The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.
When Josh Gottheimer first won his House seat in New Jersey’s Fifth District in 2016, it was a rare silver lining for Democrats on a fateful November election night that featured few of them. Not only did Democrats fail to regain the majority in the House and Senate that day, they also lost the presidency to Donald Trump in a disastrous multicameral wipeout.
Gottheimer’s victory offered a glimmer of hope. He’d managed to pry the North Jersey seat from the decade-plus-long stranglehold of Tea Party Republican Scott Garrett by a four-point margin. That made NJ-5 one of only six districts nationwide that saw a Republican incumbent lose in 2016. It was a harbinger of growing Democratic strength in the suburbs, something that would come into full bloom in the 2018 midterms.
For that, Dr. Arati Kreibich was ecstatic. She’d backed Gottheimer’s campaign, knocked on doors on his behalf, and proudly displayed his yard sign in her front yard.
Upon Gottheimer’s arrival in Congress, however, that excitement quickly began to wane. In his first vote as a sitting Democratic House member, Gottheimer, a former Microsoft executive and speechwriter for Bill Clinton, sided with Republicans to gut an Obama-era environmental regulation. Gottheimer quickly positioned himself as a champion of bipartisanship, a leader in the Problem Solvers Caucus and ally of the centrist group No Labels. Still, blue House seats were in short supply and desperately needed to have any chance of repelling the Trump agenda. So in 2018, when Gottheimer stood for re-election, Kreibich backed him again. She even hosted a fundraiser for him in her backyard. This time, Gottheimer won by 14 points.
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Gottheimer took that victory and doubled down on his fabled bipartisanship, the time-honored process by which Democrats vote for Republican agenda items. He earned a reputation as one of Trump’s favorite Democrats, going to great lengths to battle other Dems and advance the Trump agenda. He went after members of his own caucus, including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, charging the latter as anti-Semitic. He racked up allegations of mistreating staff. After he worked to stop a House immigration bill that would have increased oversight of Customs and Border Protection’s cruel family separation program, leading to passage of a Senate Republican bill with no such oversight, Kreibich had seen enough. She decided to run for the seat herself.
Now, Kreibich, a neuroscientist and Indian immigrant, is running a spirited progressive challenge to Gottheimer. In 2017, she became the first South Asian woman to win election to the Glen Rock Borough Council, edging out a Republican front-runner by just 187 votes. Now she’s banking on the likelihood that in a rapidly changing district, which this year features more registered Democrats than Republicans for the first time, voters would like to see their representative pursue something other than the Trump policy agenda. “It’s way past time for a real Democrat to take charge here,” she told me.
Kreibich is running on a platform that will be familiar to progressives. She’s a Medicare for All advocate and a Green New Deal endorser. She’s refusing all corporate PAC money, and advocating for getting money out of politics. She wants to protect and expand Social Security.
Beyond the general progressive platform, Kreibich has a coronavirus-specific set of recommendations as well. She’s backing Pramila Jayapal’s Paycheck Guarantee Act, as well as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s temporary ban on corporate mergers.
That’s a far cry from Josh Gottheimer’s pandemic prescriptions, which have showcased a different set of priorities. Earlier this month, Gottheimer went on the record supporting a private equity–backed bailout plan to loosen restrictions on the types of collateral the Fed will accept in its emergency lending programs. That would allow private equity groups to get away with putting up junk-grade assets, rather than the AAA-rated standard that is currently in place, for cheap government loans. He also came out in favor of a bailout of predatory payday lenders, which HuffPost has catalogued extensively. Meanwhile, Gottheimer was also one of the few Democrats pushing to bar undocumented immigrants from access to $1,200 stimulus checks and other financial aid in the HEROES bill, House Democrats’ follow-up to the CARES package.
Those actions may seem shocking, but any close watcher of Gottheimer, a member of the House Financial Services Committee and a handmaiden to financial interests, won’t be surprised. He’s received more money from the private equity industry than any other House member this cycle, and is among the top recipients of money from payday lenders (along with Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, a rival for that title of “Trump’s favorite Democrat”). And when the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act, a bill that would cap interest rates at 36 percent for all consumers and rein in the 391 percent average rate that payday lenders currently charge, was introduced in the House in November with broad bipartisan support, Gottheimer—Mr. Bipartisanship himself—failed to support it.
Predictably, Gottheimer’s fealty to private equity and payday lenders has proven extremely lucrative. His other handle is the “Human Fundraising Machine.” At last reporting, Gottheimer was sitting on an astonishing war chest for his re-election campaign of nearly $8 million, second most among all sitting House Democrats after California’s Adam Schiff, who presided over the impeachment hearings.
While Gottheimer enjoys a massive financial edge, Kreibich has an active grassroots network at her back. As with all campaigns, the dynamics of this race have been shifted by the coronavirus; Kreibich’s door-knocking army has converted itself into a text and phone-banking blitz. “We were knocking on 1,000 doors a week, well on our way to our 100,000-door goal,” said Kreibich. “Now we’re doing digital and virtual, and we’ve made 90,000 contacts at this point, phone calls and texting.”
Not only is that network keeping the campaign running, but they’re delivering crucial aid to the community. “We’re seeing how folks are doing and connecting them with mutual aid resources, PPE collection and delivery, and delivering meals,” Kreibich said. Bergen County, part of NJ-5, is the state’s worst hit by the coronavirus, all of which makes Gottheimer’s policy priorities even more confounding. “It’s insane!” Kreibich exclaimed. “Here we have folks who need real relief in North Jersey. People who are struggling on a daily basis while he’s siding with Republicans and predatory lenders.”
Meanwhile, Kreibich has been hosting digital coronavirus town halls, stitching together the pandemic response with her other policy priorities on climate change, racial justice, and inequities in the education system. It’s part of a rapidly developing campaign strategy in an uncertain political terrain.
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She’s put together a battery of endorsements as well, with support from groups ranging from Indivisible to Moms Demand Action to the veterans organization Common Defense to four separate chapters of the Sunrise Movement in New Jersey. Primary challenges often take two cycles to vest (see Marie Newman in Illinois, a progressive female challenger who just won a House primary on her second try against another superlatively conservative Democrat, Dan Lipinski). But the Kreibich campaign thinks there’s an expedited route, drawing on both committed progressives and suburban female voters. “There’s a coalition forming,” she noted, “of progressive voters and suburban voters that make up this district.”
Time will tell. New Jersey votes in July, in what’s scheduled to be an almost all vote-by-mail election, which can skew conservative. And with such an incomparably big bank account at his disposal, Gottheimer, an entrenched incumbent, will be tough to topple. But there’s reason to believe this coalition is indeed a potent one. At the Warren County and Bergen County Democratic Conventions earlier this year, Kreibich overperformed Bernie Sanders by roughly 10 percent, suggesting she has appeal beyond the immediate progressive flank. “Every minute Rep. Gottheimer spends lobbying for his Wall Street donors is time he isn’t using to secure additional aid for working people and essential workers,” said Kreibich in a statement last week. “NJ-5 deserves better.”
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