The Rodney Report: Influence, Intimidation and Preserving Democracy

The Rodney Report is NJ 11th for Change's Weekly Analysis of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's Words and Deeds.

  • Comey Fired, Rodney....Nonchalant
  • Breakfast Without Rodney
  • Frelinghuysen’s Post-AHCA Tele-Town Hall
  • Challenging the Frelinghuysen Status QuoFrelinghuysenMonopoly--PamWye-2.jpg


Features of our democracy that we typically take for granted — like the ability to question our elected officials and hold them to account — can suddenly look very shaky, as recent events have demonstrated in D.C. and closer to home. The President abruptly fired an FBI chief who was in the middle of investigating Oval Office ties to Russian influences. And as a couple of local developments demonstrated, NJ-11’s Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen hasn’t been handling independent thinkers so well, either.

‘One of the Ring Leaders’: Rodney Puts On The Pressure

This morning, National Public Radio ran a piece by reporter Nancy Solomon, focusing on a handwritten note sent by Rep. Frelinghuysen to the employer of his constituent Saily Avelenda, a member of NJ 11th For Change. (The story quickly gained major traction, being picked up by the AP, The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Independent (UK), Politico and, among many others.)

As a result of this letter, Avelenda was subjected to intense and unwelcome scrutiny about her personal views, directly contributing to her decision to resign her job. NJ 11th For Change is outraged and alarmed by Frelinghuysen’s intimidating action against a constituent who opposes him politically. Has he used such actions before, and (a disquieting thought) will he use them in the future? We would like a statement guaranteeing that citizens will not be subjected to the targeting that Saily Avelenda experienced..


It’s a bad sign for the democracy when elected officials attempt to intimidate constituents from speaking out. It won’t work on NJ 11th For Change. We stand with Saily Avelenda and remain committed to having our voices heard."  The full text of our statement is here.

Comey Fired, Rodney ... Nonchalant

President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey came at a particularly striking moment last week, with a Senate panel hearing testimony into reports of Russian collusion with the president’s close associates. Despite Trump’s implausible reasoning for this extraordinary firing, the timing strongly suggests a link to the FBI’s Russia investigation. NJ 11th For Change calls upon NJ-11 Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen to join calls for a truly independent entity to investigate Russian influence in our elections and possible collaboration with the Trump campaign.

The news of Comey’s firing broke in the middle of Tuesday’s telephone Town Hall between NJ-11 constituents and Frelinghuysen, who declared himself “surprised that he’s gone, but in this business, I guess nothing is too surprising.” Surely it is at least a bit “too surprising” for a president to fire an FBI director who happens to be investigating that president.

Several sources have reported that Comey asked the previous week for expanded investigatory resources from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who subsequently wrote the memorandum recommending Comey’s termination.

The president’s subsequent statements and actions have done nothing to allay concerns, with reports emerging this afternoon that Trump revealed sensitive information to Russia’s U.S. ambassador and foreign minister in a White House meeting last week. Trump has also doubled down by tweeting that Comey “better hope there are not tapes of our conversations before leaking to the press.” Many legal experts have said this threat raises questions of whether Trump has opened himself up to charges of obstructing an ongoing investigation.

It’s time for a truly bipartisan move -- Republicans and Democrats together demanding an independent investigation. It is the only way to restore citizens’ faith that our democracy truly is, as Abraham Lincoln eloquently said, embodied in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Breakfast Without Rodney

A heavy police presence surrounded Frelinghuysen at a members-only Morris County Chamber of Commerce breakfast held Friday in Florham Park.

NJ 11th For Change members waited quietly in the lobby of the Wyndham Park Hotel, where the event was held, hoping to invite Frelinghuysen for coffee. But he avoided them and bypassed main entrances. Since January, NJ 11th For Change has lobbied Frelinghuysen to hold Town Halls to address his constituents, but Frelinghuysen, who has not held one in more than three years, has refused.

The county Chamber’s breakfast, billed as a “Washington Update,’’ was initially open to the public at a price of $75. But after tickets went on sale, non-member ticket purchasers, including constituents from NJ 11th For Change, were barred and given refunds.

At the breakfast, Frelinghuysen repeated rhetoric from his official statements on the AHCA and other issues. He defended his vote to approve the AHCA as a “step in the right direction” to “fix a broken system,’’ according to The Daily Record. Once again, he repeated that, under the AHCA, insurance companies can’t deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions but failed to mention that they can dramatically hike premiums for “high-risk” patients.

Attendees had a chance to ask Frelinghuysen questions directly at the event, which listed several major corporations as “Gold Sponsors,’’ including Pfizer, a Frelinghuysen campaign donor, the Daily Record reported. One audience member asked why Republicans weren’t holding President Trump accountable for lying and misstating facts. Frelinghuysen replied that some congressional representatives have been “very outspoken,” adding that he, himself, has been “at times…critical of the president.’’ But Frelinghuysen has never publicly chastised Trump for any untruths.

During the event, police told NJ 11th For Change that if members were not doing “legitimate hotel business” on property outside the Wyndham, their cars could be towed. (“How will they know which cars belong to us?’’ asked member Lori Heineger. ) Heineger and NJ 11th For Change co-founder Elizabeth Juviler were also warned against “protesting” on the property, although no members were protesting and nearly all were waiting inside the lobby, coffee in hand. (“There are no signs, no buttons, no chanting,’’ explained Juviler).

At the event, Frelinghuysen seemed to allude to NJ 11th For Change in this puzzling quote: “We live in a global world where you can push a button and have 100 protesters outside my office in 10 minutes … Obviously, in more recent times, people have come forward with what their facts are. In an open and free society, I'm listening to all points of view."

NJ 11th For Change hopes Frelinghuysen will share more information about this button, which would save us much time and expense. We’d also like to remind him, again, that if he held a Town Hall it would be easier for constituents in our “open and free society” to “come forward with their facts” and provide him with “all points of view.’’

Frelinghuysen’s Post-AHCA Tele-Town Hall

After the AHCA narrowly passed the House, Tom MacArthur (NJ-3), one of only two New Jersey representatives to vote in its favor, defended his vote in a town hall lasting nearly five hours. Not so for the other yea voter, NJ-11’s own Rodney Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen has not held an in-person town hall in four years, and not even the uproar from constituents over his shocking flip in favor of the AHCA could change that. Instead he went for business as usual: an hour-long telephone town hall on Tuesday, May 9. Over 6000 people participated but only a tiny fraction had the opportunity to ask questions. Read the transcript here.

Frelinghuysen’s opening statement repeated his most common AHCA talking points, including Obamacare’s failings and the AHCA’s promised protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions. This did little to calm the fears of the lucky few who asked questions, like Jeff, a lifelong Republican whose wife is a cancer survivor. Jeff talked about availability vs. affordability: “I’m able to buy a yacht,” he said. “It’s there. But I cannot afford a yacht.”

Left unaddressed were healthcare affordability, $192 million in missing high-risk pool funding, the impact of $880 billion in Medicaid cuts -- and why those cuts were unacceptable to Frelinghuysen in the first version of AHCA, but acceptable enough for a yes vote the second time around.

News of James Comey’s firing broke during the call, and Frelinghuysen seemed to indicate a distaste for the chaos of the current administration, but stopped short of discussing the need for an independent investigation.

Finally, Frelinghuysen gave a rather testy nod to the many constituents who continue to call him with concerns for the district and the country. Seeming to contradict his town-hall motto of “I’m listening,” Frelinghuysen described many of these calls as “highly orchestrated,”adding: “For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off.”

Apparently Frelinghuysen does not want to consider our concerns. Our congressman wants us to stop calling.

To that, NJ 11th For Change has a simple response – No.

Challenging the Frelinghuysen Status Quo

Even with midterms a ways down the road, two Democrats have officially challenged Rodney for the 11th District’s congressional seat, as reported last week.

Mikie Sherrill of Montclair, a former Navy helicopter pilot and a federal prosecutor, told the Chatham Courier that “after 22 years in Washington, Rodney Frelinghuysen has stopped listening and stopped talking to his constituents.” A graduate of the Naval Academy who subsequently earned a global history degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown University, Sherrill characterized the incumbent’s House votes as “straight down the line with Donald Trump.”

Boonton’s Jack Gebbia spent five years in the Army National Guard and earned degrees in international studies and international policy development and economics at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California. Addressing Chatham Democrats last Tuesday, he took Frelinghuysen to task for sponsoring relatively little legislation during his long tenure – 154 measures, only eight of which were approved. Gebbia contended that “the majority of those bills were not to the benefit of the 11th District.”

Pretty interesting developments, so early in the cycle – and certainly a lot more energizing than watching a ficus take on Frelinghuysen. (And if you’re wondering what that’s about, check out our Rodney Redux trip down memory lane to the year 2000, when filmmaker Michael Moore put a potted plant into the NJ-11 race.)

— By Lynn Halsey, Jane J. Hunsecker, Elizabeth Juvelir, Liz Lynch, Naomi Rand and Karen Rose