Freeholder Bartlett Exploring Challenge to Frelinghuysen

John Bartlett. John Bartlett

Another potential Democratic challenger to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen has emerged: Passaic County Freeholder John Bartlett.

A Harvard Law graduate who unseated a Republican after a tough race in 2012 and was then re-elected to the freeholder board in 2015, Bartlett told Observer he is “strongly considering” a run for the 11th congressional district in the 2018 midterms.

“I haven’t made the final decision yet but I’m encouraged,” he said. “It’s clear that the path to 218 Democrats in Congress runs through districts like New Jersey’s 11th.” (Democrats need 218 seats in the House to gain the majority.)

Bartlett is not the first Democrat — and likely not the last, either — to announce he’s exploring a bid. He is a partner at the law firm Murphy Orlando, working with former Morris County Prosecutor Michael Murphy, the Democratic strategist and former candidate for New Jersey governor.

Bartlett said he met with staff from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., last week. He is adding his name to a list of potential challengers that includes Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and Mikie Sherrill, a U.S. Navy veteran and former federal prosecutor who has already declared her candidacy.

Frelinghuysen, who became chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in January, has cruised to re-election since first taking his congressional seat 22 years ago. But the Republican has come under fire this year for his vote in favor of President Trump’s American Health Care Act, which would cut $834 billion from Medicaid over the next decade and potentially cut health coverage for 470,000 New Jerseyans, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

And there are signs that the political wind is changing in his district. Frelinghuysen has seen an outburst of anti-Trump activism this year in what has traditionally been regarded as one of the most heavily Republican areas, centered around the Morris County suburbs. He has seen the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections shift his district slightly to the left this year. And he has taken flak for targeting a constituent who became active in a new super PAC called NJ 11th for Change.

“We’re a bunch of citizens,” said John Hartinger, a member of the super PAC’s steering committee. “Most of us have only become active after the November election. We are not — despite some of the crazy slander on the far right — we are not paid activists. We are citizens speaking out as ordinary citizens. And to have one of us be targeted at our place of work by a sitting congressman is just appalling.”

Hartinger said that as a super PAC, NJ 11th for Change does not support any individual candidate, but he said the group has recruited more than 7,000 members this year due to frustrations with Frelinghuysen.

“I don’t know that Frelinghuysen has ever faced a well-funded, well-organized challenger who has put together a campaign a year and a half before the election,” he said.

Bartlett, who has a reputation as a tough campaigner, said it was “very, very troubling” for Frelinghuysen to support the AHCA and said the district is poorly served by a congressman “who votes with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time.” He co-authored a resolution adopted by the Passaic County freeholder board in February urging Trump to drop his ban on travelers from majority-Muslim countries.

“Between senior citizens and veterans and so many people who are dependent not only Medicaid directly, but on facilities and hospitals that depend on Medicaid, it was a vote completely at odds with the interests of the people of New Jersey,” he said.

Democrats say that the 11th District race will be at the center of the national spotlight next year and that they hope to recruit a candidate who knows the issues, has the energy to raise money and work the phones and the rope lines, and presents a stark contrast to Frelinghuysen, an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune with a long political lineage in the state.

But political observers say the seat will be a tough pickup for Democrats unless as part of a bigger wave election.

McKeon, the state assemblyman, also has met with the DCCC and has been speaking out more forcefully on national issues lately. But he has not yet decided whether to jump into the race. Sherrill, for her part, announced Tuesday that she has been endorsed by VoteVets, a political action committee that works to elect veterans.

“Thanks to organizations like VoteVets we are seeing more and more veterans running for Congress who are not afraid of taking on President Trump and the Republican leadership whose dangerous agenda devalues America’s core values,” Sherrill said in a statement.