House Democrat takes lonely stand as impeachment skeptic

Politics
Jeff Van Drew

FILE – In this Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, file photo, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May Court House, speaks at a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting in Trenton, N.J. U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democratic House freshman, is emerging as a leading skeptic of impeaching President Donald Trump. Van Drew’s party is set to hold a preliminary vote Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, to establish procedures for the impeachment inquiry. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A freshman congressman from New Jersey is poised to be a lonely Democratic vote against the proposed impeachment process against President Donald Trump.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a dentist and a longtime state legislator before winning the 2nd District seat in 2018 after it was under Republican control for nearly two decades, told reporters this week he was unlikely to vote for the resolution formally setting up the House’s impeachment process. Only a handful of Democrats are expected to oppose it.

In the past Van Drew has called for letting voters decide Trump’s fate in next year’s election. With the Republican-led Senate unlikely to remove him, the whole process is likely to just further divide the country, according to Van Drew.

Van Drew’s position is at odds with many Democratic voters , nearly 9 out of 10 of whom have told pollsters they’re behind an impeachment inquiry. It’s also certainly at odds with many voters in New Jersey, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1 million registered voters.

But it’s hardly surprising given his nearly two-decade career as a lawmaker in state government. He’s staked out right-leaning positions and was widely known in the statehouse as the most conservative Democrat in the state.

He started his House career with a vote of “present” rather than for Nancy Pelosi’s bid to become House speaker. A few weeks ago Trump tweeted a “thank you” to Van Drew for questioning the practicality of impeachment.

It boils down to Van Drew’s understanding of his sprawling district, according to those who know him well. The 2nd District covers all or part of eight counties in southern New Jersey and includes Atlantic City, some of the Philadelphia suburbs, and a swath of the Pine Barrens in between.

The district elected Republican Frank Lo Biondo to the House for 24 years before his retirement, which opened the seat up for Van Drew. It went for Trump in 2016 after earlier backing President Barack Obama. Before Lo Biondo, Democrat Bill Hughes represented the district in Congress for nearly 20 years.

In the Legislature since 2002 before coming to Congress, Van Drew voted with Republicans on many issues during his time in Trenton. He opposed legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012, raising the gas tax by about a quarter in 2016, and limiting gun magazines to 10 rounds, down from 15, in 2018 — all positions most Democrats supported.

“He represents the views of his district, and few politicians anywhere have a feel for the pulse of their district better than he does,” said Micah Rassmussen, who heads the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and is a former campaign manager for Van Drew.

Steve Sweeney, the Senate president of New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature, worked with Van Drew closely over the congressman’s 16 years in the statehouse. Van Drew has always voted “his district” over the party, Sweeney said.

“He and I had many agreements and disagreements,” Sweeney said. “He’s always pointed, ‘Hey, this isn’t what my district would want,'” Sweeney said.

Van Drew, who didn’t respond to messages seeking an interview, has the kind of name recognition that goes with being in office for nearly two decades. The slate of politicians running in New Jersey’s Assembly election on Tuesday, as well as the Democrat running to succeed him in the state Senate, often calls itself the “Van Drew Team.”

Seth Grossman, a Republican and enthusiastic Trump supporter who lost to Van Drew in 2018, said Van Drew has successfully managed to straddle the political fault lines in the district for years. His legislative district overlapped in part with the congressional district.

But, Grossman said, merely being against impeachment won’t suffice for hardcore Trump voters, who want politicians to embrace the president.

“Jeff is in a tight spot,” Grossman said. “Like the rest of the country our district is incredibly polarized, and Jeff is finding it increasingly difficult to appeal to both sides as he did in Trenton.”

As much as Trump Republicans question Van Drew, he’s also viewed skeptically by left-leaning Democrats. It doesn’t matter that Van Drew’s election, one of four pickups for Democrats in New Jersey in 2018, helped put Democrats in charge in Washington, they say.

Jay Lassiter is a self-described liberal activist in southern New Jersey. He said the congressman’s conservative views on guns, gay marriage and other issues are just too much.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a Republican — just own it,” Lassiter said. “I just wish they’d stop hogging up the bandwidth in my party.”

Pushing the opposition to the far left and right has been a “secret” to Van Drew’s success, according to Rasmussen. It leaves opponents questioning their path to victory, he said.

“He’s he has made it very, very tough (to beat him),” Rasmussen said. “We can’t run to the right of him, we can’t run to the left of him. What do we do?”

But, then, why remain a Democrat when it might be easier to win in a right-tilting area as a Republican? Sweeney cited the advantage of being in the majority.

“Because he’s still a Democrat. He’s still caucusing with them,” Sweeney said. “It’s always better to be in charge than not to be.”

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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