The rise of Donald Trump inspired thousands of ordinary people to get involved in local politics. One of them was Saily Avelenda, who joined a grassroots political group in her New Jersey congressional district shortly after the 2016 election. Unfortunately, Avelenda found herself out of a job after her local Republican congressman targeted her in a handwritten note to her boss.
In March, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen sent a fundraising letter to a Joseph O’Dowd, a local donor who happened to sit on the board of Lakeland Bank. According to WNYC, the letter included a passage stating:
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
Above the word “local” was a handwritten asterisk, leading to a note at the bottom of the page which read: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” Attached to the fundraising letter was a newspaper clipping quoting Avelenda and highlighting her work with the group NJ 11th For Change, a group that has criticized Frelinghuysen.
As a result of Frelinghuysen’s note, Avelenda told WNYC that she had to write a letter to her bank’s CEO defending herself. She later resigned her position with the bank in part, she explained, because of the scrutiny Frelinghuysen’s letter had caused.
“I thought my Congressman put them in a situation, and put me in a really bad situation as the constituent, and used his name, used his position and used his stationery to try to punish me” she said.
“We are outraged and alarmed by Representative Frelinghuysen’s intimidating action against an ordinary constituent, as reported this morning by NPR.
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 Saily 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.”
While the letter may not have been illegal (Frelinghuysen conspicuously did not prescribe a specific course of action for O’Dowd) it sure looks lousy for a sitting congressman to narc on a grassroots volunteer to her boss.
In a short statement provided to WNYC, Frelinghuysen’s office attempted to squirm out of responsibility for Avelenda’s predicament:
“The Congressman wrote a brief and innocuous note at the bottom of a personal letter in regard to information that had been reported in the media. He was in no way involved in any of the bank’s business and is unaware of any of the particulars about this employee’s status with the bank.”
And to think, some people have the nerve to badmouth New Jersey politics!