Josh Gottheimer (D) undertook a herculean task – to defeat a 14-year incumbent representative who had a powerful hold on CD5, a loyal following in the western part of his district, and multi-million dollar total contributions from financial institutions and other corporations. Over the years there was a persistent “Retire Garrett” effort while Democrats tried and failed to unseat him.Then came Gottheimer who began his campaign with 0 recognition from the public and no war chest. However, after less than two years, he defeated Scott Garrett (R), won the election, and became New Jersey’s seventh Democratic member of our congressional delegation. This is a story of how he did it.
Gottheimer was born and grew up in North Caldwell. He spent his university years and most of his career out of state. After working at Ford Motor Company, Burson-Marsteller, and the Federal Communications Commission he joined Microsoft in 2012 as a General Manager of Corporate Strategy. He moved to Wyckoff in the eastern part of CD5 where he established his residence and office.
In spite of his extensive business career, he did not launch his campaign as a political novice. He early on gained useful political experience working for leading Democratic politicians. At 16 he served as a page for Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Through high school and college he held internships with CNN, the United States Senate and Rep. Tom Foley. At the Univ. of Pennsylvania he served on Bill Clinton’s re-election rapid response team and then at 23 years old as a speechwriter for Clinton. While attending Harvard Law School he worked for Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, and then Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In 2003 he established his progressive social credentials. He published Ripples of Freedom, a compilation of speeches, showing how the civil rights movement in America has been ever evolving, with one generation of leaders building on the accomplishments – and the rhetoric – of those before them. In the Preface Bill Clinton writes, “As one of my speechwriters, Mr. Gottheimer’s passion for speaking truth to power was evident to me…. I thank him for his enduring commitment to the cause of civil and social justice.” Gottheimer went on to become a senior advisor to the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
So when he returned to new Jersey in 2012 and before launching his campaign he was already steeped in nitty-gritty politics, plus, he had thought and written about the African-American, women’s, Hispanic-American and Asian-American movements in his book. In addition he began his quest in late 2014, starting early, about two years before the election giving himself much more time than most challengers to build a solid campaign edifice.
Gottheimer was aided by the redistricting, based on the 2010 census, which added more Democrats to the district. Nonetheless, such did not provide a victory for Garrett’s challenger in 2014. Roy Cho, who raised $1.3 million and launched a strong campaign against Garrett, lost by 13 points. Also, Gottheimer was aided by Garrett who could not help himself from voting in favor of conservative/Tea Party objectives and against many reasonable bills which a broad swath of the electorate supported.
It was clear to Gottheimer that to defeat the well-heeled Garrett he needed to raise a huge war chest. It was also apparent that Gottheimer’s position on social issues, particularly equality and civil rights, was more in tune with the electorate. Equally important in a district with more Republicans than Democrats was a centrist political message. He said, “I’m a moderate — fiscally-conservative and socially-progressive.“ His fiscal position was one closely associated with both Clintons, especially the former president.
However, having been out-of-state so long, his public recognition in New Jersey and particularly in CD5 was zero. Nonetheless, he had developed an extensive network of national allies, assembled over two decades in the Clinton universe. In one of many meetings he attended a cluster of political donors gathered in the downtown Little Rock, Ark., office of Wesley K. Clark, in January 2015 as the retired general praised Gottheimer. Attending were alumni of President Bill Clinton’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
By the end of March 2015 he had raised $219,000 primarily from out-of-state sources and still a long way from the amount needed. Of the 120 donors only 25 were from New Jersey. None were influential politicians, the most prominent donor perhaps being business executive Don Katz. He was still unknown to the general public and working only part-time on his campaign with minimal social media presence and very few public appearances.
Nonetheless, yesterday he won the election and provided us with a sigh of relief with the fall of Garrett. How sweet it is! I will write more in Part II on how in the succeeding months he did it.