When the suburbs became the embodiment of the American dream, people must have pictured something like Montclair, New Jersey, on a sunny weekend. It’s just under 70 degrees, the Garden State parks are filled with kids playing sports and the adults nurse Starbucks iced coffees while engaging in breezy activism. Yesterday was the Save Our Schools From Guns rally; today is the Earth Day event. About 100 people showed, including Mikie Sherrill, who with her green blouse, turquoise necklace, brown bangs and black blazer could pass for any other mom playing coach and chauffeur as she talks neighborhood reforestation and tomato planting while hawkishly watching her boys chuck lacrosse balls.
Still, Sherrill, 46, isn’t some Stepford Wife. After leaving high school in exurban northern Virginia, she graduated from the Naval Academy with prisoner-of-war training that included being punched, smoked-out and waterboarded. Then she flew a Sea King helicopter for a decade in Europe and the Middle East. The former assistant U.S. attorney for New Jersey has raised nearly $2.5 million after launching a bid for Congress more than a year ago. Her 11th district is one of four competitive Republican-held New Jersey seats, making the Garden State suburbs critical turf in the battle for control of the House.
She’s earned the endorsement of everyone from Emily’s List to former Vice President Joe Biden. And Sherrill fits a trend of Democrats hanging their hats on military women, including Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas. “It’s like Captain Americas are running for office; they’ve captured the imagination of who political leaders can be,” says Emily Cherniack, founder of New Politics, which recruits service alums to political life.
Still, her fast ascent to the top of the party pecking order has raised questions. Democratic primary foe Tamara Harris — an African-American businesswoman who has raised $250,000 from donors and put in $300,000 from her own pocket — criticizes the national party for being myopic in drafting so many veterans and former prosecutors as candidates. Her criticism comes at a time when liberal groups, including Emily’s List, have been accused of focusing on a specific type of woman: white and wealthy. “If the party persists in doing that, we aren’t going to win general elections,” Harris argues. “I showed up credible and capable and the system engaged in an accelerated endorsement” of her opponent, she adds. In response, Sherrill says that’s “a reckoning we have to have too,” but notes that she joined the race back when it was a long shot — three months before Harris entered.
Sitting on the bleachers of a lacrosse game for one of her four young children, Sherrill faces another rapid-fire interrogation, though less grueling than those from her military days. On New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, her fellow Democrat whose corruption trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial last November? “He wasn’t convicted,” Sherrill says, and the nation needs him on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — although she admits if he were a Republican, she might be singing a different tune. On Donald Trump? “To somehow have less faith in our FBI and CIA than in the FSB or the KGB? I don’t understand that,” says Sherrill, a Russia expert who was deployed to Moscow at times for joint military exercises and to handle nuclear treaty obligations. But would she move to impeach Trump? “We’ve certainly seen evidence that might lead to something, but we’ve got to let [special counsel Robert] Mueller complete his investigation,” she says.
She was motivated in part by Trump’s travel ban and his public criticism of government institutions, getting into this race early to challenge Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a solid 24-year incumbent. Since then, she’s run on a platform that includes stricter gun control and environmental protections, and more funding for education and job training — riding a Democrat-friendly tide that’s particularly high here. The GOP tax bill hit New Jersey harder than any other state, with 10 percent of filers seeing their taxes increase overall after the feds limited the state and local tax deduction. Then House Republicans in April pushed to kill already approved funding for the Gateway tunnel project to New York. “Every legislation coming out of Washington is bad for New Jersey,” Sherrill says. But it’s been good for her political chances. Democrats won big at the state level in November, and Gallup now puts Trump’s New Jersey approval rating at just 34 percent. In January, Frelinghuysen said he wouldn’t run for re-election.
While his exit made Sherrill the sudden favorite, it also means a loss of state clout as Frelinghuysen is chairman of the money-disbursing House Appropriations Committee. His successor will have to start from the bottom, whether it’s Sherrill or one of her opponents. Despite the signs of suburban unrest, Republicans can point to the district’s long-standing GOP lean and narrow backing of Trump in 2016. Antony Ghee, a Black Army reservist, and Assemblyman Jay Webber will face off in a June primary vote.
As the campaign accelerates, Sherrill has shown grassroots organizing skill. She gathered almost 6,000 voter signatures — far more than the 200 she needed to get on the ballot. And she’s drawing on the excitement of people like Kelly Coakley, who didn’t know who her congressman was before 2016. Now the human resources consultant and spin class instructor is a leader of Mobilizing Montclair. She organized a 1,000-person bus caravan to the Women’s March and threw her expansive volunteer list behind electing the woman whose son plays lacrosse with hers. “This is it, this is where all of our energy is going to go,” Coakley remembers thinking, as women like her are getting off their idyllic suburban sidelines.