Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey’s Man in the Middle

Freshman Democrat in a conservative bastion wants centrists to be a force in Congress

Rep. Josh Gottheimer. Alyana Alfaro for Observer

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a freshman Democrat from one of New Jersey’s most conservative districts, says he’s on a mission to neutralize the ideologues in Congress.

He got an early taste of victory last week, when President Trump signed a $1 trillion spending bill that averted a government shutdown. The plan includes a $15 billion increase in military spending and an additional $1.5 billion for border security — but no money for the wall Trump wants to build on the U.S.-Mexico border. And it doesn’t cut funding for Planned Parenthood or sanctuary cities, as some on the right wanted.

In a week when House Republicans from the conservative Freedom Caucus secured deep cuts to Medicaid and major changes to the Affordable Care Act, Gottheimer (D-5) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the Problem Solvers Caucus were a driving force behind the spending bill. It passed 309-118 in the House with relatively little fanfare, and no support from the Freedom Caucus.

With 35 members or so from swing districts across the country, the Problem Solvers Caucus can be an effective counterweight to forces on both the far right and left, Gottheimer said. He leads the group along with Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican.

“There had been a caucus but I think more for show than substance,” he said. “It didn’t have real intense bylaws and sort of a thesis. What we did this year is a group of us got together … and said, ‘OK, what are some of the biggest factors for polarization right now and for gridlock?’ One of the biggest ones was, you know, you’ve got the far left and you’ve got the far right, especially with the Republican side.”

The Problem Solvers Caucus, which is closely aligned with the group No Labels, takes a position on issues if 75 percent of members agree and as long as most Democrats and most Republicans are onboard. The continuing resolution to fund the government through September was the group’s first real test, Gottheimer said.

“On the Republican side, you would imagine they wanted ideological riders to muster the votes, and on the Democratic side, you don’t want to give any wins and you also want to include proactive language in the CR that says, ‘President Trump can’t do A, B and C on health care,’” he said.

Republicans did get $1.3 billion to cover health benefits for 22,000 retired coal miners and an extra $1.5 billion for border security. Democrats protected funding for Planned Parenthood, increased funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion, and secured $295 million for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid expenses. The bill also boosts funding for NASA and law enforcement agencies.

But it could have been derailed, as in 2011, when tea party Republicans blocked a spending plan and shut down the government. The vote math is similar today: House Speaker Paul Ryan has a 23-seat Republican advantage, and the Freedom Caucus has 30 members.

“It’s a killer,” Gottheimer said. “So how do you give a voice to the middle and can the middle actually have influence?”

A fast-talking 42-year-old who wrote speeches for former president Bill Clinton, then worked for the Federal Communications Commission, Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft, Gottheimer was one of the Democratic Party’s few success stories in the November elections. With backing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an army of Clinton donors, Gottheimer spent $4.7 million on his race and defeated the arch-conservative former Rep. Scott Garrett, becoming the first Democrat to win the 5th District since the Great Depression.

It’s no wonder that Gottheimer, perhaps as a result, is one of the most conservative Democrats in North Jersey. He wants to reduce the corporate tax rate, cut red tape, and roll back some parts of the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul for banks.

On Dodd-Frank: “If you don’t have an amazing credit now, pristine credit, because of the liability, the banks have zero incentive to get into that business. So what’s happened is, it’s made it much more difficult to actually get a loan. And if you deserve one for a house that matches what you can afford – not subprime or things that are out of your means – but things even you can afford, you no longer can get a loan. That affects real folks.”

On cutting regulations: “I worked for years at the FCC, and I was amazed by how many regulations were out of date or no longer applied, but they were just sitting on the books, and the cost the economy a fortune because what happens is you still have to fill out the paperwork from the radio-era days. And why not get rid of it and save consumers money? Because these costs get passed on.”

Gottheimer with President Clinton in 2000. Ralph Alswang/AFP/Getty Images

In perhaps the biggest break from the Democratic Party line, Gottheimer said that he’s open to Trump’s tax plan, which would cut rates dramatically for businesses and individuals and repeal the alternative minimum tax and the estate tax. But he would first like to see more details.

“My broader position is, I’m encouraged by lower taxes … and I think we have to be moving in that direction,” he said. At 35 percent, he added, the corporate tax is too punishing for businesses. However, reducing it to 15 percent, as Trump proposed, could be taking things too far, he said.

“I think his reaction to your questions indicates that he really understands the nature of his congressional district and wants to bring himself as much as possible in line with what he interprets to be the political mood of the district,” said Ross K. Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University. “He replaced Scott Garrett, who was a congressional Republican who was elected multiple times. So there’s a constituency there for Scott Garrett type of politics, if not for Garrett himself.”

Former Rep. Rob Andrews, a South Jersey Democrat, climbed up the leadership ladder in the House as an articulate voice from the left wing of the party and got plum assignments from the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Gottheimer, on the other hand, proudly wears the centrist badge and has been on a PR blitz to promote the Problem Solvers Caucus. But Baker said Pelosi is not likely to hold it against him.

“The minority leader is acutely sensitive to the political needs of members of her caucus,” he said. “Every congressional leader I know of has had this tolerance of people who declare themselves to be either Democrats or Republicans but who don’t necessarily follow the leadership line.”

“This one seat in New Jersey won by Josh Gottheimer got her one seat closer to being speaker again,” Baker added. “She will do everything in her power to make sure that Josh Gottheimer survives and thrives in that district.”

Mike Soliman, a top Democratic strategist at Mercury Public Affairs, said “the centrist positions he’s taken will help him as he makes a career in Democratic politics because New Jerseyans come from the left, right and center.”

“It’s important to reach a middle ground in Washington in order to get anything done — and in that process, Gottheimer happens to be representing the way his voters feel — so it’s an honest approach that’s a win-win for New Jersey and Josh’s standing in the party,” he said.

The Cook Political Report lists the 5th District as one of eight in the country that “lean Democratic,” meaning it will be in play again for Republicans in the 2018 midterms, and the National Republican Cogressional Committee has put a target on Gottheimer’s back.

The congressman is already gearing up for an expensive re-election battle. He shattered fundraising records nationwide last year by spending $4.7 million on his campaign, and broke another record by raising $750,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Potential GOP challengers include businessman Chuck Shotmeyer; TV host Lou Dobbs; Gov. Chris Christie’s loyal state Republican Party Chairman, Sam Raia; and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen), who recently said, “In all likelihood, I will not be running.”

Since taking office in January, it’s rare for Gottheimer to take a day off on Saturday instead of hosting a coffee meet-and-greet or some other retail politics event in his district. Improving roads and rail service for his commuting constituents and getting a better “return on investment” for the tax dollars sent to Washington are top priorities, Gottheimer said during an interview at a diner near his home in Wyckoff before rushing off to an art competition hosted by his office.

The Gateway project to expand rail capacity to Manhattan is high on the to-do list, and he has proposed an “Anti-Moocher Bill,” which would give tax credits to people whose districts get less funding from the feds than the taxes they pay. (Getting the bill enacted would be a tough, uphill battle.)

“We in the 5th District get 33 cents back on the dollar, half the state average,” he said. “I don’t mean to pick on West Virginia, but it’s the number that I know. It gets back $4.23. Some states get more. That to me is a big issue because it’s another way to get our taxes back down.” More federal grants for, say, firefighters or police, translate into lower property tax bills at the local level.

“We’ve got investments we need to make. We can’t afford to carry others,” he said. “We’re not living the Life of Riley here. … We can’t fix our potholes.”

Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey’s Man in the Middle