New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski spent some time over the Memorial Day recess getting grilled by some of his most outspoken constituents: the sixth-graders at Warren Middle School.
The precocious students grilled him on the plight of the Uighurs in China, the high level of taxes in the state and his view on gay rights. And then, an 11-year-old named Bodhi Lee stood up to ask a question.
“I wanted to ask you a question on how Donald Trump has conducted himself, and do you think he has done an impeachable offense?” he asked the congressman for the 7th District.
Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms because places like New Jersey’s 3rd and 7th congressional districts flipped from red to blue, but by narrow margins.
Voters backed Democrats in both of these places, but the two freshmen they sent to Washington have split on whether now is the time for impeachment.
“I asked the question because I felt like we need to know exactly what [politicians] think about the president … I think that [Trump] does need to be impeached,” Lee said. “He has done really inappropriate things that not all presidents have done and that really should not happen. He’s abusing his power.”
Lee’s congressman is Malinowski, a former State Department official and currently the only Democrat in a swing district to support opening an impeachment inquiry into the president.
“Voters here want me to fight for their interests and that means transportation that means lowering the cost of health care,” he told NPR. “But I also hear a lot from voters about decency, about checks and balances, about the rule of law — making sure that we don’t go over a cliff in America in terms of what conduct we permit our leaders to engage in.”
By taking this stand, the first-term congressman is exposing himself to political jeopardy. Al Gaburo, chairman of the Somerset County Republicans, immediately seized on Malinowski’s impeachment position.
“Tom Malinowski not only is well out of step with most of the constituents in the 7th congressional district. I think he’s entirely too liberal for this district,” Gaburo said. “We send representatives to Congress to represent the people … not to be a cheerleader for impeachment or a protester-in-chief.”
But he did have an almost begrudging respect for Malinowski’s willingness to take a risky stand, despite the fact that he felt the Democrat was wrong politically and on the substance.
“Where I do applaud him is that … when he talks about impeachment, I mean, he’s being honest about what he thinks about impeachment,” Gaburo said.
Democratic leaders are under increasing pressure as lawmakers returned to the capital after a weeklong break — with nearly 60 House Democrats now calling for impeachment.
Members like Malinowski are in the minority, according to national polls. In a new CNN poll, 54 percent of Americans said they oppose impeachment, while 41 percent support it.
Penelope Malakates is a Democrat and supports impeachment. But at a diner in Malinowski’s district, she told NPR that she doesn’t think the average voter has the bandwidth to worry about it.
“I have two little kids. And I have been thinking about going back to work and find it cost-prohibitive. I know that a lot of other people are in that same boat. Child care, education: the things that make an actual life work,” she said. “I think presidential politics and the Supreme Court and all that stuff is very important as well. But I don’t think the average sort of person on a day-to-day basis can handle the stress of what it means to think about those huge issues all the time.”
Berkeley Heights resident James Martin supports Malinowski — but not on this issue.
“I don’t believe in impeachment. I don’t believe that’s the right process, myself,” he said. “What I’m dealing with is elderly parents, elderly relatives that we take care of. I almost don’t have as much time to be concerned or worried about that. It takes energy to worry about things … unless it really touches on us personally, I can’t worry about all the other stuff.”
Another New Jersey freshman Democrat, Andy Kim, whose 3rd Congressional District is in the south-central part of the state, won his seat by less than 4,000 votes in 2018.
He doesn’t support moving forward with impeachment and told NPR he rarely gets asked about it by his constituents. In a recent town hall, it wasn’t brought up at all, he said. Over the recess, he visited a Veterans Affairs facility in New Jersey, where he brainstormed with officials about how to get vets the health care they need.
“When it comes to the issues happening in D.C., I think a lot of people are so skeptical about what’s happening there, and so tired of politics as usual and the partisan knife fighting,” Kim said, pointing out that he was sworn into Congress in the middle of a government shutdown.
In Kim’s district, voters told NPR that they were worried that impeachment would distract from more pressing issues.
“If I go back to the Clinton era when we focused all that time on impeachment, I think we missed some of the signs of what was to be 9/11,” Barbara Petriello, who lives in Brick, said. She identifies as an independent-leaning Democrat.
“So it scares me that we would be focusing so much on impeachment, rather than safety and the issues that are really much more important to people sitting around the kitchen table. You know, their paychecks, their health care, are their kids getting a good education, college loans — those kinds of things.”
Stephen Brill, another resident of Brick, was sitting outside a local council meeting in the town and said he supports investigations into the president and accountability for the Trump administration — but not impeachment.
“I don’t think the time is right yet because I don’t believe they have enough information,” he said.
Brill said he was more concerned about the trade war with China and the personal issue he was at the city council to address: pressing his local officials to put up a sound barrier between the Garden State Parkway and his property, an effort that he has spent seven years trying to get local politicians to support.
So while conversations in the Capitol are centering on whether to start impeachment; some voters in a couple of competitive districts that gave Democrats the majority are asking to pump the brakes a little.
With more members going public with their positions and top leaders weighing their next steps, Malinowski’s and Kim’s approaches reflect the split inside the Democratic caucus as it struggles with this question.