If political newbie John Arvanites has his way, there’s a David and Goliath scenario taking shape in the 11th Congressional District.
The Democrat, a former mayor of Roseland, aims to emerge victorious over incumbent Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen. But if history is an accurate predictor, the scenario will play out quite differently.
Frelinghuysen’s formidable experience, deep pockets, popularity in the district and strong political family ties will likely mean a quick demise for Arvanites, as well as independent Barry Berlin, just as it has for other challengers over the past nine elections.
Still, Arvanites, like the biblical David, remains unbowed.
“This district used to be a lock for the Republicans. It no longer is, based on the redistricting that was done earlier this year,” said Aravanites in an interview at his campaign headquarters, a Montclair storefront he shares with Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
Arvanites was referring to the redrawing of the 11th and the rest of the state’s congressional districts last year in response to population changes counted by the 2010 U.S. Census.
Currently, heavily Republican Morris County dominates the district, which stretches a little south into Somerset, north into Sussex and east into Essex. The new map shifts the district further north and east so that beginning in January it will jettison southwest Morris in favor of parts of what today are Rep. William Pascrell’s 8th District, picking up parts of Passaic and more of Essex County.
Arvanites is counting on the Democratic voting power from these towns, particularly those in Pascrell’s sphere of influence, to tip the scales in his favor.
Frelinghuysen, on the other hand, does not believe redistricting will have any effect on the outcome of the election. He said he’s received a warm welcome in all the new towns and looks forward to serving them in the future.
“For me, I am a member of Congress so I welcome the fact that I have 14 new towns,” said Frelinghuysen, who is seeking his 10th term. “I’m quite enjoying it.”
What effect redistricting will have on the election remains to be seen.
Frelinghuysen’s territory is still considered predominantly conservative, affluent and Republican. The most recent voter registration figures from the New Jersey Division of Elections have the district leaning Republican: 30 percent for the GOP, compared with 25 percent for Democrats. Still, that’s more balanced than the 2010 breakdown of 34 percent Republican to 23 percent Democrat, which could make the race more interesting.
But while the relatively large number of unaffiliated voters – 218,000 — gives Arvanites something to aim for, at the end of the day, the district tends to vote “red.”
And then there is the matter of money.
New totals are due out on Monday, but as of June 30, Arvanites had raised just $28,000, compared with Frelinghuysen’s $736,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. David vs. Goliath, indeed.
“I can be outspent by Mr. Frelinghuysen, but I won’t be outworked,” vowed the challenger. “It was an uphill battle when I ran for mayor of Roseland against a 25-year incumbent and lifelong resident. And I won.”
Arvanites, 46, served one 4-year term as mayor, as well as 10 years as a city councilman in Roseland. He said he was able to decrease Roseland’s debt while balancing its municipal budget. A certified public accountant with a degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Arvanits moved to Morris County a year ago. He is the president and owner of Arvanites & Associates and co-founder and chief executive officer of Integrated Payroll Systems. He now lives in Morristown with his wife and child. He also has two children from a prior marriage.
Frelinghuysen, 66, is a lifelong Morris County resident with 18 years of congressional experience under his belt, including as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Before that, he served in the New Jersey Assembly for 11 years and chaired the Assembly Appropriations Committee during the 1988-89 session.
Frelinghuysen is the sixth Frelinghuysen to serve in Congress, dating back to Frederick Frelinghuysen, who was a U.S. senator in the 1790s. His father, Peter, represented the then-5th District in Congress from 1953 to 1975.
He once won a “Hero of the Taxpayer” Award from the Americans for Tax Reform group. Using data from financial disclosure forms, Roll Call newpaper proclaimed Frelinghuysen the 15th-richest member of Congress last year, worth a minimum of $20.4 million. Of New Jersey’s delegation, he was the wealthiest Republican and wealthiest member of the House of Representatives; of all New Jersey representatives, he was second only to U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat.
Berlin, of Stirling, a certified public accountant running as an independent, says his involvement in the race is a “symbolic gesture” and his chance of being elected is “somewhere below remote.” According to his answers to the Project Vote Smart survey, he is married with two children.
Berlin, who describes himself as a “fiscal conservative and social moderate,” maintains that his ideology is close to that of 11th District voters.
“(Frelinghuysen) is a member of a party and he has to follow the party platform and the party policy, and those policies are out of touch with the citizens of the 11th District,” he said. “He’s become almost a radical Republican. What the district has had — and has now — is moderate Republicans. The voters don’t want to switch over to a Democratic candidate. I’m offering an alternative.”
Berlin expressed concerned about the impact of the alternative minimum tax on his district’s high percentage of upper middle-income voters. He vowed to address taxation as an area of focus “if I were by some strange circumstance elected.”
Frelinghuysen said his political experience makes him the best qualified candidate.
“Respectfully to my opponent, I have experience,” Frelinghuysen said. “And I have seniority. I serve on an appropriations committee that has been extremely beneficial to New Jersey, mass transportation, our veterans, keeping our economy moving. And I plan to continue that involvement as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.”
“In his whole career as a congressman, Mr. Frelinghuysen has not introduced or passed a bill of any significance,” Arvanites countered. “He’s only sponsored 11 bills that have been passed in 18 years.”
Last month, Arvanites said his campaign conducted a poll across the four counties and determined that Frelinghuysen’s lead was not insurmountable.
“My message is resonating,” he said. “We’re chipping away at those votes we need to chip away at.”
The poll also indicated the incumbent’s favorability rating was only 45 percent, according to Diane Nardone, Arvanites’ campaign manager. She called that “an extremely low number, given that the Republican incumbent has been in office for 18 years. A long-term incumbent would typically have a favorability rating of 65 percent.”
“I have a really good record of constituent service,” declared Frelinghuysen. “Sometimes the things you do for people in a pinch — you know, soldiers, families who need help, a child who needs some sort of medicine (the family) can’t afford – I don’t advertise it, but that’s really so important to me, more than anything, constituent service. It has a lot to do with popularity. But, of course, popularity can be fleeting.”
People can make up their own minds when Arvanites and Frelinghuysen debate Oct. 17, at 7 p.m., at William Paterson University’s School of Business in Wayne. Berlin was not invited.