NJ’s Josh Gottheimer Seeks Common Ground in a Fiercely Divided Washington

"If you’re from Jersey, you can take a few punches."

Rep. Josh Gottheimer at the New Milford Fire Department

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, seen here at the New Milford Fire Department, has worked to help secure grants for police and firefighter training. Photo: John Emerson

With the loudest voices in government shouting from the extremes, Josh Gottheimer, the four-term congressman from northern New Jersey, has staked out his turf in the political center. That’s where he thinks most Americans can be found.

“The far left and far right are both only 10 percent of the population. The rest of the country is in the middle somewhere—middle-left, middle-right, middle,” says the 48-year-old Gottheimer, who represents New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, encompassing Bergen and parts of Passaic and Sussex counties.

As cochair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Gottheimer, a Democrat, has positioned himself to deliver votes from both sides of the political aisle, as he did last November when he helped pass President Joe Biden’s signature Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Gottheimer and his caucus could be key factors on additional major legislation in the coming months, given the fragile nine-seat margin Republicans hold in the House of Representatives.

In an era of divisiveness and derision, Gottheimer says real progress can only happen when politicians set aside their differences and seek common ground. Citing Social Security, he says, “If you look at anything we’ve done historically, when you do it in a bipartisan way, it tends to last longer.”

Gottheimer’s roots in what he considers common-sense governance go back to his earliest exposure to politics. Born and raised in North Caldwell, Gottheimer is the son of a preschool teacher mother and an entrepreneurial father, who co-owned a cosmetics business. Growing up, Gottheimer worked behind the counter selling items from candy to shampoo at the Outlet, the family’s retail location in Fairfield.

While attending West Essex High School, Gottheimer stuffed envelopes for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and worked as a Senate page for New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he landed internships with C-SPAN, the U.S. Senate secretary and Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and worked on Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

By the time Gottheimer was 23, he was working for Clinton as a speechwriter, helping draft two State of the Union messages. Gottheimer says he learned two big lessons from the 42nd president: “One, in general: the idea that it’s okay to work with both sides to get things done. Two: your job is to work incredibly hard.”

Gottheimer continued his education at Harvard Law School and worked as an advisor to John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. It was exhausting work, but not without fringe benefits. On a campaign flight to Madison, Wisconsin, Gottheimer found himself seated next to his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen, who was to perform at that night’s rally.

“You can imagine, I’m having a nervous breakdown sitting next to Springsteen,” Gottheimer recalls. As they neared their destination, Springsteen leaned over and asked for advice on what to say at the rally. “I said, ‘Who, me?’ So, he said, ‘Well, you’re the writer.’ And I said, ‘I know, but you’re Bruce Springsteen.’” 

Ultimately, Gottheimer wrote a few paragraphs for Springsteen, which are now signed and framed in the congressman’s office in Washington. “That,” says Gottheimer, “was pretty cool.”

Before plunging full-time into politics, Gottheimer worked for the Ford Motor Company, the PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe, the Federal Communications Commission (as senior counselor), and Microsoft (as general manager for corporate strategy). 

Gottheimer met his future wife, Marla Tusk, at the University of Pennsylvania, but they didn’t become a couple (“I dated her friend”) until years later, when they were both attending law school (Tusk at Columbia) and summered at the same law firm. Tusk went on to become a federal prosecutor, serving as assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, where she worked as chief of the Appellate Unit. 

The couple lived in Washington, D.C., before moving back to New Jersey to be near family. They settled in the Bergen County township of Wyckoff, where they are raising their two children, Ellie, now 14, and Ben, 11.

Disturbed by the divisiveness he was seeing in Congress, Gottheimer made the move into politics in 2016, seeking the House seat of seven-term GOP incumbent Scott Garrett. Gottheimer prevailed—in the same election cycle that saw Donald Trump win the presidency—and headed to the nation’s capital with a determination to work across party lines. With that goal in mind, he and Tom Reed, a similarly inclined Republican colleague from New York, revived the dormant Problem Solvers Caucus.

Congress has a seemingly endless array of caucuses. Most are informal, bipartisan groups of like-minded members that focus on noncontroversial interests, from adult literacy to zoos and aquariums. The more high-profile and formal caucuses, such as the far-right House Freedom Caucus and the left-wing Congressional Progressive Caucus, are highly partisan.

The Problem Solvers Caucus is different. Its invitation-only membership is always evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and its rules require significant participation in meetings. The idea is to “actually build relationships and trust,” Gottheimer explains. When 75 percent of members agree to endorse a bill, the members are rules bound to stand together.

While he has often clashed with his more left-leaning Democratic colleagues, Gottheimer and his allies in the middle can cite several key achievements. In 2018, they helped initiate a House rules change that makes it harder for the speaker to block a bill from coming to the floor for a vote. In 2020, Gottheimer played a leading role in getting the necessary support for the Trump administration’s final Covid-19 relief package.

Gottheimer’s crowning achievement to date came in 2021, when he and 15 other Problem Solvers took part in a bipartisan summit helmed by Larry Hogan, the centrist Republican governor of Maryland, to hammer out a mutually agreeable version of the infrastructure bill. The $1 trillion spending bill, much as they outlined it, passed the Senate, but seemed doomed in the House. After much political wrangling, Gottheimer delivered 13 Republican votes (mainly caucus members) in favor of the bill—more than enough for House passage, despite the opposition of six Democrats.

“You just have to keep fighting and keep going and get it across the finish line,” Gottheimer says of his approach to legislating.

Indeed, through all of these battles, Gottheimer has earned a reputation for combativeness that rubs some colleagues the wrong way. Others welcome Gottheimer’s feistiness. Fellow Problem Solver Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, told Politico that Gottheimer has “a brashness and an assertiveness about him that I think is very New Jersey, that is helpful.”

Mike Lawler, a Republican from New York and a new member of the caucus, describes Gottheimer as “probably one of the hardest-working members I’ve seen.” He shares with Gottheimer an interest in finding common ground on major issues. “The reality is, you have to be willing to find solutions and work across the aisle,” Lawler says.

In its latest incarnation, the Problem Solvers Caucus has expanded to more than 60 members. Newcomers include two New Jersey representatives: Republican Thomas Kean Jr. and Democrat Donald Norcross. Another Republican from New Jersey, Chris Smith, is a long-time member of the caucus. (On June 29, Gottheimer will join Republican Brian Fitzpatrick at NJPAC for a conversation about the caucus.)

Despite his bipartisan proclivity, Gottheimer expresses concern about whether the GOP-controlled House will be able to make headway on such heavy lifts as immigration reform and gun control.

“The question will be, ‘Do [Republicans] really want to govern?’” says Gottheimer. “Are they going to bend to their extremists? Are they going to try to find some common ground to stand on? That’s really up to their leadership.”

Among other issues, Gottheimer, who is Jewish, is deeply concerned about anti-Semitism and expressions of hatred in general, “whether it’s toward Muslims or anyone.” He turns to his cell phone to show this reporter a clip of a neo-Nazi rally in Florida and notes that New Jersey had the third highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the country last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

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He also fears for the safety of his fellow elected officials. At least two of 13 Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill reported receiving death threats after a Republican colleague, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, labeled them “traitors” and posted their contact information on Twitter. 

“This gets back to how angry people are,” says Gottheimer. “They’ve been incentivized to fight and scream and yell and disagree.”

Also on Gottheimer’s radar: protecting women’s right to choose, mental health legislation and affordable child-care. He serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Financial Services Committee.

Beyond the national issues, Gottheimer boasts of his achievements for New Jersey, including federal funding he says he has clawed back to the Garden State in the form of grants for nonprofits as well as initiatives such as police and firefighter training and security at religious institutions. “We’re up 357 percent since I got elected,” he says.

In April, Gottheimer joined with Senator Bob Menendez and a host of other legislators, including eight fellow House members from New Jersey, to announce bipartisan legislation to restore the SALT deduction, which would lift the cap imposed by the 2017 GOP tax bill and once again allow taxpayers to fully deduct state and local taxes on their federal tax returns. New York’s Lawler confirms that SALT “will be a big focus” in the coming months.

After meeting with this reporter in Fair Lawn, Gottheimer headed to Fort Lee, where he joined local officials in speaking out against the MTA’s proposed congestion tax, which they say could cost New Jersey drivers up to $25 a day if they commute by car to New York City.

Gottheimer has been in the conversation as a potential New Jersey gubernatorial candidate in 2024. “I’ve read those rumors,” he says, neatly dodging the speculation.

For now, Gottheimer appears content to be in the trenches in Washington—even if they are as loud and contentious as ever.

“People are going to throw stuff at you,” says Gottheimer. “But if you’re from Jersey, you can take a few punches.” 

Ken Schlager is the former editor of New Jersey Monthly and a frequent contributor.

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