Wall Street Journal: Freshman New Jersey Congressman Takes a Bipartisan Path
Democrat Josh Gottheimer, from a GOP-leaning district, steers a caucus representing both parties
By: Kate King
WASHINGTON—In a Capitol defined by rancor, a freshman congressman from New Jersey is betting on bipartisanship as his best chance for making his mark.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a 42-year-old former Ford Motor Co. and MicrosoftCorp. executive, was one of only six Democrats to flip Republican-held House seats last November. He has spent his first few months in office balancing calls from Democrats to resist all aspects of President Donald Trump’s agenda with maintaining popularity in his Republican-leaning district, which narrowly voted for Mr. Trump.
“I don’t work for the national Democratic party,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I work for the Fifth Congressional District. There are things that are nonnegotiable, but there are plenty of areas like tax reform and infrastructure and certain regulatory reform that I believe are good for people back home.”
Mr. Gottheimer highlights in particular his work as co-chairman of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats. Members of the caucus vote as a bloc if 75% agree on an issue, Mr. Gottheimer said, and also pay dues and agree not to campaign with or contribute to one another’s campaign challengers. Some members, such as Mr. Gottheimer, come from competitive districts while others represent solidly Republican or Democratic districts.
The caucus’s members have met with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), as well as Mr. Trump and members of his cabinet. Mr. Gottheimer acknowledged that some of his Democratic colleagues wouldn’t take these meetings.
“I’ve got to do whatever I can to be at the table,” he said. “I’m not going to take the sit-out, obstructionist approach.”
Mr. Gottheimer, who won his seat by fewer than 15,000 votes, has already raised about $750,000 in the first four months of this year for his 2018 re-election campaign, according to federal election records. His effort to steer away from partisan battles is a solid re-election strategy given his GOP-leaning district, according to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “He really needs to burrow himself into that district, not to address national issues that polarize the parties,” she said.
Mr. Gottheimer’s district covers parts of northern New Jersey’s rural Sussex and Warren counties as well as parts of the more suburban Passaic and Bergen counties. The district was formerly held by Scott Garrett, a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Mr. Gottheimer’s bid for bipartisanship starts with early-morning workouts led by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R., Okla.), a former college wrestler who leads bruising cross-training routines attended by about a dozen lawmakers. Participants usually don’t discuss politics in the gym, but the workouts provide the opportunity to build relationships, Mr. Mullin said.
At a recent Problem Solvers Caucus meeting, closed to the media, the discussion centered on balancing national-security funding with spending for domestic programs. Members debated how much discretionary spending to support and how to pay for it, Mr. Gottheimer said.
His co-chair, Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.), said working with a small bipartisan group and the attractiveness of voting as a bloc has helped him find areas of compromise. He cited defense spending as one area where he has changed his mind.
“I’m willing to consider revenue increases in order to get a deal put together with the caucus,” said Mr. Reed, an early backer of Mr. Trump’s. “Typically I would not support that.”
Mr. Gottheimer, who said he calls or texts Mr. Reed three to four times a week, couldn’t think of a specific policy issue where he has changed his mind since coming to Washington. But he said he has been surprised by the degree of openness lawmakers have to bipartisanship.
“I sort of had a perspective that people would not really be open,” he said. “If you make the effort, there are a lot of people who want to get things done and work together.”
Ms. Binder said it isn’t clear how effective the bipartisan caucus can be. “It’s really hard for those groups to get traction in such a polarized Congress,” she said. “There’s not a lot of legislating going on; when issues do come up they tend to end up in centralized bargaining behind closed doors.”
Some of Mr. Gottheimer’s constituents are wary of his willingness to work with Republicans. Jeff Fox, a 66-year-old Paramus resident who founded a local chapter of the progressive grassroots movement Indivisible, said members were glad to see a Democrat elected and support Mr. Gottheimer’s more liberal positions, but are concerned about the effectiveness of his participation in the Problem Solvers Caucus.
“It just feels, more often than not, that the Democrats tend to give in and move more to the right than the Republicans do to the left,” Mr. Fox said, adding that he wants to see the congressman use his discussions with Republicans to push back against the GOP health care bill.
Mr. Gottheimer said he is trying to represent the interests of all his constituents regardless of their political affiliations.
Other constituents said they were heartened by Mr. Gottheimer’s efforts toward bipartisanship.
“At least he’s working with people,” said Steve Sluka, a 69-year-old Franklin resident and registered Republican. “I want him to go to the table, I want him to try to work with the Republicans to try to work on a good health care plan and start working on tax reform.”