WEST ORANGE, NJ — Several members of the left-leaning political action group Essex Rising held a silent protest outside Liberty Middle School during U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s March 6 visit, calling on the Republican, who represents the state’s 11th District to hold an in-person town hall meeting with his constituents. West Orange partly falls into the 11th District, which encompasses parts or all of Essex, Sussex, Morris and Passaic counties.
Withstanding 17-degree weather, the small assemblage held signs emblazoned with the message “Meet Us! Not Just Our Kids” in the hope that the congressman would at least acknowledge the demonstration. But Frelinghuysen did not, as his vehicle drove past the group on its way to and from the school without stopping. Only some passersby engaged with the protestors, with many expressing support for their cause.
Still, the members of Essex Rising do not view their effort as a failure. Member Carol Schlitt said she thinks Frelinghuysen got their message, whether he interacted with the group or not.
“I think what he is going to know is that, wherever he goes, we will be watching and we will make ourselves present and we will continue to demand meetings,” Schlitt told the West Orange Chronicle in a March 17 phone interview. “We are not going to stop. And he has to show some courage and he has to address his constituents. That’s what a representative is supposed to do.”
When asked about these concerns, Frelinghuysen’s office sent a statement to the Chronicle on the congressman’s behalf promising that he has no intention of ignoring the citizens he represents.
“I will be continuing to visit all 54 communities in my district to meet with the people and listen to their concerns,” Frelinghuysen, who appeared at LMS alongside NASA astronaut Lee Morin to speak about the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education, said in the statement. “And we’ll be having more telephone town hall meetings so I can engage with as many people as possible. I invite all constituents to participate in our telephone town hall meetings by passing along to our office a contact number.”
Essex Rising’s push for an in-person town hall meeting comes due to the fact that, according to its records, Frelinghuysen has not held such a gathering since 2013. In addition to the silent protest, members of Essex Rising and fellow political group NJ 11th for Change have visited the congressman’s Morristown office every Friday for months to request a meeting, to no avail. NJ 11th for Change even invited Frelinghuysen to attend four town hall meetings it organized during a week Congress was in recess after Frelinghuysen indicated that scheduling was preventing him from holding one, but the congressman did not attend those either.
As he mentioned in his statement, Frelinghuysen has held a few telephone town hall meetings in which a select number of constituents were called with the opportunity to ask questions of the congressman. Schlitt said she participated in one, but called it “inadequate.” For one, she said she was never given the chance to ask her question, though Frelinghuysen answered plenty of “softball” ones. And, although she was able to leave him a voicemail, she said he never responded.
Such avoidance is unacceptable, Essex Rising co-founder Elizabeth Redwine said, especially in the face of the congressman’s recent voting record. Though he has long been considered a moderate Republican, Frelinghuysen has voted in line with President Donald Trump since Trump took office in January. Some of these votes contradicted public positions he has taken, such as when the congressman voted in favor of defunding Planned Parenthood despite declaring himself pro-choice.
Seeing Frelinghuysen present himself as progressive and then vote the opposite way is extremely frustrating, Redwine said. She said that is why Essex Rising is so intent on bringing about a town hall meeting — so the congressman will have to explain actions such as voting in favor of repealing a regulation that bans coal companies from dumping mining waste into waterways, and voting in support of repealing another that prevents those deemed mentally impaired from purchasing guns. If Frelinghuysen is not held accountable, Redwine said, he will simply continue to mislead the people he represents.
“My gut feeling is that he’s hoping that his constituents will kind of just pay attention to what he says and not his voting record,” Redwine, a West Orange resident, told the Chronicle in a March 16 phone interview. “(His constituents) at least deserve to know what he believes and what he’s voting (for). And I think the two should match up. Otherwise it’s very confusing, especially when he’s instructed his staff not to discuss these issues.”
According to Redwine, Frelinghuysen’s staff refuses to talk about the congressman’s policies when Essex Rising members visit, and instead take down their contact information and occasionally send out form letters. This is a contrast to the actions of staff members for Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, who discuss concerns at length with Essex Rising and even follow up with emails afterward, Redwine said.
The only direct contact Redwine has had with Frelinghuysen came when she ran into him at Supreme Bakery the morning of the West Orange St. Patrick’s Day parade. She said the two had a very pleasant conversation during which she urged him to hold a town hall meeting. She said the congressman responded that he was thinking about it, and Redwine hopes he will follow through.
But if he does not, fellow Essex Rising co-founders Lisa Brittan and Gary van Wyk will not be discouraged. Both were both involved with the resistance art movement against apartheid in their native South Africa, so they know the tenacity required by participants in any political movement. And they hope anyone concerned about Trump’s policies will take a stand against them, as Essex Rising is doing, because doing nothing is only being complicit, they said.
Brittan said she feels Trump and those who vote with him like Frelinghuysen are “eroding” the liberties that make the United States great. As a result, she said America is becoming more like the South Africa she left behind.
“When you try to shut down the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press, when you shut down all the cultural and artistic institutions (and) anyone who has a voice that differs from the status quo, when you fund the military in such a substantial way to the detriment of so many other really amazing programs that the country has supported for so many, many years — that’s a real dismantling of a society,” Brittan told the Chronicle in a March 17 phone interview. “I’m not concerned about the future. I’m concerned about the present because it is happening. It’s not a matter of whether it might happen — it is happening.”
Many other Essex County residents feel the same way, judging from Essex Rising’s growth during the past few months. Since forming in the wake of Trump’s election, Redwine said the group has grown from a collection of six concerned parents to an organization of 850 members and four subcommittees, each focusing on a different form of progressive action. Those include refugee relief and community service, political action, fair and welcoming policies and civil liberties, and unity.
The membership has been quite active as well, from participating in marches and advocating for West Orange teachers to demanding that the township become a sanctuary city. Most recently, Essex Rising sponsored a gubernatorial candidates forum in which attendees could learn more about Democratic candidates John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson. The action group will next meet at Wyoming Presbyterian Church in Millburn on March 25 to write letters to detainees.
Of course, van Wyk said Essex Rising will continue to exert pressure on Frelinghuysen until he holds a town hall meeting for his constituents. He said the silent protest proved how determined its members are, to the point that not even the bitter cold kept them from getting their message across. The congressman cannot avoid them forever, he said.
“Come thick or thin, warm or cold, we’re not going to give up,” van Wyk told the Chronicle in a March 17 phone interview. “We are going to hold him accountable. And we don’t want him visiting our schools if he’s not going to visit the constituents of the towns.”
Photos Courtesy of Todd Plitt