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At ‘Alternative’ Town Halls, Residents Send Message to Often-Absent Pols

New Jerseyans are coming together in grass-roots groups to demand that members of Congress follow the people’s interests not the party line

leonard lance town hall
The crowd jeers U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) at his latest town hall, held in the Nash Theater at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, in a packed basement room of the Jam-e-Masjid Islamic Center in U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's home district (R-11), over 300 residents gathered to discuss how a possible crackdown on illegal immigration might affect families in the community, many of whom attendees worried could be torn apart through deportation.

On Wednesday, over 50 miles south at the Monmouth County Public Library in U.S. Rep. Chris Smith's district (R-4), another group discussed what sort of effects a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, one of the top priories for Republicans in Congress this year, could have on people’s abilities to obtain or keep their healthcare.

And in Branchburg Wednesday night, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7) held a much-anticipated town hall for his constituents, where he faced down a raucous auditorium of disgruntled residents and activists who booed and shouted over him at every turn.

'Healthcare goes, Lance goes!'

“Do your job!” yelled a man as Lance, in front of an audience of more than 1,000 people gathered in the Nash Theater at Raritan Valley Community College, addressed a question about Russian involvement in the recent U.S. election. Outside the building, hundreds more waved signs and chanted “Healthcare goes, Lance goes!”

This is grassroots politics in New Jersey at the start of a new presidential administration, as progressive activists, Democrats, and even independents and moderate Republicans across the state take to the Internet and public forums to vent their frustrations over the direction they see the nation heading. It's the same wave that is sweeping the rest of the country, where thousands of citizens have woken up to a new political reality: one in which Donald Trump — the coarse, often controversial former real estate mogul and reality TV star — is calling the shots.

“I think Trump's agenda is terrifying, and I think we need to do everything we can to resist it,” said Aleah Dacey, a recent resident of Bradley Beach who has been petitioning Smith to hold a town hall in the 4th Congressional District. “And I think the most effective way that is going to happen for an everyday person is to lobby their local congressperson.”

Driven by that same goal, dozens of newly-founded political organizations have cropped up over the past few months to serve as outlets for ordinary residents who find themselves worried by actions taken by Trump's administration. Some of these groups, which are scattered across the state's 21 counties, boast a longer history, having been formed during the presidential primaries or earlier.

'I think a lot of us woke up in shock...'

Most, however, hadn't existed before November 9, the day after Trump surprised pundits and casual observers alike by defeating Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to become the 45th U.S. president.

“I think a lot of us woke up in shock, or maybe we never went never to bed, and couldn't from shock and fear of what was going to happen to the country,” said Elizabeth Juviler, a Montclair resident and organizer for NJ 11th For Change, which hosted the town hall in Boonton this week.

The groups go by a number of names, including Indivisible, NJ 7 Forward, and District 4 Coalition for Change. But their goal, for the most part, is the same: to keep their local representatives accountable at a time when questions and anxieties in the age of Trump abound.

“We have a congressman who is no longer representing, in any way that we can see, the actual, true concerns of the people of New Jersey, as opposed to a national party platform,” Juviler added.

Though some longtime establishment Democrats have been targeted as well, the loudest — and most active — of these groups have, naturally, sprung up in Republican districts, where GOP congressmen have served as prime targets for the anger and helplessness many residents are feeling. Frelinghuysen and Smith have been among the most criticized, but all four members of New Jersey's GOP delegation have been pressed by constituents with regular calls to their offices and online petitions to attend town halls or publicly distance themselves from Trump.

Pressure so intense some pols have put town halls on hold

The pressure has been so intense in some areas that certain officials, such as U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3), have decided to put their scheduled in-person town halls on hold and instead conduct teleconferences and host radio call-ins. MacArthur, a second-term congressman who sits on the House Armed Forces and Natural Resources committees took that route this week, saying he refuses to let the events be “hijacked” by progressive activists.

Frelinghuysen, too, opted to hold an invitation-only teleconference on Tuesday, but said he's planning on visiting all 54 communities in the district over the next several weeks.

“I am aware that certain groups have scheduled what they are calling ‘town hall meetings’ and I applaud the effort,” Frelinghuysen, who has become one of New Jersey's most powerful congressmen after landing a seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee this year, said in a statement. “I am happy that they are exercising their First Amendment rights to engage on the big issues of the day and endorse their right to free expression.”

For many residents, these groups represent their first real foray into local politics. Both Juviler and Dacey said that outside of a brief stint in college or working phone banks for a presidential candidate, neither had been much interested in organizing or political activism before last year. Today, they're both deeply involved in groups whose members rank in the thousands, and who, they feel, have begun having a tangible impact on their local communities.

“I don't feel very powerful in this situation, and I feel overwhelmingly sad and frustrated by the news every day,” Dacey, who's in regular contact with Smith's staff as well as other grassroots organizations in the district, said. “And the only thing that has gotten me through is this project.”

Weekly protests outside Frelinghuysen's office

Begun just after the November election, NJ 11th For Change, one of the largest groups, has swelled to 6,500 members in recent months. The organization put together four town halls this week, each held in a different county in the district, and ended up with over 1,300 confirmed attendees, according to Juviler, none of which Frelinghuysen attended. In addition, they've begun holding “Fridays With Frelinghuysen” protests, held outside the congressman's office in Morristown, which regularly draw crowds.

Dacey's efforts have had a similar impact. Last month, she started a Change.org petition to call on Smith to attend a town hall she helped schedule in the district, claiming the Republican hasn't held such an event since 1992. The online document received over 1,000 signatures in the first three weeks of its circulation — ultimately translating into 200 people attending its Wednesday meeting in Manalapan.

“We're working together and we're determined, and frankly, we're terrified,” Dacey added, explaining that her daughter is covered under the Affordable Care Act. “I want to make sure I don't have anything to worry about. I don't want to fear for her future.”

For others, though, these efforts represent a ramping up of the activism and organizing they had been conducting before the election. Joyce Santos, a semi-retired former sales director from Flemington, began volunteering for Democratic candidate Peter Jacob's failed bid against Lance in the 7th district last year, and later became involved with Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Clinton Facebook page that at its height had 3 million followers.

But it was Trump's election that convinced her of the need to stay involved, and she is now part of NJ 7 Forward, which helped organize the protest outside Lance's town hall Wednesday.

“I woke up on November 9 and thought, I've got to do something. I've got to get involved and I've got to change this,” Santos said. “And so did a lot of other people.”

Concerns vary from district to district

While the call for greater accountability is the same, the specific grievances levied by groups against their representatives vary, and are often colored by the unique problems facing residents in each district. The constituent town hall in the 4th, which is home to a sizable senior-citizen population, for example, was framed specifically to address question residents may have about the Affordable Care Act, and what might happen should Republicans go forward with their plans to dismantle it. NJ 11th For Change's meeting, meanwhile, covered that issue but also several others, including the environment and education.

At that town hall, residents packed both a main room and an overflow room to listen to panel members talk about how policies enacted in Washington might affect them. Speakers included Assemblyman John McKeon, who represents the 27th district in the Legislature, as well as Joel Cantor, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and a contributor to NJ Spotlight. Diane DuBrule, acting executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, also spoke.

And though Frelinghuysen was not at the event, that didn't stop attendees from directing questions — as well as erecting a small, cartoonish cardboard cut-out of the congressman's likeness — at him.

“I just don't understand how my congressman could stand behind what is happening in Washington, D.C., with these executive orders,” said Stacey Gregg, a resident of Rockaway. “And it really disturbs me that this congressman has not come out against — we've all seen the tape — a sexual predator grooming someone on how to be a sexual predator.”

Trump's remarks and actions have proved a political dilemma not just for representatives here in New Jersey but across the country. While many officials sought to distance themselves from Trump during the Republican primaries, when it was unclear whether the candidate had any real shot at the nomination, they've since embraced his leadership and bold new agenda. This has been true for most of New Jersey's GOP congressmen, who had condemned Trump for his comments on women last year, only to extend their quiet support post-election.

Politicians performing high-wire acts

The result has been a sort of high-wire act whereby officials, particularly in more moderate districts where their incumbencies are less secure, are forced to walk a thin line between the demands of many constituents and those of their own party. The difficulty is not unlike the one Democrats faced in 2008, when angry citizens around the nation, rallying under the Tea Party banner, took aim at Obama's big-government policies.

Democrats in targeted districts, of course, ignored the movement at their own peril: The party lost 63 House seats and a half dozen Senate seats to Republicans in the 2010 midterms.

“One of the reasons the Tea party was so effective was because neighbors were able to come together and say, I care about this, what can we do. And I can definitely see that happening now,” Dacey said.

So far, Lance is the only member of the state's GOP delegation to agree to appear in-person at a town hall since Trump took office. That earned him some respect from Wednesday, who thanked him for breaking from his colleagues to meet with them. But it wasn't enough to silence them altogether, as they took to the mic to direct pointed questions at the Republican and, when they found his answers unsatisfactory, heckle and interrupt him.

“With President Trump and his many conflicts of interest that we suspect, if we investigate and it turns out he has ties to Russia and things like that, do you support impeachment?” asked Bruce Hunkle, a local Branchburg resident. Lance, noting he's a lawyer by trade and wouldn't want to prejudice any potential investigation into the matter, answered coolly — and the auditorium erupted in a display of disapproval, as attendees yelled and stood in their seats.

“Hypocrite!” someone shouted.

'Voting with Donald Trump ... and not with us'

A four-term Republican incumbent and former state assemblyman who now sits on the House Communications and Technology Committee, Lance may be more vulnerable in the next election than some of his fellow New Jersey GOP members. While the wealthy, highly educated 7th district is firmly red, there have been some signs of cracking in recent years: Residents there chose Hillary Clinton over Trump in November by about 13,000 votes, despite going with Mitt Romney in 2012. Lance, for his part, cruised to re-election in 2016 over Democrat Jacob by nearly 38,000 votes — but that was nowhere near the margins of most of the other districts in New Jersey.

His decision to hold a town hall in the current political climate also generated controversy even before the event took place. Protesters claimed that the ticketing process was handled poorly, and that Lance's office had intentionally manipulated it to pack the venue with supporters. From the looks of it Wednesday, that turned out not to be the case, but the unexpected response from residents did force the Republican to schedule a second town hall in the same location for Saturday.

“He's in Congress to represent us, and from what I understand, based on what I hear from my neighbors, and all the things I read, he's voting with Donald Trump, and not with us,” added Corie Williams, a resident of North Plainfield who joined the group of protesters outside Lance's town hall.

Republicans themselves, meanwhile, have largely dismissed the actions of groups like NJ 7 Forward, which coordinated Wednesday's protest with other organizations like Indivisible: Garden State Values, as being fueled by progressive activists intending to sow partisanship in the wake of the election. It's the same characterization that Trump himself used this week, when he took to Twitter to say the “so-called angry crowds” hounding the home districts of GOP members across the country were the work of liberal activists.

“Recent protests at Rep. Smith’s offices, and calls to his offices, have been loud, aggressive and at times abusive and Rep. Smith has no intention of subjecting his constituents to political antics,” Jeff Sagnip, Smith's communications director, said in a statement this week. “Yet, despite knowing that he will not attend, these activists continue to engage in deceptive advertising of the event using official-looking posters to spread the lie that Rep. Smith will be present.”

Activists communicate with similar groups across country

Still, activists maintain that the movement is largely bipartisan — and that their groups represent a wide cross-cut of interests and ideologies. Dacey said she's been in touch with local officials in Monmouth County on both sides of the aisle, and that many of the people she's talked to aren't easily politically categorized. Juviler also said her group's mission is to keep residents informed without inserting “too much color of what they should feel or believe, but just that this is what's going on, these are the facts.”

“These are all everyday people. We have mental health professionals, we've got teachers, we've got volunteer fireman, we've got people who also feel powerless,” Dacey said. “And we want to make sure our elected officials understand that our democracy is under siege right now and they need to step up.”

Juviler said she has been in communication with similar groups across the country, many of whom take as their textbook “Indivisible,” a 27-page guide written by former congressional staffers laying out tactics local residents can use to resist Trump's agenda. The document explains how to coordinate local town halls, and the group's website lists actions and group meetings happening in any given area.

“It's a place for people to express themselves when you are frustrated with a sort of obfuscation by your elected officials,” Juviler said of her group. “So we do everything we can to make people feel included, from being a specifically open and nonpartisan group, to encouraging all kinds of expression.”

And though most organizations have sought to remain apolitical from an establishment standpoint — Dacey said she and her colleagues intentionally decided not to invite state or local representatives to the town hall out of fear that it might become a platform for their next election campaign — elected officials around the state have taken notice. McKeon, for example, appeared at NJ 11th For Change's meeting in Boonton, but he wasn't the only politician in the room.

So did Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who happens to be running for governor.

Wisniewski has 'never seen this type of grassroots activism'

“This is perhaps the purest expression of democracy that we have in this state right now — men and women frustrated where our national and state politics are at, getting together in a grassroots fashion and organizing the sort of turnout we had last night,” Wisniewski told NJ Spotlight. “In the 30-plus years that I have been involved in politics I have never seen this type of grassroots activism, a homegrown concern not only for the future of our country but for the future of our democracy.”

A progressive firebrand in the Legislature who backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in last year's Democratic presidential primary, Wisniewski now faces an uphill battle in his quest for the governor's seat. Phil Murphy, the former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and executive with Goldman Sachs, has racked up support from numerous county chairs over the past several months and has now won three Democratic County Conventions in the state.

“Elections have consequences, and the election of Donald Trump, the ascendancy of Goldman Sachs to running our national economy when they themselves were the author of the destruction of our national economy, and the prospect now of Goldman Sachs buying the governor's office I think has created a perfect storm of concern by people in this state that the political leadership just doesn't get it, and that they need to take matters into their own hands,” he added.

Jim Baker, a member of the Westfield Democratic Committee who attended Lance's town hall on Wednesday, echoed a similar sentiment.

“I've never seen people as involved as they are now. People who are coming to town halls, people who are coming to Leonard Lance's office in Westfield every Wednesday. It has really lit a bonfire in these people,” he said.

Dacey said she'll be happy when Smith shows he's willing to connect with constituents in the district.

“I would like for him to come out and listen to people's concerns. I would like for him to come out and speak face to face with people with preexisting conditions who are worried they're not going to be able to afford their medication. I want him to remember that representing his constituents is more important than just following his party,” she said.

Chase Brush is a former editorial assistant for NJ Spotlight.

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