Early this month, as protests against police brutality swept the country, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer attended a vigil mourning the death of George Floyd. The next day, he tweeted about his participation in the event, vowing to join the “fight to end discrimination, hate, and all forms of racism.”
His tweets invoked a handful of responses asking what Gottheimer had done as a legislator to address police brutality. Why had he not signed on to Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s resolution condemning police brutality and calling for an end to militarized policing, for instance?
Within a few days, Gottheimer signed onto the policing bill put forth by Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass on June 8, which includes measures to enhance police accountability, eliminate discriminatory policing practices, and improve transparency and data collection. The Congressional Black Caucus endorsed him yesterday. “I’m proud to be cosponsoring new legislation led by the Congressional Black Caucus — the Justice in Policing Act — to increase accountability, address racial discrimination, and help save lives,” Gottheimer said in a statement to The Intercept.
His primary opponent, Arati Kreibich, has been attending Black Lives Matter rallies in her community and is using this political moment to draw a contrast with the incumbent. There’s a prevailing sense in many small suburban towns “‘not in my community, not police.’ And what this movement is doing is really holding up this mirror to us and showing us, that’s not necessarily the case,” she said. “Contrast that with my opponent, who refuses to use the phrase ‘police brutality,’ refuses to use it.”
Throughout his relatively short time in Congress, Gottheimer has positioned himself as an ally to law enforcement. In May, just 10 days before Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police set off protests, Gottheimer proudly celebrated National Police Week and bragged about his 100 percent approval rating from the National Association of Police Organizations. “I will always get the backs of Jersey’s law enforcement, just as they get ours,” he said in a May 15 press release.
Gottheimer, who was elected in 2016 to represent New Jersey’s 5th District, in the northernmost part of the state, is perhaps best known for consistently voting with Republicans — he voted with President Donald Trump 55 percent of the time last session and 77 percent of the time in 2018 — and being a terrible boss. Elected as part of an anti-Trump wave, Gottheimer flipped the district, which Trump took with a narrow 48.8 percent in 2016, from red to blue. He went on to vote in line with the president on issues from immigration to abortion.
Kreibich, a neuroscientist and Glen Rock Council member, ironically, volunteered for Gottheimer during his first reelection campaign in 2018. She had been inspired that Democrats were able flip the district but eventually grew disenchanted by Gottheimer’s record and launched her primary challenge against him last July. She decided to challenge him after he supported Trump’s border wall fight last year, obstructing Democratic efforts to include more protections for children in detention.
“The 2016 election happened, and it rocked my world. There was a distinct before and after,” she said, adding that it was part of what motivated her to run for local office. Watching Gottheimer’s second term felt “like a betrayal,” she said, “pretty much from the first vote onward.”
“He not only hasn’t stood up for our values in Congress,” Kreibich said, “he’s also actively worked against the party.”
Part of a wave of insurgent candidates taking on the state’s historically corrupt Democratic machine up and down the ballot, Kreibich had her best fundraising haul so far this quarter, raising $190,000 over the last filing period, which ended on Wednesday. Kreibich has raised $472,328 so far. Her grassroots campaign has the support of a large group of volunteers, as well as more than 100 student fellows, who have made 200,000 calls and sent 100,000 text messages. As the July 7 primary nears, she has racked up an impressive list of endorsements, including from Pressley, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Sunrise Movement, Indivisible, the Working Families Party, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Kreibich’s campaign received more individual contributions on the day of Sanders’s endorsement than they did in the entire month of April. They also raised $50,000 in the three days since his endorsement.
There hasn’t been any public polling on the primary race, but general election polls show Gottheimer with a comfortable chance of keeping his seat in November. He has an overwhelming fundraising advantage, having raised $4.36 million so far, with significant support from banks like Morgan Stanley, other major private equity firms, and business political action committees.
Kreibich remains optimistic, though. Her campaign’s internal polling shows that when respondents have heard about both candidates, she comes within a 2-point margin, she told The Intercept. “We have an excellent chance of winning. And that is incredible,” she said.
Voters have already started receiving ballots in the mail, meaning that some votes may already be in. It remains to be seen how Kreibich’s recent surge will impact election results. The state’s primary, initially scheduled for June 2, was postponed in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and vote-by-mail was expanded as well.
Pressley’s endorsement this week “really reflects the viability of our campaign. It was the only primary challenger against an incumbent in the slate that she endorsed,” Kreibich added. “It really talks about what we need, who we need in this moment. And who other members of Congress feel we need in this moment.”
Kreibich’s campaign is focusing on Gottheimer’s close resemblance to the Republican Party. The campaign launched a microsite this week with the link, “JoshGottheimer.Republican,” under the banner, “MEET CONSERVATIVE ‘DEMOCRAT’ JOSH GOTTHEIMER.” Her platform includes typical progressive policies, like tackling climate change, combatting racism in the criminal justice system, enforcing corporate taxes, a wealth tax on the top 1 percent, and Medicare for All.
Gottheimer, like many of his congressional colleagues, has shown more recent interest in issues of police brutality and racism in recent weeks than throughout his time in office. In 2018, the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association named Gottheimer “Legislator of the Year.” In remarks at the event, Gottheimer assured the audience that he would continue helping to increase funding for police and other first responders.
“I will continue to do everything I can in Congress to make sure our law enforcement and our first responders have the resources they need to keep us safe and keep themselves safe, including clawing back more of our federal tax dollars,” he said.
While House progressives were pushing for a coronavirus relief bill that would support working people, Gottheimer was lobbying in favor of bailing out payday lenders. He prioritized appeasing to his wealthy donors, pushing relief for private equity and payday lenders, Sludge reported.
As a member of the conservative Blue Dog Caucus and co-chair of the billionaire-funded Problem-Solvers Caucus, Gottheimer has called to deregulate banks, helped block a bill that would have helped improve conditions for children in immigration detention, and supported calls to adjust federal loan programs in favor of private equity firms.