A family tradition brought him to politics and now he’s running for Congress.
Josh Gottheimer, 40, grew up reading the newspaper with his parents at the dinner table. His family’s custom launched him into a job at the White House by the time he was 23.
Gottheimer announced his intention last month to vie for the seat held by Representative Scott Garrett, a seven-term Republican. Republican Michael Cino, who received 7 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary, has also filed a statement of candidacy with the FEC.
Garrett has about $2.4 million in his war chest to Gottheimer’s $1.4 million, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Among Gottheimer’s contributors are big names from the Clinton and Obama administrations like Erskine Bowles, former White House Chief of Staff and Julius Genachowski, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
“I’m running as a fiscal conservative and social progressive—a Bill Clinton Democrat,” Gottheimer said. Gottheimer, who most recently worked as head of corporate strategy at Microsoft, grew up in New Jersey. His mother taught at a Hebrew preschool and his father had a store. As a teen, he applied to work as a page for then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ).
The drive to serve never left him after that, he said. Over the next few years in high school and as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania, he interned for Senator Lautenberg, House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), C-SPAN and the Secretary of the Senate.
A phone call from an elderly woman he took one summer sealed the deal for him, Gottheimer said. She was having problems accessing her Social Security money and Gottheimer was able to help her work everything out. He was hooked.
“This is incredible,” he said. “You can really do something and help people.”
After graduating college, Gottheimer studied modern history for a year at Oxford. When he came back stateside, he worked as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Over time he worked on many important speeches, including two State of the Union addresses, but his first time in the Oval Office was overwhelming.
“Clinton was like my JFK; he was my hero. I just remember the room spinning and spinning,” Gottheimer said. “I don’t remember what I said or what happened.”
President Clinton even wrote the foreword to one of Gottheimer’s two books, one on great American civil rights speeches.
Gottheimer worked briefly at the United States Commission on Civil Rights before starting at Harvard Law. His wife, Marla Tusk, has a law degree from Columbia University.
“A legal education is critical if you want to be involved in government,” Gottheimer said.
He commuted back and forth from Arkansas in his final year at Harvard so that he could work on the presidential primary campaign of General Wesley Clark.
“I thought, why not add one more thing to the plate?” Gottheimer joked.
Gottheimer joined John Kerry’s campaign staff after he graduated, when Clark had dropped out of the race.
Gottheimer then left politics briefly for the private sector. He worked in corporate advertising at Ford Motor Company and then at public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller.“I always believed and I still think that it’s critical that people in public service have private sector experience,” Gottheimer said. “I think it’s important to have both perspectives.”
Since then, Gottheimer has worked as the head of public-private initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission and, after he and his family moved back to New Jersey, as head of corporate strategy at Microsoft.
He never thought he’d be running for office, but that changed over dinner with a friend one night about a year ago, he said. They were talking about how frustrated they were with the way Congress was running.
“It seemed like everyone was trying to score points hurling insults at each other instead of being willing to sit down at the table,” Gottheimer said.
Gottheimer felt he could bring a problem-solving attitude to Congress and decided to run. He thinks he’s going to be the one to unseat Congressman Garrett, who won his last two campaigns with about 55 percent of the vote.
The district, which has been represented in the House by a Republican for nearly all of the last century, was redrawn after the 2010 midterm election to include more Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Bergen County. It also covers parts of Warren, Sussex and Passaic counties.
The Garrett campaign doesn’t want to see Gottheimer in Congress.
“Mr. Gottheimer is seeking the nomination of a Democrat party that continues to force hardworking families to pay for Washington’s spending addiction, negotiated a deal with Iran that endangers the United States and its allies, and wants to send terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil.,” according to a statement from the Garrett for Congress Campaign. “The people of the Fifth District have seen through this agenda, and the last thing they need is a crony from the dishonest Clinton political machine that endorsed the Iran deal telling them that terrorists in Iran can be trusted and the problem with our economy is Washington doesn’t have enough of their money.”
But Gottheimer said he believes taxes for New Jersey residents are too high and that he is strongly against the Iran deal. One of the main reasons he is running is because he felt Israel needed a champion in Congress.
Israel needs all the resources it can get to defend itself, and America should be providing it with the best of technology, Gottheimer said.
The safety and prosperity of Israel is a top priority for Gottheimer, said Senator Cory Booker, who attended Gottheimer’s campaign announcement.
“Josh will be incredibly dedicated to strengthening the historic and unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel to protect us against our common threats,” Booker said.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the OU, agrees. Generally, support for Israel is higher in the Republican party than the Democratic party, Genack said. But Gottheimer is an exception and is a very strong advocate for Israel.
“He’s a very proud Jew,” Genack said.
In addition to advocating for Israel, Gottheimer’s top priority is bringing money back to the district. Area residents need to get more back for what they pay out, Gottheimer said. He also wants to bring companies like Hertz and Mercedes, which moved from Montvale to Georgia last year, back to New Jersey. The area needs to be welcoming to business.
“The most effective government has more public-private partnership,” Gottheimer said.
It also requires compromise and bipartisanship, Gottheimer said. His experience making deals in the private sector taught him that no one is ever going to get everything he or she wants, but a willingness to reach across the table is what is needed to effect positive change.
“I couldn’t imagine operating any other way,” Gottheimer said. “You would never get anything done.”
By Aliza Chasan