For most of his career, Wall Street has been good to Rep. Scott Garrett (R, N.J.). Garrett is chairman of a powerful subcommittee that regulates banks, a job that traditionally comes with perks, including big political contributions from financial firms. But that was before Garrett made some controversial remarks about gays.
In a closed-door meeting with the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2015, Garrett reportedly said he would withhold his dues unless the party stopped supporting gay candidates. After those comments leaked to the press, Garrett found himself doing damage control.
“I have no problems with anyone running for office,” Garrett told an interviewer from New Jersey public broadcaster NJTV earlier this year. “I support the Republican platform. Which I think you just mentioned is supporting of traditional marriage.”
Now Garrett’s comments are creating problems for his reelection bid. In 2012 and 2014, financial firms donated an average of $600,000 per cycle to Garrett’s campaigns. After his anti-gay remarks, that number dropped by half. Capital One, Goldman Sachs, and big Japanese brokerage firm Nomura all stopped payments to Garrett’s political action committee.
“There are real risks from a brand perspective, and from a talent-recruiting perspective, from being associated with anti-LGBT, or anti-inclusive policies,” says Todd Sears, a former investment banker and founder of Out Leadership, a group that promotes LGBT awareness in financial firms and other industries.
Garrett’s situation underscores how quickly the politics around LGBT issues have shifted. It wasn’t long ago that support for LGBT rights could have been a political liability in all but a handful of Congressional districts. Now polls show growing support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights generally, especially among millennials. “It’s not just a fringe issue, as it might have been 10 years ago,” says Sears.
The Republican Party is still wrestling with how to respond. The party has supported a handful of gay candidates, which is what prompted Scott Garrett to withhold his dues in the first place.
Democrats have been trying for years to paint Garrett as too conservative for moderate voters in the New York City suburbs. So far, it hasn’t worked. But they sound confident that this year is different.
“His anti-gay comments are just one part of a very extreme Tea Party record that’s now out there,” says Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton who went on to work for Ford Motor Company and Microsoft. “I think as you peel back the onion here, people say ‘Wait a second, I didn’t realize just how extreme this guy is,'” Gottheimer says.
Gottheimer has raised more than $3 million, which has allowed the campaign to air TV ads like this one in one of the country’s most expensive media markets. And the race has become a top target for House Majority PAC, which has spent more than $1.5 million attacking Scott Garrett.
Democrats hope to persuade people like Karen Gerbatsch, a registered Republican and self-described fiscal conservative who’s voted for Garrett before.
“I started looking at Scott Garrett and what he represents, and it’s not me,” says Gerbatsch. “The woman’s right to choose isn’t there. Legal rights for people of all sexual orientation to get married is not there.”
Gerbatsch lives in Oakland, N.J., a leafy suburb about 25 miles from Manhattan. But if you keep driving west across this congressional district, the suburbs give way to fields and forests near the Pennsylvania border.
The northwestern corner of New Jersey is where Scott Garrett lives. And where his support is the strongest.
“I know I’ve changed his oil many times before some of the big votes,” says Kevin Kennedy, who runs an auto repair shop near Garrett’s house in Wantage. It’s easy to spot, thanks to half a dozen Garrett for Congress signs on the lawn. Kennedy says Garrett is soft-spoken and serious — a regular guy.
“I heard on the radio they called him a bigot and all kinds of different things,” Kennedy says. “I think it’s totally unfair. Anything I’ve seen from the guy, he’s just a gentleman.”
Kennedy says they’ve talked a couple times about this year’s election. And he says Scott Garrett seems pretty nervous.