. “I declined to leave.”
“Never experienced anything like it. Narcissistic, egotistical sociopath.”
On May 8, 2019 — the second anniversary of the infamous Teaneck gathering — I published an article about the role Gottheimer has been carving out for himself inside the Democratic caucus, which included Gottheimer confronting Rep. Rashida Tlaib with a white binder filled with articles and quotes of hers and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s that he found to be anti-Semitic. “He was using a very stern tone, like a father to a child. At that moment, I realized he’s a bully,” Tlaib told me. “He had a goal of breaking me down. I left feeling exactly that way.”
Within moments of the story’s publication, I started getting emails and messages from former Gottheimer staffers, as well as friends of former Gottheimer staffers, who said that Tlaib’s description of the interaction, based upon their own experiences with him, sounded not just plausible but generous. If that’s how he treats another member of Congress, they said, imagine how he treats his staff.
I heard from staffers who worked for him when he was a lawyer at the Federal Communications Commission (“Josh Gottheimer is the biggest [jerk] I have ever worked for, ever”) to his time at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller (“He was a terror there”) to his first campaign for Congress (“When I was reading those [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar stories, I was like, maybe Gottheimer isn’t unique”) to his congressional office (“Never experienced anything like it. Narcissistic, egotistical sociopath”).
I spoke with more than half a dozen, and many didn’t know each other, but their stories were remarkably similar and painted a portrait of a man who pits staffers against each other, screams easily, throws pens with regularity, and berates aides if they are asleep when he sends an email, no matter the time of night. As far as his aides could tell, Gottheimer barely slept and insisted that however long he was working, his staff should work longer.
He cycles through staff at a startling speed. Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, Gottheimer had the 10th highest turnover in 2018, according to LegiStorm’s ranking of “worst bosses.” He was the only freshman member of Congress to burn through enough staffers that quickly to make the top 10. (The ranking is even somewhat generous, as four of those ranked below Gottheimer retired that year, explaining the staff exodus.)
But it was the night in Teaneck that stands out. The events that transpired after Gottheimer learned of Norman’s notepad unfolded at the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and have been reconstructed here with the help of people in attendance that night. Names of those who spoke with The Intercept, and those who declined to, are being withheld. All asked to remain anonymous, citing Gottheimer’s penchant for vengeance that could do significant harm to their post-Gottheimer careers. Multiple people witnessed the Teaneck meltdown firsthand, and multiple others had heard the legend. Schwartz of the Teaneck Democrats said the executive committee decided to decline The Intercept’s request for comment, determining that it “would serve no purpose to go over an event that happened two years ago.”
When the event ended, Gottheimer’s aides let him know that it had gone terrifically, but flagged the fact that the would-be community reporter was taking longhand notes. A switch flipped, and Gottheimer moved into war mode. Get me those notes, he demanded, growing increasingly agitated as his aides advised against it. As he grew louder, sprinkling in profanity, his staffers nudged him into a corner, where they hoped his outburst would be less of a scene for the audience members who’d lingered and were now seeing an encore. It didn’t work, so an aide went to find state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
His aides briefed her on the situation, and Weinberg, who is the state Senate’s majority leader, tried to intervene. Weinberg had known Norman for years, she assured Gottheimer, and if he wrote anything at all, it would be a straightforward, community newspaper-style writeup of the event. He wasn’t reassured and stormed outside, where, now in the middle of the street, he could go on an even louder diatribe. His aides continued to gather around him, working to calm him down, as the Teaneck Democrats filed out and rubbernecked the perplexing scene.
“He was quite adamant I be excluded from the meeting.”
Gottheimer ordered two aides to confront Norman and demand his notes. Norman, who had recently been part of a mass layoff at the Bergen County Record, told me that he stood firm under pressure from the staff. He said he was aware that Gottheimer was angry at his presence, though the representative never spoke to him directly. “I got intimations of it. One or two people on his staff said there were to be no photographers and no reporters,” he said. “He was quite adamant I be excluded from the meeting.” (Norman confirmed that he has indeed known Weinberg for years, and the two have worked on a number of local issues together, including a fight to protect one of Teaneck’s largest trees. Weinberg, when asked about being brought in by Gottheimer staff to try to calm him down at the Teaneck gathering, said: “I really don’t have anything to add.”)
Gottheimer’s aides, Norman said, told him that they would need to review anything he wrote before it was published, a condition Norman rejected.
Furious, Gottheimer spotted the car of the staffer who had driven him to the event and channeled all of his rage on it, raining blow after blow down upon its roof. (Norman said he was “blissfully unaware” of the extent of Gottheimer’s meltdown. “I wish I’d have gotten photographs of that,” he said.)
Gottheimer then developed a new battle plan: He wanted his remarks transcribed that night, so his team would be prepared to rebut whatever the old man might post.
Gottheimer’s staff did transcribe his remarks, but they were never needed. Norman posted an 817-word dispatch on his now-defunct website, TeaneckIndependent.com, and it reads like a straight community newspaper writeup of a town hall, summarizing Gottheimer’s talk and including positive quotes from attendees:
The crowd generally approved of Gottheimer’s positions. “I think he’s a good middle-of-the-road Democrat, even if he does not understand why we should be pushing for single-payer health care,” said Mark Fisher, a member of the sponsoring organization.
“I think he’s a good, centrist, reach-across-the-aisle congressman who knows a lot of his constituents are Republicans,” said Ron Schwartz, another member of the TDMC.
For Gottheimer staffers, the episode was one of the most extended, public expressions of the madness they’d come to know in private.
The more extreme outbursts are often followed by quasi-apologies. One in particular, during his first year in Congress in 2017, stood out. After multiple staffers quit or threatened to quit, he agreed to do a conference call with his staff to apologize for his general behavior. Except, on the call, he never quite apologized, instead telling his aides that they should be proud of the work the office was doing. That was fine enough, but it was the specific work he identified that had staffers shaking their heads: Take deep pride, he said, in how much money we’re raising. Nobody in his congressional office had gotten into politics to break fundraising records — as Gottheimer does routinely — and they simply stared at each other in disbelief. Raising money, several aides said, appeared to be the only thing Gottheimer genuinely cared about. In the first three months of 2019, he raised an astounding $830,000.
Raising money, several aides said, appeared to be the only thing Gottheimer genuinely cared about.
Most of the former aides I talked to brought up, unprompted, the coverage of how Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., treats her own staff, saying that it all felt familiar — the shouting, the emotional manipulation, the chucking of office supplies, even down to what had become his catchphrases: “Are you out of your fucking mind?” and “Are you high?”
There’s so much more — anecdote after anecdote burst out of beaten-down aides, now mercifully moved on to new political gigs. Asked for comment on the details of the accounts put forward by Gottheimer’s former aides, his chief of staff, Ashley Lantz, responded with a statement: “Josh instills in his team a deep responsibility to work hard and deliver results for the people of the Fifth District, regardless of party. Team Gottheimer shares a tireless work ethic that’s solving real problems and we’re immensely proud of the work our entire team carries out for the residents of our District.” (Lantz started with Gottheimer in December 2018.)
Gottheimer finished the 2018 cycle with some $4 million stashed in his campaign account — money he declined to share with the party as it fought to take over the House, a sign that he has no interest in rising through the ranks of the lower chamber. That suggests he has his eye, as his staffers hinted to me, on one of the New Jersey Senate seats now held by Bob Menendez and Cory Booker.
Norman was unable to find the financing to launch the Teaneck Independent as a weekly newspaper, and he retired. He’s now a member of the Teaneck Democratic club. After Gannet bought the Teaneck Suburbanite and consolidated it with other local papers, there is no paper solely reporting on the town of roughly 41,000. Now Norman is making artwork and building boats. Within a year, he hopes to finish a houseboat. “I don’t know how I ever found time to work for a living,” he said.
Norman said that he thought he understood Gottheimer’s motivation to close the event off to the press. The New Jersey district Gottheimer represents was gerrymandered to be a Republican seat, and includes pockets of extreme wealth, rural strongholds, and liberal enclaves like Teaneck. Winning it in 2016 as a Democrat was a genuine political feat and holding it will require extreme political dexterity. “Control of the message is vitally important” to Gottheimer, so that he can balance these competing interests, said Norman. “I feel for him, but not by that much.”