Navy pilots call it the helicopter dunker.
In what mimics a nighttime water crash, the pilots are strapped into a seat, blinded by opaque goggles, submerged and flipped over in a tank of water. They must free themselves from the seat, find the closed window on a mock wall and push their way out to safety.
“It’s tough,” says former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill of the required training. “But you just gear up and do what you have to do.”
Sherrill has learned plenty during her years of service to the country, first in the Navy and then as a federal prosecutor. The lessons will likely fortify her for her latest challenge: taking on Rodney Frelinghuysen, a 12-term incumbent in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District and the powerful head of the House Appropriations Committee.
A political newcomer, Sherrill grew concerned after the November 2016 election when Donald Trump began acting on what she had hoped was only campaign rhetoric on issues like the Muslim ban and the border wall. Further, she took umbrage at his attacks on government institutions.
“I was very upset that he was defending Russia over the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence agencies,” says the Montclair resident and mother of four. “Those are men and women who are working very hard for their country, putting their lives on the line.”
But it was only after watching Frelinghuysen, a Republican, refuse to speak to constituents last spring or hold town hall meetings, and concluding that his House votes in recent years had moved far to the right of the moderate positions he’d taken earlier, that she decided to jump into the 2018 congressional race.
Sherrill is not alone. Since the 2016 election, women have been showing up in record numbers at political training and engagement sessions and gearing up for runs for public office, according to organizations supporting female candidates—including the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP) and EMILY’s List in Washington, D.C.
Among the fresh Democratic faces across the country hoping to flip Congress from Republican control are Sherrill and several other New Jersey women. Sherrill faces a crowded field of Democratic contenders in the race to unseat Frelinghuysen, including family advocate and Verona resident Tamara Harris. In the state’s 7th District, Berkeley Heights resident Linda Weber, a technology executive at a banking company, and Lisa Mandelblatt, an attorney and teacher from Westfield, are both challenging incumbent Leonard Lance, whom they say has abandoned the reputation he earned as a moderate in the state Legislature. In South Jersey, retired teacher and Woolwich resident Tanzie Youngblood is contending for the 2nd District seat, where the GOP might be vulnerable following the announcement that long-time Republican representative Frank LoBiondo plans to retire.
If any of these candidates get the nomination in the Democratic primaries in June, and win in November, they’ll join a New Jersey congressional delegation that, like most state delegations, has been woefully lacking in female members.
Voters here have elected just six women to the House of Representatives. The most recent, Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat, has served New Jersey’s 12th District since 2015.
Women have had better success in the state Legislature. Last term, they comprised nearly a third of its members in Trenton, including Sheila Oliver, the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly speaker; Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg; and assistant majority leader Teresa Ruiz. (Oliver was recently elected lieutenant governor.)
That growth is trickling down to the local level—including big city mayors like Perth Amboy’s Wilda Diaz and Camden’s Dana Redd (whose eight-year tenure ended December 31), though women still hold fewer than 15 percent of the state’s mayoral positions.
“Women are energized,” says CAWP director Debbie Walsh, noting the record number of women attending the center’s Ready to Run training in 2017. These women, she says, are compelled to be more engaged in the political system.
“Women are showing up because they feel that they can’t not be there,” says Walsh. “They’re doing this for their families, for their communities, for their kids. It’s that level of drive and sense of commitment now.”
For the women hoping to challenge incumbents like Frelinghuysen and Lance, showing up is only half the battle.
“In any given election year, the odds of knocking off an incumbent are really slim,” says political analyst Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
That certainly proved true in the state legislative races this past November when, with all 120 seats up for grabs, only two challengers—neither of them women—knocked off incumbents. In the state’s 2nd District, Republican Chris Brown beat out Senator Colin Bell, a Democrat who had gained the seat after the death of Jim Whelan in August; and former Monmouth County Democratic chair Vin Gopal unseated Senator Jennifer Beck in the 11th District.
Frelinghuysen and Lance enjoy the benefits of name recognition and loaded campaign war chests. Unlike their potential challengers, they’ll hardly need to tap their funds until after the June primaries, Harrison notes.
And each of these incumbents sits in a district considered by many political experts to be safe for Republicans, based upon demographics and voting histories.
When a challenger wins, Harrison adds, as when Josh Gottheimer defeated incumbent Scott Garrett in the 5th District in 2016, there are likely three possible factors at play: money, scandal or other damage to the incumbent, and some shift in district demographics or views away from an incumbent’s prior positions.
None of this is news to the women running in the 7th and 11th districts. They’re counting on growing unrest and activism, fueled by each incumbent’s alignment with an unpopular Trump agenda, to bring about an upset like those seen in other seismic election cycles.
“Sometimes you have a sweeping tide of new faces,” Harrison says. “We saw that in the Watergate class, when people were so sick of Nixon and scandal. And we saw that in 1994, with the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich.”
In North Jersey’s 11th District, Sherrill is taking on arguably the state’s most entrenched and powerful Republican in Frelinghuysen, whose appropriations title brings with it the ability to raise big dollars for himself and for his party.
Frelinghuysen has represented the district since January 1995. Sherrill says that‘s now a strike against him.
Long considered a stronghold for Republicans, the district is moving left, she says, pointing out that Trump won there by only a slim margin—while Frelinghuysen, she says, has been moving farther to the right, as indicated by his yes vote in May to repeal and replace parts of the Affordable Care Act.
“He’s become so focused on his own power in D.C. that he’s lost sight of the people he’s serving, the constituents,” Sherrill says. Still, in November, Frelinghuysen—as well as Lance—voted against the House version of the tax reform bill. (Frelinghuysen did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment.)
One complication for Sherrill: She does not live in the part of Montclair that is in the 11th District. To remedy that, she plans to move within the town before primary day. Frelinghuysen has represented a section of overwhelmingly Democratic Montclair only since New Jersey’s district map was redrawn in 2011.
In the 7th District, which includes Hunterdon County and parts of Essex, Somerset, Morris, Union and Warren counties, Weber and Mandelblatt will face a crowded Democratic primary field in June before the winner heads into the general election against Lance, who won the seat in 2008 after serving nearly two decades in the state Legislature.
Though Lance has branded himself a moderate, both challengers contend that he has leaned right since going to Washington, a shift they say is out of touch with a local electorate that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, albeit by a slim margin.
“He voted for concealed-carry reciprocity and against funding for Planned Parenthood,” Mandelblatt said over coffee at Rock ’n Joe in Westfield. “He voted 67 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He eventually voted against that, but it took thousands of hours of people protesting at his office.”
Lance has also voted against environmental-protection legislation that a majority in the district and the state support, says Weber.
“I am clear after meeting with so many people across the district that this is not the representation people here want in Congress,” she says. “I am very much in favor of funding the Environmental Protection Agency, funding Planned Parenthood, supporting a woman’s right to control her own health care choices. These are things that Lance just doesn’t support.”
In response, Lance contends that Weber and Mandelblatt support policies like single-payer health care, free college tuition and a $15 minimum wage. These policies, says Lance campaign spokesman Jim Hilk, would lead to higher taxes and fewer jobs in New Jersey. (Weber and a Mandelblatt spokesperson acknowledge that both women support broader access to health care and more affordable college; neither is calling for a single-payer system or free tuition. Weber supports the $15 minimum wage; Mandelblatt supports a “living wage” determined by local communities.)
“Whoever comes out of the Democratic primary will have to face a principled fiscal conservative with a proven record of standing up for New Jersey taxpayers,” says a statement from the Lance campaign.
With a little less than a year left until the general election, the incumbents will continue to have plenty of advantages. But they’re also targets now, points out Krista Jenkins, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and executive director of the PublicMind Poll. Their voting records, says Jenkins, will speak volumes about their priorities.
“When people are paying more attention,” says Jenkins, “that’s usually a pretty good sign that perhaps we’re on the verge of seeing something rather unique.”
CAWP’s Walsh agrees.
“By all conventional wisdom, these are tough races,” she says. “But we have to keep in mind, when we look at this election cycle, that much of what we know about conventional wisdom is up in the air now. There’s a lot of room for surprises.”
Sharon McCloskey is a freelance writer based in Montclair.