Rodney Frelinghuysen and the Poisoned Chalice

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Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) in 2011.

It was the scribbled footnote that did it, rippling across social networks from northern New Jersey to Washington, D.C., revealing a bare-knuckled side of a low-key lawmaker.

In a fund raising letter to a member of the board of directors of a New Jersey bank, U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from Morris County, asked for money to combat well-organized opponents who had sprung up after the election of President Donald Trump.

“P.S. — One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote in blue pen.  The activist, a senior vice president and lawyer, resigned after she was confronted with the letter by her boss.

The episode has drawn an ethics complaint against Frelinghuysen, a politician who has worked behind the scenes for 22 years and just this year rose to his place in the Republican leadership.

“That was very disappointing and very much out of character for Congressman Frelinghuysen,” said Ross K. Baker, distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.  

But the letter was also notable for what it revealed about the pressure Frelinghuysen is under — surprising for a member of Congress who, in 12 elections, has never received less than 58 percent of the vote.

Frelinghuysen’s elections have been so easy, his Democratic opposition so weak, that the provocateur filmmaker Michael Moore once ran a ficus tree against him. But now he’s been caught seeking revenge against one of his own constituents.

“It seemed a particularly mean-spirited and vengeful thing for Congressman Frelinghuysen to do — a man who never had a reputation of being that kind of a bare knuckles fighter,” Baker said. “I think he senses that the ground is shifting from under him.”

That shift, Baker said, was prompted by the election of Trump and the Republican hold on Congress, forcing him to choose between the party’s leadership and moderate constituents back home.

“Becoming the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which of course in some ways is the crown jewel of any House member’s career, has been a bit of a poisoned chalice for Rodney Frelinghuysen,” Baker said.

His response to President Trump’s budget proposal this week was tepid. He also opposed the first iteration of the House Republican plan to repeal Obamacare. But, reportedly threatened with losing his chairmanship, he ultimately changed his vote, siding with conservatives in the second round of voting on the American Health Care Act.

Back home, the election quickly gave rise to NJ11th for Change, a constituent group opposing Frelinghuysen. Activists have held weekly protests at his office, overloaded his phone lines and called on him to hold a town hall, which he has so far refused to do. The employee he complained about is on the organization’s steering committee.

He did hold a telephone town hall recently, which allows him more control to cut off callers when they disagree.  His frustration with the activists showed. “For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off,” Frelinghuysen said.

“I didn’t even know who he was for years,” said Tom Hilliard, another member of the  steering committee, who helped design the group’s response to Frelinghuysen’s vote on  Obamacare. “And so maybe 20,000 people knew him as the kindly grandpa who shows up at your high school art fair. But now 100,000 people know him as the guy who sold out his constituents.”

Former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., possibly the most respected Republican in New Jersey, insists Frelinghuysen is still a moderate — a fiscal conservative who is liberal on social issues, despite the health care vote.

“Given the importance of that bill to the Republican Party and the pledges the Republican Party had made, it might have been very difficult to vote against two different bills in health care and say you still want the leadership,” Kean said.

The two men have known each other their whole lives, and both come from a long line of leaders dating back to the American Revolution.

Frelinghuysen’s father, Peter B. Frelinghuysen, served in the House of Representatives for 22 years. Rodney Frelinghuysen is the great-great-grandson of Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, who was a U.S. Senator from New Jersey and U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of President Chester A. Arthur. Rodney’s great-great-great-uncle, Theodore Frelinghuysen, was also a U.S. Senator from New Jersey — and the vice-presidential running mate of Henry Clay on the Whig ticket in 1844.  

Frelinghuysen's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Frelinghuysen, was one of the framers of the first Constitution of New Jersey, a soldier in the American Revolution and a U.S. Senator. There is a Frelinghuysen Township in northwestern  New Jersey, a Frelinghuysen Avenue in Newark, a Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, a Frelinghuysen building at Rutgers University and a lovely Frelinghuysen Arboretum on land donated by the family.

Frelinghuysen, 71, is also one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated worth of about $54 million, according to federal financial disclosures.  His great-great-great-grandmother married Peter Ballantine, founder of Ballantine Brewery in Newark, which at its peak was the third largest brewer in America. Several mansions, including one that is part of the Newark Museum, were built by the Ballantines in Newark.

On his mother's side, Frelinghuysen is a great-great-grandson of William Procter, co-founder of Procter & Gamble, maker of Charmin tissue, Crest toothpaste, Bounty paper towels, Dawn dish soap and dozens of other products, with annual sales of more than a billion dollars.

Frelinghuysen’s 11th Congressional District is what New Jerseyans call “Republican horse country.” It’s one of the richest districts in the country, and one of the best educated.  The gentleman-farmer estates in his home town, Harding Township, make it one of the top 25 richest zip codes in America, according to Forbes Magazine.

“A lot of people think of him — or at least those who don't know him think of him — as some kind of blueblood," said William Westhoven, who has covered Morris County politics since 1994 for the Daily Record. “He really, really does not present in public in that way in any way, shape or form. Rodney presents as a very very regular guy — he dresses in simple suits, he drives a simple car. He shows up at event after event after event constantly.”

Westhoven said Frelinghuysen has run into unprecedented political problems because redistricting brought more Democratic towns into his district, and he has opted to go with the changing tide in the Republican Party.

“I think you started seeing him leaning more and more to the right as his party leaned more and more to the right,” Westhoven said.

Frelinghuysen’s lukewarm votes on abortion rights have brought him low ratings from pro-abortion groups, and he opposes regulations to limit greenhouse gases, gun control and gay marriage.

Yet Democrat Carolyn Maloney of New York considers him an ally because of his support for funding for 9/11 first responders, disaster relief after Sandy, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

“So he is an important voice, an important leader in Congress, and I’m proud to have him as a friend,” Maloney said.

But Frelinghuysen has not held a town hall meeting with constituents in four years. Instead, he spends a lot of time attending small events at schools, community groups and veteran organizations. But town halls, observers say, are not  his strong suit.

“He's very low key,” said Nicolas Platt,  a neighbor who grew up around the Frelinghuysens and is the former mayor of Harding Township. “I don't know how he does it, but he will be at every pancake breakfast. He will be at every fireman rolling out a new fire truck.”

On the other hand, Platt said he has watched every State of the Union speech since Lyndon B. Johnson, “and I have never seen Rodney Frelinghuysen on camera.”

Frelinghuysen did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

His letter complaining about the activist, first reported by WNYC, shined an unwelcome spotlight on the congressman. After it went viral, the Cook Political Report downgraded Frelinghuysen’s re-election chances next year, rating his district  “lean Republican” after  many years as a  “likely Republican” district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added Frelinghuysen to the list of New Jersey Republicans it will challenge with national money. A woman who is a former Navy helicopter pilot and former federal prosecutor , Mikie Sherell, has announced she will run.

Republicans Leonard Lance and Tom MacArthur were already on the DCCC list. In November, longtime Rep. Scott Garrett was defeated by a Democrat. That leaves Chris Smith, a veteran congressman from Monmouth and Ocean counties, as the only holder of a safe Republican seat in the state. Smith is also facing new activist groups hounding him in his district.

But Kean, the former governor, says it would be foolish for voters to turn Frelinghuysen out of office, especially because New Jersey needs him as Appropriations chair to help secure funding for a new train tunnel into New York City.

You'd lose leverage, which I don't know if we ever had it before — I'd say certainly not in my lifetime,” Kean said. “Nobody would be more helpful to the state than Rodney Frelinghuysen."