Conservative Democratic Ringleader Josh Gottheimer Gets A Progressive Challenger

Arati Kreibich hopes to fight Big Money ― and the New Jersey congressman ― with "people power."

Arati Kreibich says the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the immigration vote last month.

Amid reports of widespread abuse in detention centers, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) led a revolt of 18 conservative Democrats. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t give up a slate of humanitarian protections for migrants, Gottheimer’s faction would blow up a key border funding bill.

Gottheimer got what he wanted: Pelosi dropped the protections and the House ultimately passed billions of dollars in funding for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement without adding any strings. In the weeks since, high-profile reports indicate that human rights violations at the border have continued.

Arati Kreibich has launched a primary challenge against conservative Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer.
Arati Kreibich has launched a primary challenge against conservative Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer.
Courtesy of the Arati Kreibich campaign

Kreibich, 44, was stunned. So stunned that she’s now launched a primary challenge to Gottheimer for his seat in Congress.

“Not only did he not stand up for the children in cages, for the humanitarian crisis that’s happening at the border ― he actively worked against the party on this,” Kreibich told HuffPost. “This is not leadership. It’s folding.”

Just a year ago, Kreibich was a volunteer for Gottheimer’s reelection bid against Republican John McCann. Her doubts about the congressman have been mounting since, and his immigration work pushed her over the edge.

“It has become clear that he is just not doing the job that we asked him to do,” she told HuffPost on Monday, shortly after announcing her intent to run against him. “He’s actively working against us.”

Her declaration elevates the contest for New Jersey’s 5th District into a key 2020 battle over the future of the party. In taking on Gottheimer, Kreibich ― a neuroscientist, Indian immigrant and mother of two ― is taking direct aim at a locus of conservative power within the Democratic caucus as well as the big-money-friendly model for candidates in swing districts that the party has relied on for decades.

Gottheimer chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, an alliance between Republicans and conservative Democrats that advances the priorities of corporate interests in both parties. He’s a blockbuster fundraiser who already has over $5.6 million in the bank for his 2020 contest, fueled by large donations from Wall Street banks, private equity firms and hedge funds, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

He courts photo-ops with President Donald Trump, supports Saudi Arabia’s grisly war in Yemen, and was one of just six House Democrats last year to break with the party over the Dream Act ― a bill that would establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with a high school degree.

Gottheimer also voted for a bank deregulation bill that Trump signed into law in 2018 and uses his perch on the House Financial Services Committee to raise money from financial institutions and flatter them in public hearings. In April, he told JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and a slate of other Wall Street CEOs that he was “very grateful” for “how much has been invested in our country” by big banks.

“Stuffing a campaign account with big checks ― that’s a weakness, not a strength,” said Kreibich. “It’s leading from a position of fear, making yourself beholden to big money.”

Kreibich is relatively new to politics. As a neuroscientist, she specialized in research on addiction, stress, anxiety and autism. She still conducts research on muscular dystrophy for the nonprofit Charley’s Fund, but Trump’s election in 2016 was a turning point in her political consciousness. She decided to run for office and in 2017 became the first South Asian woman to win a seat on the Glen Rock, New Jersey, borough council. Born in India, she had moved to the United States at age 11 and spent her teenage years in Queens, becoming an American citizen at 19.

She’s running as an unabashed progressive in a district that historically backed Republicans prior to Gottheimer’s 2016 victory. She supports “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and the restoration of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms that Gottheimer and Republicans have chipped away at since the law was passed. Her campaign is a bet not only that progressive values can take down a corporate war chest in a Democratic primary, but that progressive economic ideas will resonate with independents and Republican voters in a general election.

“When I talk to constituents, the anxiety, the worry that we have been feeling since the recession … that’s not a Democrat or Republican issue, that’s an everyday life issue,” she said. “We worry about how we’re going to pay for health care. We worry about student debt and our kids’ college tuition.”

Other early primary challengers to announce bids against incumbent Democrats this year have clearly been inspired by frustration among the rank-and-file with the House majority’s tepid oversight of the Trump administration. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) drew a primary challenge after being slow to seek the president’s tax returns, while Lindsay Boylan is taking on House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.J.) almost exclusively over Nadler’s failure to bring impeachment proceedings against Trump.

But both Nadler and Neal are otherwise liberal Democrats. With Gottheimer, his challenger’s attack is clearly ideological and issue-driven. He doesn’t have a leadership position, and his main function in Congress is helping Republicans foil progressive initiatives within the Democratic Party.

Gottheimer enjoys the support of the New Jersey political establishment, and his campaign is already touting endorsements from state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, New Jersey state Democratic Chairman John Currie, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano, Sussex County Democratic Chairwoman Katie Rotondi and Warren County Democratic Chairman Tom Palmieri.

“Josh Gottheimer flipped the Fifth District when nobody thought it was possible and it is as important as ever that we keep the Fifth blue,” Currie said in a statement provided to HuffPost by Gottheimer’s campaign. “We need the strongest possible candidate who can win a swing district that Trump won and that is Congressman Josh Gottheimer.”

As part of the greater New York City media market, the 5th District is an expensive place to run for Congress. And Democrats have traditionally recruited candidates with close ties to corporate interests in swing districts, hoping that corporate money will pay for effective campaign advertising in the general election. But even traditional Republican strongholds in suburban districts have been shifting Democratic in recent years, with Democrats winning seats in once-deep-red Orange County, California, and Oklahoma City in 2018. Some of those candidates have been proud progressives ― notably, Reps. Katie Porter and Katie Hill, two freshmen who wrested suburban Southern California seats away from conservative Republicans.

If she hopes to follow in their footsteps, Kreibich will need to get money from somewhere. She said she will not be accepting corporate PAC money, hoping her campaign can court small donors and support from new progressive institutions in the Democratic Party firmament, including Indivisible ― whose 5th District chair supports her candidacy ― and Justice Democrats, the activist group that helped elect Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

Kreibich said her district has been trending blue for the last five years, and her campaign will run on “people power,” mobilizing the grassroots Democrats who helped flip the House in 2018.

“The influence of money is a huge one and this cuts across all party lines. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want to curb the influence of money in politics,” she said, before correcting herself. “Well ― I know a select few.”

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