By LINDA MOSS
Township resident Mikie Sherrill, who seeks to oust incumbent U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen from office, on Monday fielded some tough questions from potential voters who lauded her on one hand, but also voiced concern about the obstacles she faces.
Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and ex-federal prosecutor, spent two hours at a meet-and-greet at Watchung Booksellers wooing about 100 attendees, seeking their support in fundraising and in volunteering for her campaign to run in the Democratic primary next year.
She spent a good amount of time criticizing Frelinghuysen, the Republican incumbent she hopes to run against in the 11th Congressional District, which includes portions of Essex, Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties. During the session Sherrill also said said that she is considering ways to address the fact that at this time she doesn’t reside within the district.
At the gathering, hosted by Montclair resident Selma Avdicevic, Sherrill said that she has already started her fundraising and going out to meet the public, including attending a recent event in Parsippany. As part of her strategy, Sherrill said that she plans to hold town hall meetings and to invite Frelinghuysen, who has raised the ire of some of his constituents by refusing to meet with them and by supporting a number of initiatives championed by President Trump — including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“People are holding Rep. Frelinghuysen accountable now in a way I don’t think he’s been held accountable in the past 22 years by the majority of the district,” said Sherrill, who kicked off her grassroots campaign six weeks ago.
A number of attendees at Monday’s gathering expressed concern that Sherrill’s non-residency in the 11th District is a liability. They also brought up Frelinghuysen’s long-term incumbency and past popularity, the difficulty of raising funds to campaign against him, and the issue of what other Democratic contenders will want to oppose Sherrill in the Democratic primary.
In turn, Sherrill told the group that Americans are disappointed with the Trump presidency and his administration, with its lack of support for the middle class, veterans and the nation’s allies in Europe. And rather than act like a moderate Republican, Frelinghuysen has moved “more and more to the right,” supported the president’s agenda and is vulnerable, she said. The whole country will be watching the 11th District’s race to see how Frelinghuysen fares, according to Sherrill.
“This is one of the critical swing districts that we really have to win back if the Democrats want to win back the House,” she said. “We need 24 seats, maybe after tomorrow 23. So this is a critical one. There’s a lot of national attention on this district.”
George Martini, a Verona resident, made remarks and asked questions that were echoed by a number of the attendees on Monday. He even suggested that Sherrill get an apartment in the district.
“I’m here to find an alternative to Rodney,” he said. “I’m totally frustrated. I’ve been to his office in Morristown and gotten the same garbage back. He won’t even explain why he won’t meet.”
Then Martini added, “The only thing I see as a possible problem is I understand you don’t live in the district, which to me is not a problem. But knowing how entrenched Rodney is, we need like the perfect candidate and I’m worried that that’s something that some people will just disqualify you [for] … Can you move?”
“We’re looking at that,” Sherrill said, while joking a bit. “That’s something I’m talking over with my husband. We’re looking at different things — first we have to get the house painted, the basement cleaned out. But we’re definitely considering that option.”
In terms of her platform, Sherrill said she “just sees a different future for this country” than what is being pursued now, and supports green energy. She criticized Trump for the way he has treated and “belittled” U.S. global allies, civil servants, veterans and intelligence officers.
“As I said, Frelinghuysen has been 100 percent in lockstep with him, and hasn’t stood up to any of these bad policies,” she said. “I have stood and watched as President Trump has torn down a lot of the things that I believe in. And every single day I’ve watched Rep. Frelinghuysen to refuse to stand up and do anything about it.”
Sherrill, whose nickname “Mikie” is short for Michelle, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994. She was in active service for 10 years as a Navy helicopter pilot, leaving the service in 2003 to get a law degree from Georgetown University. She went into private practice before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey.
Her husband Jason is a fellow Naval Academy graduate, and they have a family of four children ranging in age from 5 to 11.
Sherrill told an anecdote about her grandfather, a B-22 bomber pilot in World War II, being shot down over occupied France and rescued by the free French, avoiding capture by the Nazis.
“And it occurred to me when I was listening to these stories that we Americans, in my grandfather’s time, were the heroes of the world,” she said. “And as a little girl listening to these stories I wanted to be one of those heroes. And so then as I grew up a little bit I started to hear stories about life behind the Iron Curtain. I heard about how people weren’t able to worship how they wanted to worship, how people weren’t allowed to travel where they wanted to travel.”
Sherrill said that she wanted to fight against that oppression.
“And now we have a president in office who is tearing apart the bedrock institutions that my grandfather fought for and that I have spent my career fighting for,” she said. “And we have a representative in Congress who refuses to stand up and to be the leader that we really need him to be right now.”
Avdicevic said she has known Sherrill for about seven years, meeting through their children in school.
“When she decided to run, she reached out to me … I said I couldn’t think of a better person to run,” Avdicevic said. “Considering what happened in the General Election of November 2016, I think we’re all looking for inspiring and inspired leaders, people who will answer the call to public service … She, I believe, is one such person. She possesses the strength and poise of someone who has been in public service her entire life.”
Sherrill also got a shout-out from her 11-year-old daughter, Maggie Hepburg.
“I don’t much about politics, but I do know it’s very hard to start something that takes a lot of effort and work and not know if you’re going to succeed,” Maggie told the group. “I know that she [Sherrill] has amazing ideas and she has been through a lot to help our country and I know that she loves it.”
Sherrill estimated that it will cost at least $3 million to $4 million to finance a campaign against Frelinghuysen, noting that the congressman “has deep pockets.”
Sherrill said that she has met with the Democratic chairmen for the four counties represented by the 11th District, seeking their endorsement to run on the party line in the primary next year. While noting that no other Democratic contender has announced plans to run yet, Sherrill did say that she has heard the name of fellow Montclair resident Jim Johnson bandied about as a possible candidate. Johnson lost his bid to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination earlier this month, but performed better than expected at the polls.
George Togman, 13, brought his father Jeffrey Togman, who teaches political science at Seton Hall University, to the Sherrill event. The teen read about the meet-and-greet in Montclair Local and wanted to come.
“I’m very interested in politics, and when I grow up I want to be a representative in Congress,” George said. “So I’m interested to see how someone who is running for office handles themselves and what they do.”
His father Jeffrey said, “I would like to see Mikie Sherrill win.”