WASHINGTON – After President Donald Trump’s first Joint Congressional Address, many Democrats reacted with fury. “The President’s speech was utterly disconnected from the cruel reality of his conduct,” charged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Some House Democrats even gave Trump thumb down signs in the middle of his speech responding to a call for repealing the Affordable Care Act.
However, in an interview with Jewish Insider, Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) took a completely different approach. The New Jersey lawmaker cited five policies in which he agrees with the GOP leader during the February 28 address: “infrastructure, tax reform, aspects of regulatory reform, a strong foreign policy, and standing by veterans and law enforcement.” While objecting to Trump’s immigration stance, Gottheimer insisted that remaining objective was critical to maintaining credibility. “You have to call balls and strikes,” he asserted.
Even during a round of voting, Gottheimer insists on speaking with his young children, Ellie and Ben via FaceTime at 6:30 each evening. He starts his day with an early morning workout session led by former Mixed Martial Arts fighter Markwayne Mullin. His family is a “split household” with the Congressman an ardent Yankees fan while his wife Marla is a Mets supporter. A strong backer of increased funds to protect Jewish and other religious places of worship, religious discrimination hit close to home as a flyer during the campaign’s last days depicting the Democratic candidate showed him with devil’s horns. The race was tight with the freshman lawmaker unseating his Republican opponent Scott Garrett, a seven-term Congressman.
With nearly every Democratic senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — except for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez — opposing the President’s nomination for US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, Gottheimer acknowledged that Israel is no longer the unifying force on Capitol Hill it once was. “I think it’s really unsettling. It has become much more partisan than it should be,” he said while touting his longtime AIPAC membership. “Israel is our key strategic ally in the region and it is the democracy of the region. That’s why historically it has had such bipartisan support because it is good for America’s national security for us to have a strong relationship with Israel.”
A graduate of Harvard Law School, the New Jersey native worked as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton working on multiple State of the Union addresses, a role Gottheimer called “a once in a lifetime experience.” Working in such an intense environment, he described his previous government service as “the most challenging job I ever had.” The Harvard alum was especially impressed with the 42nd President having “such a keen understanding of policy and politics and communications all wrapped up… He was an indomitable leader.”
Gottheimer then headed to the private sector working at Microsoft as General Manager for Corporate Strategy. After observing all of the partisan bickering in Washington, Gottheimer was motivated to enter Congress and solve problems as “somebody who did a lot of deals in the private sector.” After informing his wife, he joked “she sent me out of the room onto the couch for a couple of days.”
Despite Gottheimer’s willingness to cross party lines, he still has stuck to certain red lines, especially regarding Trump’s Executive Order relating to refugees. Following the President’s first roll-out, the New Jersey lawmaker invoked the Holocaust, noting his wife’s grandparents who immigrated to America right after World War II while the rest of the family was slaughtered.“What happened during the Holocaust, we turned our backs. The history is pretty clear on this. We did not do everything that we could have done. You have to remember these moments in history,” he explained. “It’s a false choice to say that you cannot protect your country and also preserve your values and character.”
Jewish Insider: Why did you run for Congress?
Congressman Josh Gottheimer: “So I could do an interview with Jewish Insider. It was my entire objective. I ran because I was in business, worked most recently at Microsoft, and I started my career working for President Clinton and it was a very different time. People actually were willing to work together and sit at the table: Democrats, Republicans and some independents and find some common ground. I think most people see things have only gotten more polarizing. Too many people I thought were only going to Washington to scream at each other and not solve problems. Somebody who did a lot of deals in the private sector, made companies and you think you are going to get 100% of what you want and you realize that of course the best way to move forward is you are going to get 80% of what you want. Like most people, I was frustrated. The person I ran against, I thought his views were way off track from the people I represent in the district of New Jersey. I flew home one day. I had just worked on developing a product and finished an hours-long marathon meeting. We started far apart and got pretty close. We were pretty happy that we accomplished something. I took the red-eye home from the West Coast that night, walked-in and saw my wife the next morning and said I got this idea and then she sent me out of the room onto the couch for a couple of days.”
JI: After the President’s Address to Congress, you praised Trump for his stance on tax reform and infrastructure. Why did you differ from many Democrats who harshly condemned Trump?
Gottheimer: “I said where I thought he was heading in the right direction. I think I said places where I agree that I should support it like infrastructure, tax reform, and aspects of regulatory reform, a strong foreign policy, and standing by veterans and law enforcement. Those are areas I agreed with what he had to say. You have to call balls and strikes. When I disagree with him, and there are plenty where I disagree with him publicly as well, like his approach to immigration reform, some of his actions that he has taken there, which I think have undermined our national security or his moves against choice and women’s health care or tearing up the ACA without a smart solution in place, I made clear that I disagreed with him. I think that’s responsible leadership in that you are supposed to call them how you see them and not just obstruct for the sake of obstructing.”
JI: Besides your political views, what are some elements of your personality or character that many in Washington may not realize?
Gottheimer: “The most important thing in my life are my kids. The office will tell you at 6:30 everyday, even when I’m voting, I’ll go into a little booth and Facetime with my kids. I have a 5 year old and a 7 year old. That keeps you focused and grounded. That is what drives me every day. I have an amazing wife. You keep everything in perspective: your family is first. I think that’s really important. I love my friends and I always try to find time to call them even with all of this. My workout in the morning is important to me. I’m doing this cross fit now. There is a group of us, 10-12 depending on the day and how tired people are. 6:30 in the morning. Run by a guy named Markwayne Mullin who was an MMA fighter from Oklahoma. He runs a very tough class. That is the best place where you can – it’s bipartisan and you get to actually know people. A lot of this is about relationships. It’s easy to attacks somebody when you don’t know them. I think that’s part of the problem. We don’t spend enough time talking with each other across the aisle. If you want to solve a problem, you need to talk to each other. I love watching the Giants. My household is a split household. My wife is a Mets fan. It’s a big issue. I’m a big Yankees fan. So far, I have won over my daughter. My son is wavering. The in-laws buy them Mets t-shirts and my parents buy them Yankees t-shirts.”
JI: On Thursday, all of the Democrats except one, voted against David Friedman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Do you see Israel increasingly turning into a partisan issue?
Gottheimer: “Yes, and I think it’s really unsettling. It has become much more partisan than it should be. Israel is our key strategic ally in the region and it is the democracy of the region. That’s why historically it has had such bipartisan support because it is good for America’s national security for us to have a strong relationship with Israel. That is something I worried about before I ran. It was a big issue on my campaign. I talked a lot about the importance of our relationship with Israel and making sure Israel is fortified and has what it needs to defend itself and therefore our interests as well in the region. The MOU is important development. Iron Dome before that. This is all essential to making sure that Israel can defend itself.”
“It predated the most recent Administration and this Administration. I think there were some accurate and some misperceptions about the last Administration whether it’s some of their rhetorical views or early strategic moves that sent a signal that maybe they weren’t as strong on Israel as you would like. As somebody who was watching from the outside, I’ll tell you that was an issue. The Iran Deal, which I think was a very hot issue that divided people pretty clearly. I came out early against the Iran Deal for a position that was counter to a lot of my soon-to be colleagues. I’ll tell you: I got a lot of pushback from Democrats and I thought it wasn’t even a close call. I understand why it was a hard decision for people. You see some of what’s happened with ballistic missiles with what seems to be continued development on the R&D side towards a nuclear program with the timeline hanging out there and with the billions of dollars being pushed to Hezbollah and finding their way to Hamas and others. They are terrorists. My biggest issue is leaving the date hanging out there when they can get weapons and the dollars that went to Hezbollah. I’m on the Terrorist Finance sub-committee of the Financial Services Committee. My staff will tell you it was very important for me to get on that subcommittee because the dollars have a lot of power and strength. You look at Iran and what’s going on in the region right now and that power is ascending post-deal in Syria and conflicts with ISIS. Israel’s importance has only gone up and I don’t think people understand. People are focused so much on the perception of what the relationship is towards a deal. President Trump is speaking to Abbas today. We obviously have to get the peace process moving and towards a two state solution but I worry about how partisan it’s become and I hope it shifts back.”
JI: Do you believe that J Street and AIPAC are contributing to this partisan divide?
Gottheimer: “I think they represent viewpoints that are there. I have been a member of AIPAC for a long time. The Iran Deal brought onto the surface the difference but whether or not those organizations were there people would still have those differences. What is important is we pull this out of partisanship. What I’ve been trying to do is speak to some of my colleagues and with that first vote on the UN, I was talking to some of the Freshman on why this is so important and why it has to be between the parties and not have the UN driving the decision especially given the UN should be focused on other problems in the world and not always targeting Israel. It takes education and talking to people and explaining the facts. When things get so partisan, the facts almost get lost in the process. And why historically it was a bipartisan issue. That wasn’t by accident. That’s because it should be.”
JI: You served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Can you please describe this experience and your impressions of the 42nd President?
Gottheimer: “It’s a once in a lifetime experience. President Clinton has such a keen understanding of policy and politics and communications all wrapped up. He is a workhorse. So for the staff it was the most challenging job I ever had – this one is getting close – but in terms of a 24/7 operation. I remember going to the Wye Accords. He was an indomitable leader. It is critical to be seen as fair between the two parties. That is a very important part of it. And whether or not ultimately both sides have the courage to do it. At the end of the day, we can be an arbiter, but the parties are the ones that have to make the decisions. You can’t make people do it. They have to want to do it. It was a very important lesson for me. The parties weren’t ready, some would argue one party more than the other. You need parties who are willing to sit down and do it. That lesson applies to Congress. You need parties who are willing to engage to talk with each other and move. If you are 100% or nothing and that is going to be your attitude, you just won’t get progress.”
JI: Who is your role model?
Gottheimer: “I have several role models. My dad has been a great role model for me because he was an entrepreneur and started a small business in the basement of his house when he was 18 and my great grandmother answered the phone and he built a wonderful business and provided for his family and worked so hard. I learned a lot from that. My grandmother was a role model because she lost two children and always had a smile on her face even though what she went through and as a parent, I can’t really understand how she went on.”
JI: After President Trump announced the travel ban, you issued a statement that invoked the Holocaust. Why did you chose this historical analogy?
Gottheimer: “I think someone was asking me for historical parallels and that is how it came up. But, the historical parallel is important. My view on the travel ban is one you have to look at it from a purely security perspective and as someone who is hawkish on protecting the US and who lives in the shadows of Ground Zero, we need to make sure that we do everything possible to keep our borders safe and make sure people are here who should be. How we do these things is very important because it speaks to our relationship with other countries around the world and ensuring that we protect our security globally and if we send signals that because of a group or religion we shut the door to people that could really undermine our security. Third, there is our character and who we are as a country. My reaction to the Holocaust is two and three. One, making sure people look at us and we don’t treat certain groups or religions of any kind in a certain way and two knowing what happened during the Holocaust, we turned our backs. The history is pretty clear on this. We did not do everything that we could have done. You have to remember these moments in history. When you talk to people not understanding these issues and talk to people about BDS and what is going on and I’m very concerned what’s going on at college campuses. The further young generations go from remembering their history: the more you tend to forget what happened. My wife’s grandparents – both of them – they lost their entire families. They are the only ones who made it out. That obviously had an indelible impact on how they approached life and the lessons they taught us. We must not forget. How we treat people and our character. Who we are as a country? We are a nation of immigrants. That’s been key to our economy and who we are. It’s a false choice to say that you cannot protect your country and also preserve your values and character. People come up to you in your district and say how scared they are. You don’t want to send signals to your country and people who live here that you are not a place that preserves certain values.”
JI: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Gottheimer: “When they met John Lewis. My daughter was really involved in the campaign. She’s 7. She went door-to-door with me. I asked my family before I ran and she felt that she made the ultimate decision. My daughter reminds of me that, ‘Daddy, you are running because I said it was ok.’ Having her be a part of all this and what she learned throughout this process. It’s a great thing and bringing her to the House floor. It’s a remarkable honor. You also realize the great things you can do, even in all this partisanship, I’m really making an effort to sit with Republicans and get things done. We did a call with 70 Synagogues because of what is going on with the bomb threats of the JCCs and the desecration of the cemeteries. People are incredibly anxious. A lot of parents in my district are pulling their kids out of JCCs. We brought together the US Attorney of New Jersey, FBI and Homeland Security, we were able to talk to people and talk about the issues. I’ve pushed for more resources to protect synagogues and other religious institutions.”