U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been keeping a relatively low profile in his district.
Frelinghuysen, a Republican, has yet to hold a town hall, and he made clear in a fundraising letter in March that he did not appreciate the efforts to pressure him into more public appearances.
WNYC reported Monday that Frelinghuysen sent a campaign fundraising form letter to Lakeland Bank board member Joseph O’Dowd in March that noted one of the bank’s employees had been a "ringleader" of those efforts. O’Dowd has given $1,350 to Frelinghuysen since 2006, Federal Election Commission record show.
Beneath the text of the form letter, in which Frelinghuysen warned of “organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security” Frelinghusen wrote a message to O’Dowd by hand.
“P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!,” Frelinghuysen wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by WNYC. Frelinghuysen attached a POLITICO article that quoted Saily Avelenda, who was the bank’s senior vice president and assistant general counsel and a leader of the anti-Frelinghuysen group NJ 11th for Change, which has been pushing the congressman to hold a town hall.
According to WNYC, Avelanda was “questioned and criticized” at the bank for her involvement in the group, which she cited as one of several reasons she resigned.
A spokesperson for NJ 11th for Change said Frelinghuysen’s "actions are disturbing and alarming. He sent this letter with the clear intention of using his power and leverage as a Member of Congress to create a difficult situation for a concerned constituent. In that regard, he succeeded."
Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat who is seeking her party’s nomination to run against Frelinghuysen in 2018, called the letter a “shameful abuse of power.”
A spokesman for Frelinghuysen did not immediately respond to a request for comment. His campaign characterized the message to WNYC as a “brief and innocuous note.”
Frelinghuysen, who has served since 1995, represents well-heeled, traditionally Republican North Jersey district and has faced a difficult reelection. In 2000, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore famously attempted to run a ficus tree against him to highlight lack of opposition to incumbents.
But redistricting in 2011 made the district slightly less Republican. It barely went for Trump in the 2016 election. Democrats feel that in the right wave election, Frelinghuysen could be vulnerable, even though his powerful perch in Congress makes him attractive to donors.
Democrats, who normally pay little attention to districts like Frelinghuysen’s, are recruiting candidates with top tier resumes. Sherrill announced her campaign last week. A political neophyte, she’s a former Navy helicopter pilot and former federal prosecutor. Assemblyman John McKeon is also considering a run against Frelinghuysen.
"Frelinghuysen has gone from simply refusing to meet with his constituents and telling them to ‘back off,’ to threatening constituents who are exercising their freedom of speech,” Sherrill said in a statement. "That Frelinghuysen would use his powerful public office to hurt a private citizen is wrong, unethical and immoral.”
Read the WNYC report here.