West Orange Residents Question Absent Congressman at NJ 11th for Change Open Forum

Assemblyman John McKeon Adresses the Crowd at NJ 11th for Change Town Hall Meeting in Livingston Credits: Danielle Santola
Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein Listens to Concerns of District 11 Constituents Credits: Danielle Santola

LIVINGSTON, NJ  — Constituents of the 11th District who have been demanding answers from Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen attended one of four town hall meetings hosted by grassroots group NJ 11th for Change on Thursday at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.

More than 300 residents of Livingston and surrounding towns including West Orange, the Caldwells, Verona, Montclair, Wayne, Randolph and more hoped for a face-to-face with the congressman that they would not get—as the constituents addressed their concerns with a discussion panel in the absence of Frelinghuysen. Although NJ 11th for Change scheduled four town-hall-style meetings within the district for the congressman’s convenience, Frelinghuysen declined all invitations to attend.

“If our government is to be a truly representative one, we must ensure that our voices are heard,” said Ashley Barnes of NJ 11th for Change, who said that the congressman has not held a town hall meeting since 2013. “That’s our job, and tonight you have shown up for that job. Unfortunately, our congressman’s job performance has not been as exemplary as your own.”

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In his absence, West Orange resident Tammy Williams, chairperson of the West Orange Human Relations Committee, served as moderator in Livingston as a discussion was led by a panel of experts, including Livingston Mayor Shawn Klein; Assemblyman John McKeon; Karol Ruiz, co-president of Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center; Les Leopold, author and Executive Director of the Labor Institute; and Joel Cantor, Rutgers University Professor of Public Policy.

During the discussion, 11th District constituents voiced their concerns about a variety of issues, including but not limited to the Affordable Care Act, mass deportation, environmental concerns, protecting transgender students, women’s right to choose and more. Concerns were also raised about the congressman's change from a moderate republican to a conservative with a 100 percent party-line voting record this past year.

“I can’t speak for or explain the level of engagement for our congressman right now, but what I can say is that I’m very proud of the engagement of the rest of the elected representatives in this room right now,” said Klein, who acknowledged the entire Livingston Township Council, Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold, McKeon and others who were in attendance on Thursday. “The rest of your elected representatives are very engaged with you folks and we feel that it’s our job to be that way and we’re going to continue to do it.”

Klein also asked constituents to step away from the discussion for a moment to remember that the “most important election this year is for governor.”

“If you care about the environment, if you care about minimum wage and if you care about immigration, there is a huge governor choice coming up,” said Klein. “Not only because it’s one of the only two governor races this year, but most people will tell you that the governorship in New Jersey is the most powerful governorship in the country.”

Assemblyman Jon McKeon, a West Orange resident and former mayor of the same, echoed Klein by saying that the elected officials at a municipal level are there to listen to the concerns of citizens in their direct communities and do their best to find the answers they are looking for.  

McKeon added that he has always respected the congressman and has worked collaboratively with him in the past, but said he “hopes that Congressman Frelinghuysen has the moral compass to change what’s been happening and to be here with the people that he represents.”

“We don’t need what’s in Washington, we need our congressman to stand up for what we need,” said McKeon, speaking of issues specific to New Jersey, like the 114 toxic wastes sites in the state and the global warming that he said is not as instantaneous but is equally as lethal as nuclear weapons. “It’s our moral imperative as leaders of the free world, as citizens and for those who are privileged to be representing our interests to speak out.”

A Caldwell resident stood to thank NJ 11th for Change for organizing the event, saying that the only thing keeping her from falling into despair following the 2017 election is “to see people coming out in groups like this all over the country and speaking out [about] what’s been going on in this country.”

“I myself have actually gone door to door campaigning against Frelinghuysen for two previous elections,” she said. “So thank you to everyone who is now here and working on this NJ 11th for Change movement.”

Final thoughts came from a constituent who did not state his name, but received a standing ovation for his comment.

“A little over 60 years ago, there was a moderate republican from New Jersey who spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was also a republican at the time,” he said. “This moderate-republican congressman said, ‘By remaining silent, we permit the public to believe that most republicans condone the senator’s tactics. By remaining silent, we lend credence to the view that we prefer to risk losing our freedom than to offend a questionable asset to our party.’

“As many of you probably guessed, the moderate republican from New Jersey who said this in 1954 was representative Peter Frelinghuysen. So, my question for you, congressman, is how much damage does President Trump need to do to the country and also to the Republican Party before you stand up and find your own Peter Frelinghuysen moment?”

Livingston township councilman and former mayor Michael Silverman was enthusiastic about the turnout of this event and said that the atmosphere was “positive for change.”

“It does not have to be political—it’s about changing so that everyone in the district can benefit,” said Silverman. “It’s disappointing that our elected representative does not want or does not think he has to meet with his constituents. I would hope that that would change over the next year or two or someone should run against Frelinghuysen—someone who is interested in representing the people rather than representing his or her own interests.” 

According to NJ 11th for Change, the group’s philosophy is “rooted in the belief that decency and fairness is the public's right” and its mission is to advance common-sense policies that are in the best interests of all. The group gathers every Friday for what it calls “Fridays with Frelinghuysen” to write and deliver letters to the congressman's staff.

Fridays with Frelinghuysen are held at the Starbucks located at 40 Park Place, in Morristown at 11 a.m. weekly, before walking to the congressman's office at 30 Schuyler Place in Morristown. For more information, click HERE

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