Political Winds Leave New Jersey Lawmaker Caught Between Party and Home

It was the scribbled footnote that did it, rippling across social media networks from northern New Jersey to Washington, revealing a pugnacious side of a low-key lawmaker.

In a fund-raising letter to a board member at a New Jersey bank, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, Republican of New Jersey, said he wanted to combat well-organized opponents who had mobilized after the election of President Trump.

“P.S. — One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” Mr. Frelinghuysen, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, wrote in blue ink. The person to whom he was referring, a senior vice president, resigned after being confronted with the letter by her boss.

The episode has drawn an ethics complaint against Mr. Frelinghuysen, who worked behind the scenes in Washington for 22 years before rising to a key post that places him at the center of the battle over Mr. Trump’s budget.

“That was very disappointing and very much out of character for Congressman Frelinghuysen,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers.

The letter was also notable for what it revealed about the pressure that Mr. Frelinghuysen, 71, faces, after having won 12 elections in which he never received less than 58 percent of the vote.

Mr. Frelinghuysen’s victories have been so easy, his Democratic opposition so weak, that the filmmaker Michael Moore once ran a ficus tree against him.

But singling out a lone constituent — and being caught doing so — suggests, perhaps, a feeling of disquiet.

“It seemed a particularly meanspirited and vengeful thing for Congressman Frelinghuysen to do — a man who never had a reputation of being that kind of a bare-knuckles fighter,” Professor Baker said. “I think he senses that the ground is shifting from under him.”

Mr. Trump’s election and the Republican hold on Congress are forcing Mr. Frelinghuysen to choose between the party’s conservative leadership and moderate constituents back home.

“Becoming the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — which, of course, in some ways is the crown jewel of any House member’s career — has been a bit of a poisoned chalice,” Professor Baker said.

Mr. Frelinghuysen’s response to Mr. Trump’s budget proposal has been lukewarm, and he opposed the first House Republican health plan. But, reportedly threatened with losing his chairmanship, he went along with conservatives and supported the House health plan’s second version.

Back home, Mr. Trump’s election has given rise to NJ 11th for Change, a group that has held weekly protests at Mr. Frelinghuysen’s office, jammed his phone lines and called on him to hold a town-hall meeting, which he has refused to do.

He did recently hold a telephone call-in event, which allowed him to cut off callers when they disagreed. His frustration showed. “For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off,” Mr. Frelinghuysen said at one point.

Mr. Frelinghuysen’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Morris County and parts of Essex, Passaic and Sussex Counties, is what New Jerseyans call Republican horse country. It is one of the richest and most highly educated districts in the country, and the estates in Mr. Frelinghuysen’s hometown, Harding Township, make it one of the 25 richest ZIP codes in America, according to Forbes magazine.

Mr. Frelinghuysen, the scion of a distinguished political family, is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated worth of about $54 million, according to federal financial disclosures.

“A lot of people think of him — or at least those who don’t know him think of him — as some kind of blue blood,’’ said William Westhoven, a veteran political reporter for The Daily Record newspaper. “He really, really does not present in public in that way in any way, shape or form. Rodney presents as a very, very regular guy — he dresses in simple suits, he drives a simple car. He shows up at event after event after event constantly.”

But Mr. Frelinghuysen has run into problems, Mr. Westhoven said, after redistricting brought more Democrats into the district as he opted to follow the changing tide in the Republican Party. Mr. Trump eclipsed Hillary Clinton in Mr. Frelinghuysen’s district by less than one percentage point.

“I think you started seeing him leaning more and more to the right as his party leaned more and more to the right,” Mr. Westhoven said.

Mr. Frelinghuysen once supported abortion rights but in recent years has voted to limit access to abortion. He also opposes gun control, gay marriage and regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“I didn’t even know who he was for years,” said Tom Hilliard, a leader of NJ 11th for Change who helped organize the group’s response to Mr. Frelinghuysen’s vote to replace the Affordable Care Act. “And so maybe 20,000 people knew him as the kindly grandpa who shows up at your high school art fair. But now 100,000 people know him as the guy who sold out his constituents.”

Mr. Frelinghuysen did not respond to a request for an interview.

A former New Jersey governor, Thomas H. Kean, one of the most respected Republicans in the state, insists that Mr. Frelinghuysen, despite his voting record, is still a moderate.

“He’s one of the finest public officials I know,’’ Mr. Kean said. “Just total integrity. And unlike almost anybody else who’s had the success, he has he’s never let ambition distort what he’s trying to do.’’

Mr. Frelinghuysen comes from a long line of leaders dating to the American Revolution.

His father, Peter B. Frelinghuysen, served in the House of Representatives for 22 years, and three Frelinghuysens have been senators, including Frederick, a framer of New Jersey’s first Constitution who fought in the American Revolution. There is a Frelinghuysen Township in northwestern New Jersey, a Frelinghuysen Avenue in Newark, a Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morristown, a Frelinghuysen building at Rutgers and a Frelinghuysen Arboretum, also in Morristown, on land donated by the family.

He is the great-great-great grandson of Peter Ballantine, the founder of the Ballantine Brewery in Newark, which at its peak was the third-largest brewer in America. On his mother’s side, Mr. Frelinghuysen is a great-great-grandson of William Procter, a founder of Procter & Gamble.

Mr. Frelinghuysen has not held a town-hall meeting in four years and prefers small events at schools, community groups and veteran organizations.

“I don’t know how he does it, but he will be at every pancake breakfast,’’ said Nicolas Platt, a neighbor who grew up near the Frelinghuysens and a former mayor of Harding Township. “He will be at every fireman rolling out a new fire truck.”

On the other hand, Mr. Platt said he has watched every State of the Union speech since Lyndon B. Johnson’s, “and I have never seen Rodney Frelinghuysen on camera.”

The letter complaining about the activist, first reported by WNYC, shined an unwelcome spotlight on the congressman. After it went viral, the Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections, downgraded Mr. Frelinghuysen’s re-election chances, rating his district “lean Republican” after many years as a “likely Republican” district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added Mr. Frelinghuysen to its list of New Jersey Republicans it will challenge in 2018. Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat and a former federal prosecutor and Navy helicopter pilot, has announced that she will run.

Mr. Kean, the former governor, says Mr. Frelinghuysen remains vital to New Jersey’s fortunes because, among other things, he is crucial to securing financing for one of the region’s most critical infrastructure projects: a new train tunnel under the Hudson River.

You’d lose leverage, which I don’t know if we ever had it before,” Mr. Kean said. “Nobody would be more helpful to the state than Rodney Frelinghuysen in his present position.”

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