KINNELON, N.J.—The retired high school social studies teacher in the light blue polo shirt stood up in the town hall clutching a clipboard to say what he wanted to say to his first-term, first-year congresswoman, Mikie Sherrill. “Thank you, Representative Sherrill,” Gary Schraft began. “We appreciate what you’re doing to make this district a much better district. And we applaud you for having these town hall meetings because our last congressman refused to have them.” Many of the people in the tightly packed crowd last week clapped and cheered at this assessment. Sherrill let the ovation subside. “I sense a but coming,” she said with a smile.
She was right. But the but was less a question and more a warning. Schraft invoked the name of an ill-fated congressman from this area who won in 1972, defended Richard Nixon in 1973 and lost in 1974. “And President Trump, I believe, and a lot of people believe, is 10 times worse than President Nixon,” Schraft told Sherrill. “That’s why we really would like you to support—like many other members of Congress—an impeachment inquiry.”Story Continued Below
This drew another roar of approval, and again Sherrill let the noise die down. And in this moment of relative quiet, in this overwhelmingly Republican borough in New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, a district that hadn’t voted for a Democrat in 3½ decades before it voted for Sherrill last year, the low, firm voice of a woman floated from the rear of the room.
“Don’t do it, Sherrill.”
This is the political fault line that has emerged for centrists like Sherrill. All August, as lawmakers spent time at home during the late-summer recess, and as Trump’s often erratic behavior only intensified, moderate Democrats heard from their more liberal constituents increasingly insistent calls to impeach. As a majority of House Democrats have said do it, Sherrill steadfastly has said wait—not yet. The past month’s storyline has revolved around the question of whether Sherrill and her ilk can withstand the pressure.
Sherrill and fellow district-flippers, more than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or any of the other headline-generating members of “the Squad,” allowed Democrats to wrest back control of the House, and Sherrill won not only with a perfectly suited biography—Navy helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor, mother of four—but by laser-focusing on less sexy topics that nonetheless foster more bipartisan agreement—taxes, health care, infrastructure. This deliberate approach facilitated a deft and necessary balancing act in which Sherrill appealed to an ardent base of Democrats activated by the stunning election of Trump, of course, but also to a wide enough array of more quietly unsettled independents and Republicans. Voters to her right were just as responsible for her victory as those to her left, and they will have a similar say over whether she keeps her seat.
To this point in her term, signs are strong that she can and will: Nobody is filed to run against her—not a GOP hopeful, not a primary challenger. Prognosticators look at her district that Republicans held for 34 years and now rate it “likely Democratic” or no longer even up for grabs. “Sherrill,” according to Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, “is not really vulnerable.”
Eight months into her congressional tenure, Sherrill looked at Schraft and spoke into the microphone, conspicuously on brand as a parent, as an attorney, as a soldier-turned-legislator.
She acknowledged people’s anger and anxieties. She said she shares them. Then she pivoted to the crux of her wait-and-see stance: “We now have about 29 investigations going”—that’s across the board—“and when you are conducting an investigation, you get as much information as possible. We are still getting information.”
And she continued toward her conclusion. Work on so many other pressing issues, and on other committees—the House Armed Services Committee, for instance—needed to go on as well. “Because Congress doesn’t just have an oversight responsibility,” she said. “It has a responsibility to be responsive to the people. … That’s why I’ve taken the position I have.”
This cautious case for patience elicited not boos, or even grumbling or groans, but another wave of applause.
After the town hall, I caught up with Schraft, the social studies teacher, and his wife.
He was disappointed. “She’s ducking the issue,” he said.
“But you’re going to support her, anyway, right?” I asked.
“Well, we’ll vote for her,” he said.
It’s something I’ve heard over and over from voters like Schraft in this district. They’re varying degrees of frustrated with Sherrill on this front—but almost certainly not so much so they’ll make her pay with their votes. There’s just too much at stake.
The next afternoon, riding in the back of a staffer’s car from a meeting with employees at the office of BASF in Florham Park to a tour of the small airport in Morristown with business leaders and mayors (one Democrat, two Republicans), Sherrill told me about her prisoner-of-war training on the top of a mountain in Maine when the overnight temperature dipped to 65 degrees below zero. The 40 or so men she was with huddled to conserve body heat. She was the only woman. She got frostbite. That felt dangerous. She told me about being blindfolded and strapped into a helicopter that was flipped upside down in a giant tank of water. She had to swim her way out. That felt dangerous.
“I guess I’m not feeling that pressure,” she said.
If she perceives danger, she suggested, it is not in her district, with which she feels “fairly well aligned,” but in the wider political terrain. She was a key part of the way Democrats got their main toehold against Trump last year, and to lose that next year, she said, to give up any ground in this fraught fight, would be disastrous.
“If this president wins reelection, we need to have the House of Representatives. I think he’s been very bad for this country. And I think the only backstop right now is the House. And so I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”
Impeachment buzz built slowly in northern New Jersey. As recently as late May, when I attended Sherrill’s town hall in Bloomfield, a much more liberal part of the district, the subject barely came up. The first time I heard it mentioned that evening was as the meeting was ending and one of Sherrill’s most recognizable constituents asked her about it. Jack Gavin, a 59-year-old IT professional, is tall—“5-foot-17,” he once told me—and wore a tan mesh vest and a bushy white beard and often hands out pocket-sized editions of the Constitution. His blue Subaru Forester is covered in bumper stickers, including one that says “MAKE THE BAD MAN GO AWAY,” and has a license plate that says, “FACTS.”
On this particular Sunday in a middle school auditorium, special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report had been out for a month. Based on his reading, Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, then a Republican, had concluded Trump’s actions met the “threshold for impeachment.” Gavin asked Sherrill what her holdup was. “What will it take?” he said. She wanted, she told him, to hear from Mueller—that wouldn’t happen for another two months—and she wanted, too, to be able to read “the full, unredacted report.”
“I think we’re in a good spot right now,” Sherrill told Gavin. “I think what we’re doing right now is what we need to be doing.”
By August, though, more and more progressives in the 11th saw this stance as unacceptably circumspect.
“We are writing as your constituents with growing fervor and alarm over the lack of urgency,” Laura Valente and three other Nutley residents wrote in a letter to Sherrill dated August 1. It called Sherrill’s statement after Mueller’s testimony “tepid.” It quoted Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe: “To wait for the results of the multiple investigations underway is to risk tying our nation’s fate to the whims of an authoritarian leader.” It beseeched Sherrill “to do what ONLY you can do for us”—“bold, decisive support for impeachment proceedings.” It was signed by 128 other like-minded voters in the district. It was an apt kick-start to the month.
The next week, in Sherrill’s district headquarters in Parsippany, the often calleed the “Crossroads of North Jersey,” Valente and the other letter-writers met with her for half an hour.
“I told her that growing up, being a student of history, I always imagined that I would have the courage to have hidden Anne Frank or to have marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Valente told me, “and that this moment in time in the history of our nation once again calls for that level of courage.”
Sherrill responded, Valente recalled, with her belief that probable acquittal in the Senate would embolden Trump and amount to implicit and precedent-setting approval of his conduct. She would change her mind, Valente heard Sherrill say, if and when the majority of Americans supported impeachment, which continues to not be the case.
After Sherrill expressed similar sentiments in the middle of the month on “The Daily,” the popular New York Times podcast, a man from Parsippany admonished her in a letter to the editor in a local publication. “You once held the controls of a U.S. Navy Helicopter where at any time your commanding officer could have sent you into harm’s way, risking your life, your future, and basically all that you have right now—all for the sake of your country,” he wrote. “We need at least some of that same courage right now. Rep. Sherrill, stand in the way of autocracy and stand up for the rule of law when you return to Washington.”
The scene was set for what happened three days later at Sherrill’s town hall in Verona. Valente was there. She kept holding her hand up but wasn’t called on.
Toward the end of the evening, she turned to people around her, she told me.
“If I start chanting, ‘Impeach now,’ will you follow me?”
Their chanting lasted approximately 10 seconds—watch it starting with about 10 minutes to go here—and they held signs saying the same thing. Sherrill stood still, smiling, her hands calmly clasped. She heard them, of course—“about four people in a 150-person town hall,” she told me later—but it’s not all she heard. “Other people said, ‘Quiet down, you’re wasting time,’” she said with a laugh, “so it wasn’t like the whole room adopted this like, oh, you know, pitchforks mentality.”
Still, with the topic in the air, a different woman asked Sherrill to explain her position, again, and she did, again.
“If we don’t make a strong enough case to the American people, and right now I don’t think we can do that without more, the president will be acquitted,” she said, “and we will now have two branches of our government that have said that his behavior is acceptable and that is how we want our president to act. So we have to be incredibly thoughtful.” She said a “bright line” for her would be if Trump and his administration flout final decisions from courts. Until then, though, she reiterated her conviction in the prudence of restraint. “I think,” she said, “we are building a very strong investigation, and I think we’re doing the right thing.”
I’ve been to four of her town halls this year. Each time I’m reminded that the sorts of issues Sherrill ran on in 2018 are the sorts of issues that matter the most to the most people here still. In spite of the recent, attention-getting uptick in clamor for impeachment, the vast share of what she hears at these public forums has been about gun control and climate change and prescription drug prices and wearying commute times on deteriorating bridges, tunnels and roads, and property taxes, and the funding of elections, and the exasperating numbers of robocalls—a range of issues that gets next to no time on cable news but makes up the humdrum backbone of any functioning—or nonfunctioning—public sector. In my estimation, for whatever that’s worth, Sherrill has been a pretty quick study, getting more comfortable with each appearance at saying what she wants to say and how she wants to say it.
And in Kinnelon, from my seat in the front row, I watched her give her answer to Schraft’s question about impeachment and found it clinical to the point of almost practiced. It was different, though, when she was asked about gun control. Sherrill is as constitutionally measured as she is politically moderate, but she got unusually emotional. She didn’t cry, a la Andrew Yang, but there was a discernible anger and a thickness in her voice. She emphasized the bipartisan bill she co-sponsored calling for universal background checks during gun purchases and decried a recalcitrant Republican Senate. She cited a USA Today op-ed she recently wrote with Democratic Representative Jason Crow of Colorado. She lauded New Zealand’s fast actions after a single mass shooting. And she related a story of a kindergartner who was scared to change schools because she didn’t know “which closet to hide in” in her new school. “How is this OK?” she said sharply to the crowd. “How are we living and normalizing this level of violence in our communities? I don’t think it’s acceptable, and I’m fighting very hard to end it.”
Over the course of the hourlong affair, she did what she almost always does. She started with the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. She honored local veterans. She said the word “bipartisan” with practically comedic frequency, and people noticed it and said they liked it. The most boisterous cheer of the night, by far, was for a seventh-grader who asked what could be done to make politicians from different parties get along and work together. The Republican mayor of the borough declared himself “starstruck” by Sherrill.
I looked at the man on the other side of the room in the blue blazer standing against the wall with his arms crossed studying Sherrill and the dynamics of the room and couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking.
Keith Dakin, a Republican, is thinking about running against Sherrill. Late the next night, I met him at the bar of the Parsippany Sheraton, which looks like a castle and hosted Sherrill’s victory party last November and sits across the street from her headquarters now. Dakin, 53, is a fit, divorced father of two middle school-aged sons who works in the irrigation business and has never run for any office of any kind. He and I talked for 2½ hours until the bartender turned the lights on bright. Shrunk to size, the theory of the case for his notional bid is that Sherrill is not far enough to the left to be a Democrat.
Sherrill, for example, is leery of “Medicare for All,” instead advocating for more incremental improvements to the health care system as constituted. So is Dakin. “I don’t differ all that much,” he said.
He’s also for universal background checks during gun sales and commonsense gun control. “Right,” he said. “I’m a moderate Republican.”
“We are a two-party system,” he said. “I don’t believe that Mikie Sherrill aligns solely with either one of them.” Perhaps he detected on my face my confusion. “What she’s doing is—you can call it brilliant by moving and appealing to Republican voters,” he said, “but they’re Republican voters, right?”
He told me about a conversation he had had with three voters after the Kinnelon town hall. “Two women walked up to me,” he said. “‘What’s your name?’ ‘Keith Dakin—hoping to run for Congress.’ And the third walked up to me and said, ‘I’m from Kinnelon borough, and I’ve been a registered Republican now for 40 years, and if you can’t take a position on gun rights and health care right now, you don’t have a chance, because we’re going with her.’”
I asked what he said in response.
“I didn’t really get the opportunity. She kind of walked away from me,” Dakin said.
“Maybe I’ll lose,” he granted.
“If she switched parties, I’d get out of the race right now—before I even get in it,” he added.
“If you’re a leftist Democrat,” he said at the tail end of our time together, “you’re not with Sherrill.”
I’m not so sure.
At a town hall last week at the Cedar Crest retirement home in Pompton Plains, Nat Arkin, 93, asked the first question. “The Mueller report was released four months ago,” he said. “I know you’re opposed to impeachment now, and I’d like to know: If not now, when?” Sherrill answered the way she answers. “I wasn’t fully satisfied,” Arkin told me later. In Sherrill’s last campaign, working through the home’s Democratic club, Arkin gave money to her, phone-banked for her and wrote letters to the editor supporting her. And he voted for her. And he’ll vote for her again. “There’s no way in hell I would vote for a Republican at this time in my life, with what’s going on in the country,” he said.
When I talked to Valente, the woman who wrote Sherrill the letter and met with her in her office and stoked the chants at the Verona town hall and hollered that focusing on anything other than impeachment at this point is akin to mowing the lawn while the house is on fire, I asked if she still would still vote for Sherrill next year. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I mean, it’s the full blue no matter who mentality right now because of the existential threat.”
And then there’s Gavin. When I first met him in January, he handed me buttons he plucked from the pockets of his vest—FACTS MATTER, BE THE CHANGE, etc … —but he also sounded a pragmatic note. “She has to work within the district,” he said. “She can’t—what’s the word I’m looking for?—she can’t disenchant her supporters. On either end. But the people on her left are, in my opinion, so grateful to have this tremendous improvement. We never expect it to be perfect. I never expect to agree with her 100 percent.”
I usually see him on my trips to Sherrill’s district. I didn’t see him last week. I gave him a call.
“I cut her some slack,” Gavin told me. “On impeachment … less so.”
He wishes she would join the list of House Democrats calling to—as that bumper sticker of his puts it—”MAKE THE BAD MAN GO AWAY.” If somebody challenged her in a primary, he said, he’d give that person a look. For now, though, would he vote again for Sherrill?
Gavin hesitated not at all.
“I would go for her rather than any Republican I can conceive of,” he said. “Abraham Lincoln is dead.”