When U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer was elected to New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District in 2016, Arati Kreibich was jubilant. After all, it was the first time a Democrat had won the seat since the 1930s. “I supported Josh Gottheimer. We finally had a Dem in office,” she told Splinter by phone on Monday. “We had his signs on our lawn.”
Of course, something much bigger nationally happened on that night in 2016. After Donald Trump was elected, Kreibich—a neuroscientist by trade who has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania—decided to run for office herself, and in 2017 she won a seat on the Glen Rock (NJ) Borough Council, becoming the first person of South Asian descent to do so.
But while Kreibich was making history, Gottheimer was beginning to make a name for himself as one of the most right-wing Democrats in the House caucus, helping to form a bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” and applauding President Donald Trump’s move to put the United States embassy in Israel in Jerusalem. (Gottheimer was also building a reputation for himself as a hothead; according to one story recounted in the Intercept, Gottheimer allegedly beat the hell out of a car when a reporter for a community paper refused to hand over his notes on a town hall to Gottheimer’s staff.)
Now, Kreibich is running to replace the man whose name formerly graced her lawn. On Monday, she announced a campaign for Gottheimer’s seat.
Kreibich told Splinter she was incensed by Gottheimer’s attempts to “roll back” the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed in the wake of the financial crisis, as well as Gottheimer’s recent role in the House’s passage of a bill which attached few requirements to how the Trump administration could use over $4 billion in border funding.
“It’s outrageous. Not only are you not standing up for people, you’re actively working against them?” Kreibich said. “We’re talking about a humanitarian crisis. We’re talking about kids in cages...when you have the power to do something substantive about this, when you have the power to make a real difference and potentially save lives, and instead not only you do not that but you actively work against them? It’s unconscionable.”
Kreibich, who was born in India before emigrating to the United States with her parents and two brothers when she was 11, said that combatting climate change will be a top priority for her if she’s elected. She told Politico and HuffPost that she supports the Green New Deal, in addition to Medicare for All and a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, all three of which have emerged as top priorities for the Democratic Party’s progressive flank. (Gottheimer opposes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All; he recently voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.)
In the interview with Splinter, Kreibich slammed Gottheimer for having “consistently middle of the road solutions that’ll be disastrous in the future,” as well as his associations with corporate interests and groups like No Labels that further those interests. “I think there’s a very stark contrast between the way I look at the world and the way he seems to sway with the wind, or I should say wherever the corporate interests align,” she said.
We’ve reached out to Gottheimer’s office for comment, and will update when and if we receive a response.
There are a bunch of factors that Gottheimer has going for him in the campaign. The second-term congressman has nearly $6 million in cash on-hand right now, and has already raised $1.7 million for the 2020 cycle, which has garnered him the nickname “The Human Fundraising Machine.” Gottheimer raised more than any House Democrat in the second quarter of 2019 except for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Politico reported earlier this month.
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, however, Gottheimer’s fundraising isn’t exactly coming from a swell of grassroots support. According to OpenSecrets, less than 2 percent of what Gottheimer has raised has come in the form of donations less than $200, and during the 2018 cycle he took $1.1 million from business-backed PACs. (Kreibich told HuffPost that she’s not going to accept contributions from corporate PACs in her campaign.)
On top of that, Gottheimer has reportedly already shored up support from much of the powerful New Jersey machine, with his campaign telling the New Jersey Globe that he’s won endorsements from every county party chair in the district. Along with every other Democratic member of the New Jersey congressional delegation, Gottheimer has also been endorsed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
Lastly, Gottheimer is expected to rely on the argument that a more left-leaning candidate can’t win in the 5th, which was last represented by conservative Republican Scott Garrett. “We cannot lose sight of how many candidates tried and failed to win in the 5th and that that Donald Trump won the district just two and a half years ago,” Bergen County Democratic Party chair Paul Juliano and vice chair Balpreet Grewal-Virk told the Globe.
Kreibich doesn’t buy that. “The reason [Gottheimer] won wasn’t because of his middling centrist policy, it’s because of the grassroots organization,” she told Splinter. “It’s because all of us—me included—came out for him, canvassed for him, knocked doors for him. He didn’t win on his record, he won because we all came out for him.”
Although Kreibich acknowledged that unseating an incumbent with these kinds of resources behind him is a tall order, she said that she’s been “really encouraged” by the response she’s gotten to her campaign announcement.
“Make no mistake, it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Kreibich said. “But I’m a scientist, and I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe it was possible. But I think it’s possible because I’ve seen what’s possible.”