Rodney Frelinghuysen represents NJ’s 11th Congressional district and is Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He’s one of the most powerful people in Washington, his committee controls all federal expenditures.
Shortly after the 2016 election, a group of his constituents organized themselves and requested town halls, which Frelinghuysen hasn’t held since 2013. The activist group, NJ 11th for Change had planned to attend a Chamber of Commerce event he was to speak at last week. Frelinghuysen’s office had the Chamber close the event to the public. Non-members who had purchased tickets were refused admittance. Frelinghuysen has also said constituents are jamming his phone lines and has told them to “back off”.
All this sounds like standard fare for Republican congressmen doing their best to avoid constituents.
Until that is, Frelinghuysen sent a letter to Joseph O'Dowd, a board member of Lakeland Bank:
The form letter, on campaign stationery, asks Frelinghuysen’s supporters to donate two years ahead of his next election because he is under attack. “But let’s be clear that there are 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,” the letter says.
Above the word local, there’s a hand-written asterisk in the same blue ink as Frelinghuysen’s signature. At the bottom of the letter, scrawled with a pen, is the corresponding footnote: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!”
The “ringleader” Frelinghuysen was referring to was Sally Avelenda. She was asked by her employer to explain her political activities and write a statement to the CEO of Lakeland Bank. She ended up resigning.
“Needless to say, that did cause some issues at work that were difficult to overcome,” said Saily Avelenda of West Caldwell, New Jersey, who was a senior vice president and assistant general counsel at the bank before she resigned. She says the pressure she received over her political involvement was one of several reasons she decided to leave.
NJ 11th for Change posted the letter on Facebook, along with this note:
NJ 11th For Change began in November as a grassroots group of citizens seeking open dialogue with their Congressman. What started as a few dozen people grew to thousands of active constituents. Today’s NPR story details the personal note he sent to a constituent’s employer highlighting her involvement in NJ11th For Change. His targeted, retaliatory letter to Sally Avelenda's employer was intended to create an uncomfortable work environment for her. As a result, she was subjected to professional scrutiny about her personal political activities which directly contributed to her decision to resign.
Rep 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.
In a larger sense, he used his influence in an attempt to punish an opposing view. How can democracy work if ordinary citizens are intimidated or their livelihoods threatened when speaking out? Frelinghuysen abused his position and acted against a concerned citizen for expressing a position he didn't like.
Mikie Sherrill is a former naval aviator, a federal prosecutor and a mother of four. She has declared for the Democratic primary, and will run against Frelinghuysen.