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Interview: Rep. Jeff Van Drew on Getting the Two Parties to Work Together

(Joe Lamberti/Courier Post-USA TODAY NETWORK)

“America is an experiment in democracy like none other. I do believe in American exceptionalism. They spoke about many things, but one of the things that they spoke about was the fact that we should never be overly reliant on political parties.”

After previously serving in the New Jersey state Senate, Jeff Van Drew was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2018, following the retirement of longtime Republican congressman Frank LoBiondo. Rep. Van Drew was one of the Democrats elected in 2018 in a district that had been carried by President Trump two years prior. During his time in the New Jersey state legislature, then-Senator Van Drew gained attention for remaining independent from party-line votes, including on issues such as firearms and the gas tax. During his time in Congress thus far, Rep. Van Drew has served on the House Committee on Agriculture, prioritized the issue of addressing scam phone calls, and been known for seeking out bipartisan answers. He joins Merion West editor Erich Prince to discuss representing a swing district, appealing to constituents of all political persuasions, and how Washington can become more bipartisan.

Getting started, Congressman, can you give an introduction to New Jersey’s 2nd district and share a bit about your background?

The 2nd district is a sprawling district and a very diverse district and a very different district in the state of New Jersey. It makes up about 40 percent of the state geographically, so it is the largest geographic district in the state. It extends all the way from the border of Delaware and Salem county down to Cape May and Cape May Point, over to Atlantic City, and up to Ocean County, so the net result is that I have all-of-or-part-of 8 counties and 92 towns. So you meet all kinds of people. 

We meet people that are very rural and have farms. There are people who are very much involved in the tourism industry—such as in Atlantic City, Cape May, and Long Beach Island—and people that are involved in technology in certain areas of Atlantic county and other areas. Financially, there’s a great deal of diversity as well in the district. It’s a gorgeous area; it’s beautiful. There’s the bays, the ocean, the Pinelands, and there’s tremendous natural resources. You have an attraction for a lot of people to come here, and many of them are quite wealthy. Yet many of the people who live here year-round, and of course, not all, but many of them who live here year-round, financially are not at the level of the rest of the New Jersey. 

We have, as a rule, the lowest per capita income and the lowest hourly wage. There’s something called Kid Count which measures how children are doing in your district, and in Kids Count, we’re usually at the bottom of the list for New Jersey. We have the highest mortality rate for newborns, and we have the highest percentage of drug abuse, though not the most drug abuse. We have the highest percentage of seniors—again not the most seniors by raw number—but the highest percentage of seniors. It’s a real mix of people [in both] ideas and politics, so it’s certainly is a challenge in that sense. It tends to be more moderate than the other districts; it’s not as deep blue by any means, as other districts are in New Jersey. In fact, parts of it are very deeply red. The part that I come from, which is Cape May County, is deeply red. 

I started out in politics as a councilman. I was very fortunate to win, and it was not because I was a Democrat; it was, in all honesty, in spite of the fact of my being a Democrat. I eventually became mayor, then became freeholder, which is a county commissioner, and I believe I was the third freeholder who was a Democrat since the Civil War [where I lived]. None of them had ever been reelected, but I was fortunate enough to be so. Then I became an assemblyman, and it was the same deal there. And as a state senator, I was the first [Democratic] state senator in the district. All of that is why I really do believe that bipartisanship can work because I have made it work in my political career.

I’ve traveled through your district a bit, including the Pinelands, and it’s a place I’ve enjoyed visiting. Back to your career in the New Jersey state Senate, I watched some interviews you’ve done where you were discussing being an independent voice and not necessarily falling in line with the Democratic party line on some issues, including guns. Could you talk about some instances during your career in the state legislature where you were an independent voice and resisted party expectations? 

First of all, [let’s] go way back to understand the foundation of the nation: our leaders at the time, our founding fathers, were really geniuses. I hope as we move forward in our history in the American experience that one thing that we never forget is just how amazing and extraordinary these individual men and women were. America is an experiment in democracy like none other. I do believe in American exceptionalism. They spoke about many things, but one of the things that they spoke about was the fact that we should never be overly reliant on political parties. 

George Washington, in particular, disliked them, and the point of that is that our job is not to be a “good Democrat” or a “good Republican”; it is to be a good American, and I really believe that. You know, I love this country. It has afforded me a tremendous opportunity in my life. It amazes me some days that I am a congressman and that I became a dentist. I didn’t start with a whole lot in life, and I had to do it a little bit the tough way. It’s extraordinary to me that a guy like me literally has had this chance, and it’s because it’s America. We have to keep that. So, when we are always just voting a party line—whatever that is—I don’t believe that’s healthy. I believe we have human intellect that require us to think through what is best for our district—and what is best for our country—and then you do have to think that through because it isn’t always the same [as what’s best for your party].

For example, in the State Senate, people were pushing the gas tax, and it was quite a tax. It went up 23 cents initially. If the price of gas goes down—or the volume of gas that used goes down—the tax goes up even more. There’s one thing that’s clear about New Jersey. It’s a wonderful state educationally, and we do really well. That’s good, and I believe in that. Those are worthy expenditures, but, on the other hand, we have to be careful with our people that we just don’t tax, toll, fee, and charge them to death. People have to be able to afford to live here, and we want middle class people to be able to afford to live here, not just very wealthy people. So I didn’t vote for the gas tax, even though that was the party vote. When the sales tax went up—again, there was a huge fight about that, and I just felt we paid enough in sales tax [already], and it wasn’t time for another tax increase. And it isn’t because we are getting somewhat of an out-migration in New Jersey.  

I’m not trying to be somebody who is a contrarian. I vote differently when I really feel the vote that is required as a party member isn’t always good for the people of your district, and more than anything, that’s why they call you a representative. You’re a congressman, you’re a representative, and you’re supposed to represent your people. And I try to do that.

There are a number of issues in Congress that there’s a lot of bipartisan agreement on. Rep. Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Rep. Earl Blumenauer from Oregon teamed up recently regarding regulations on airports. There was also the recent bipartisan effort with Rep. Dean and Rep. Rep. Reschenthaler on addressing suicide rates of law enforcement officers. So there certainly are bipartisan efforts. Why are they not getting more attention in the general public?

They’re not getting attention in the general public because we live in a very volatile time; the Internet has a great deal to do with it. The political parties themselves—and the things they say about each other—has a great deal to do with it. It’s not the best time. We really need more of a robust intellectual debate about issues.

Back to the Founders?

Yes, back to the Founders. I mean they argued like crazy, but they were not of arguing about—let me go a little while back—the size of a presidential candidates’ hands. I mean, what is that nonsense?

Do you think the media plays a big part in this?

It’s a part. We’re all a part of it. I’m not out to blame the media; I’m not out to blame Republicans, and I’m not out to blame Democrats. We are all a part of this; we can do better, and we must do better. Some people don’t want to; I had [a constituent] say to me one time: “You’re just not as good a Democrat as I want.” I said, “What do you mean?” And that person said, “Well, you were elected to be a Democrat; you were elected to protect Democrats, and you were elected to vote Democratic, and you were elected to represent Democrats.” So, we sat down, and we had a good, long conversation actually. And I said, “No, I was actually elected to represent all of you: people that voted for me and people that didn’t vote for me—people that like me and people that don’t like me.” And if you do that you will be successful. I really believe that.

I saw a media appearance you had where you were discussing how perhaps all this Democratic opposition to the president is preventing potentially some work [from being done] on important issues such as opioids and such. 

I understand this is a place where people are very split. I literally have husbands and wives [who diverge on this question]. I was at the Salem County fair recently, and I love things like that—so I just go around and the people are stuck with me! I’ll just sit down and start talking to people.

I saw a great photo on your social media of you interacting with some firefighters recently: getting out into the community and meeting people.

Yes, I do that all the time. It’s our job. Everybody’s always [talking about] the polls, but I want to know what people are saying. If you work hard enough, get off your backside, really reach out to people, and walk around, you’re going to know. You don’t need the polls because you’re going to find out. They’re going to tell you. if you approach them in the right way. Don’t preach to them; don’t make them say or believe things they don’t want. Just ask them what they think. They’re our bosses. We work for them. 

So, what’s interesting particularly in this time—and I’ve served in government for a while—is the extraordinary differences in opinion about [this] president and about the government and its role, among other issues. What’s been interesting to go back to—and this has happened many more times than just once—is I’ll sit down and talk to a husband and wife, and I’m not embellishing or exaggerating the story, and the husband will say: “Whatever you do, make sure you just follow the president. Whatever you do—I don’t care what you do—but you follow the president, and if you stay that course, you’ll be fine.” And, of course, I always give my patent answer of: “Look, if he’s right about something or he’s doing something that I agree with, I will agree with it, and I will follow it. And if I believe he’s wrong, and it’s not doing good for our country or region, then I’m not.” And so, he’ll kind of grumbled and said, “At least I’ll be open-minded,” and then I spoke to the wife, and she literally said, “Whatever you do, never follow the president. Do everything you can do to literally get rid of this man, to hurt this man, he’s harming our country, etc.” So, there is a divide: literally within families and within regions. People feel so strongly about this.

I’ve seen the studies suggesting that families are very disenchanted the prospect of, for example, their children marrying people belonging to a different political party, so this polarization has really seeped deep into families.

 That’s a good point; I actually saw the same thing. Literally, families are worried if their children marry someone of a different political persuasion. Now are we at that point? I mean politics is important, and government is important, but love is what is supposed to be driving a marriage—I would hope. First of all, I think we all need to love each other a little more and treat each other with more grace and dignity as Americans—and not just hate each other and say foul things about each other when we disagree. That’s what I mean by bipartisanship. 

It doesn’t mean that you have to like Trump—or that you don’t have to like him. It means that this is the given set of circumstances we have right now. He’s going to be in for a little over a year. So during this period of time—when we can, where we can, and where we agree that we can accomplish good goals. So, if we can do some good work in the V.A. for example, or if we can ensure that our elections are not interfered with by China or Russia—even telemarketing or spoofing, that’s good stuff. Sometimes elected officials only want to be involved, in what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, “hoighty toighty” issues. Well, you know what: real issues matter too. It matters that somebody lives at home, and maybe they are senior citizens, and they’re constantly getting phone calls where they’re getting ripped off by scam artists who are actually criminals—and we’re not doing enough about that. That matters to people. People want to be able to go to bed at night or wake up in the morning without getting a plethora of phone calls constantly. People say Republicans and Democrats can’t work together on issues like that. Come on, we can. We just have to make the effort.

Last question, Congressman: whenever I chat with people who are interested in bipartisanship, they often float out some various suggestions about what ought to be done about it. You mentioned perhaps being a little more loving. Former Rep. Tom Davis has told me that maybe the solution is to consider bringing back earmarks. Norm Ornstein talks about members of Congress bringing their families with them to Washington, as Ben Sasse has notably done. Former Rep. Jason Altmire, a then-member of the Blue Dog caucus, has talked about [reconsidering] closed primaries in states like Pennsylvania. What are a couple of possible ideas that you think—if everyone adopted them—might make Washington more bipartisan and a little more civil?

First of all: recognition is a problem. [Lack of bipartisanship] is a real problem. People say, “Okay, let’s list all the problems: including election interference, etc.”; you can go down the whole list. One of the problems is the lack of bipartisanship. It actually should be listed as one, and we should have—whether it’s a task force (and I don’t mean one we’re just going to float it around and not really do anything)—a group of Republicans and Democrats to come up with some real ideas. Those are all worthy ideas. Those are some of them, and then we can make a report—and maybe even translate it into law in some cases so that we actually force more normal behavior in Congress.

Sometimes people will try to say, “Oh, Congress is really doing good as Republicans; we’re really doing what people want—or, as Democrats, we’re doing what people want.” Then why is their approval rating 13%? We talk about how bad the president’s approval rating is. Go look at the congressional approval rating. 

I’ve seen a Gallup’s list of trust of institutions is putting Congress and the media both well below 15 percent.

 Yes, exactly. That should tell us something. That really means something. More people should join groups that I’m in: like the Blue Dogs Coalition and the Problem Solvers Caucus. And the Problem Solvers, as you know, are bicameral and bipartisan, and we really do meet and talk about things and make some good attempts at actually getting a couple of things done to move forward to get bipartisan things done. I think that those types of groups should be loaded with more power to get things done, and I think that could be useful as well. If you put the Blue Dogs and also the Problem Solvers together on an issue, which can happen, you can stop something from happening or make something happen. The combination of both—you’re getting to numbers that are real. I hope that continues.

Congressman, I appreciate your time today. 

Nice to talk to you, thank you.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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