Editor’s note: The Montclair Local attempted to reach Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen by email and phone but as of press time, had not received a reply. The editors hope he will accept our invitation to write a Town Square essay for an upcoming issue of Montclair Local.
By Debra Caplan, steering committee member, NJ 11th for Change
Like many Montclairians, I woke up on Nov. 9 with gut-wrenching disappointment about the outcome of the Presidential election. Like many, I turned to social media, looking for solace and for information on what I could do next to make sure my voice was heard.
I’m a mom with two young kids and a full-time job who had never before thought about getting seriously involved in politics. Like many, I always voted and kept up with national news, but paid scant attention to local politics. All I really knew about my congressman was that I wasn’t sure how to spell his name.
Later that week, a few neighbors on the Montclair Watercooler Facebook page started a conversation about Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who represents the 11th Congressional District (which includes the northern portion of Montclair). This conversation turned into a separate Facebook group, followed by meetings around dining room tables, and finally, the creation of an organization to advocate for accountable, transparent, and responsive representation in our district.
The response was huge and immediate. What started as a small group of neighbors in Montclair grew to 500 people in the first week. Today, NJ 11th for Change is a robust organization with over 7,000 members representing nearly every town in the 11th District, from Montclair and West Orange to Morristown and Randolph and Sparta.
For me, it was as if a switch flipped. I knew my representative was Frelinghuysen, but I hadn’t been paying much attention to what he was voting for. I was shocked to discover that my representative, who has long held a reputation as a moderate Republican, has swung far to the right. He used to support Planned Parenthood but now regularly votes to defund it. He voted for common-sense background checks for gun sales in the 1990s but now votes against them. He claims to support protecting the environment, but he has an 11 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. I began to wonder: does this voting record reflect the values and priorities of Northern New Jersey? And if not, where is our representation?
It turns out that there are thousands of people like me all across the district, who were not paying enough attention to the voting record of a man who’s held the same position for 22 years. Rep. Frelinghuysen has never faced a real challenger, so he’s had the political luxury of moving farther and farther to the right without ever being challenged for leaving the interests of his constituents behind. Perhaps the biggest opponent he’s ever had to face was a ficus tree that Michael Moore ran against him as a prank in 2006.
Maybe this explains why Rep. Frelinghuysen has been unwilling to respond to thousands of newly energized constituents who have questions and would like to speak with their represntative. I’ve contacted Rep. Frelinghuysen’s Morristown and D.C. offices hundreds of times since Nov. 9, as have thousands of constituents. No matter what we ask, the response is always the same: “I can’t speak to this issue” or “I’ll pass your concerns along to the Congressman.”
For over three months, we have tried to schedule an in-person meeting with our Congressman. When the staffers said it was hard to find a venue for a town hall, we did the work for them. We scheduled four meetings — during a week when Rep. Frelinghuysen was here and Congress was closed — and invited him to be our keynote speaker. Nearly 1,400 constituents attended these meetings and over 25,000 watched online via a livestream, but our representative didn’t show.
Rep. Frelinghuysen has repeatedly said that he values constituent communication, yet he has not held an in-person town hall since 2013. Instead, he offers one excuse after another. He claimed that our town halls weren’t accessible to people with disabilities (they were). He’s told reporters that he wants civil discourse, not an argument (so do we). He told a group of Verona high school students that we were preventing people with “honest-to-God issues” from getting the services they need from their Congressman. My Congressman hasn’t yet heard what I’m concerned about. How does he know that my concerns aren’t valid if he won’t listen to what I have to say?
When I sat down with a small group of neighbors in November, I had no idea if anyone else felt the same way I did. But I wasn’t alone. It turns out there are thousands of constituents in this district who are tired of being ignored, and the frustration cuts across party lines. We have many Republican and Independent members who share our goal of accountable, transparent, and responsive representation.
Constituents deserve better than form letters and surprise telephone calls where questions are pre-vetted. We deserve real two-way communication with our elected representatives. It’s a simple ask.