Congress

Jeff Van Who? Democrats slam Van Drew, talk Jersey justice for party flipper

Van Drew says he's not ready to make an announcement but signals switch is imminent

Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey did not show up to vote or attend a Democratic Caucus on Tuesday after news broke over the weekend that he plans to switch to the Republican Party after voting this week against impeaching President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 8:33 p.m. | New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, appearing at the Capitol Tuesday afternoon for the first time since news broke this weekend that he’s planning to switch parties, told reporters he’s not ready to announce his decision.

“I’ve not made a decision that I’m willing to share with anybody for a short period of time,” the freshman Democrat said, not denying he would soon be a Republican.

Amid rumors of a pending party switch last week, Van Drew told reporters he was staying a Democrat. Asked Tuesday if that was a lie, Van Drew avoided the characterization. 

“I don’t know if you’d consider it a lie. I think you would consider it a hope and a wish,” he said. 

Van Drew reportedly made his decision after meeting with President Donald Trump Friday after weeks of overtures from Republican leaders for him to defect. He declined to discuss his conversation with the president at this time. 

Rumor has it that Van Drew will announce his decision alongside Trump later this week — after the impeachment vote in which he plans to vote against both articles — but Van Drew declined to confirm the timing or a potential appearance with the president. 

“You will find out when I appear or don’t appear,” he said.

‘Inconsequential’ 

Van Drew said he had not talked to Speaker Nancy Pelosi but acknowledged, “I should and I hope to.” 

He has also not talked to his Garden State colleagues about his decision and the Democrats, frankly, seem over him.

“It’s pretty inconsequential, I think, given how inconsequential he was in this place,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, a fellow New Jersey freshman Democrat, said. 

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a more senior member of the New Jersey delegation and Democratic Caucus called it a “historic, hysteric decision” and said he thinks Van Drew made a big mistake. 

“Politics is not where the wind blows,” he said. “You’re in the wrong place if that’s what you’re all about. You stand, you commit. You don’t do foolish things.”

The New Jersey delegation did not get so much as a heads up from Van Drew, let alone a consultation about the decision, Pascrell and Malinowski said.

They both had not talked to Van Drew as of Monday morning, noting his absence from the first House vote series. He also missed the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting but he rarely attends those, according to Pascrell. 

“He never talked to any of us, but I think there’s some obligation. Commitments mean something,” Pascrell told reporters. “You know what we would’ve done with a guy like that and on my neighborhood in Paterson?”

Pascrell did not answer the question as he stepped into the House chamber to vote, but when he emerged a minute later, he said he doesn’t advocate violence. 

“I’m 82 years old. I’ve passed that,” he said. 

‘More than welcome’ in GOP

Van Drew did not even share his decision with Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey’s only Republican member. But Smith said he’d be happy to have Van Drew in the GOP. 

“He’s more than welcome, very welcome,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, frankly. Something like impeachment should be absolutely a conscience vote based on facts, not politics. And he was under a lot of pressure, especially at home.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recruited Van Drew to switch parties, told reporters that Republicans welcome him or “any Democrat who sees this new Democrat socialist party that has left him behind.” 

“I don’t blame Congressman Van Drew for being disappointed in the Democrats,” he said. “The American public is disappointed in the Democrats. They said they would be different. There’ll be other Democrats I imagine across this country that become disappointed in them as well.”

While other politicians have switched parties in the past, McCarthy said he’s had a hard time finding anyone who’s moved from the majority party to the minority.

“That should be an eye-opener for the Democrats,” he said. “It should be an eye-opener for the Democrats when Speaker Pelosi promised her members that when they moved through with impeachment that it would be more popular when it got to the floor, which it is not.”

The centrist Blue Dog Coalition voted Tuesday to indefinitely rescind Van Drew's membership.

“Per our by laws, which require all members to be a member of the Democratic Party, Congressman Van Drew is no longer a member of the Blue Dog Coalition,” Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Murphy of Florida said in a statement.

Democrats see Van Drew’s party flip is a done deal, even if he’s not announced it. They don’t plan to count his “no” votes on the impeachment articles as a party defection. 

“He has switched — whether it’s formal or not is another question,” Pascrell said.

Asked if Democrats could expel Van Drew from their caucus ahead of the vote, he said, “That’s not going to happen. It plays into Trump’s hands.”

Van Drew, also asked about the possibility, said that “would be kind of mean spirited” but noted it’s ultimately up to House Democrats. 

“It’s hard to know what’s in people’s minds and hearts,” he said. “That would be embarrassing if I say, ’Well I wasn’t really planning on leaving.’”

But Van Drew offered no such signal he was willing to stay in the Democratic Party. While he didn’t answer several questions reporters posed to him, the ones he did answer aligned with the notion he plans to join the GOP. 

“I believe in American exceptionalism, that this is the best nation in the world,” Van Drew said when asked to name an issue besides impeachment on which he sides with Republicans. 

Asked if he thinks Democrats don’t share that view, Van Drew said, “I’ve been told often — and actually there have been quotes that many do not — many do not believe the idea that America is any better than any other country in the world. Yes.”

Staff exodus

Five members of Van Drew’s staff in his Washington office resigned in unison on Sunday after he told them about his plans to switch parties. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Tamari reported they will be hired, some temporarily, by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. 

Pallone later confirmed that to reporters but declined to say what role they would fill on the committee.

Van Drew said the staff that resigned were told to do so.

“They had to or else they wouldn’t work,” he said, implying someone in the Democratic Party threatened as much but when asked who he said, “I’m not going into that.”

“If there was a switch, and they stayed, I think it would be very hard for them to work, but that was up to them,” Van Drew said. 

He noted his chief of staff is still working in his Washington office and all of the employees in his Mays Landing district office remain on staff.

McCarthy told CQ Roll Call he’s dispatched some of his staff members to work temporarily in Van Drew’s Washington office to help fill roles the five departed staffers performed.

“We believe in helping people,” the California Republican said, noting his staff will be “helping them temporarily with answering phones and other” constituent services.

Democratic leaders were more tempered in their reaction to Van Drew’s decision than his New Jersey colleagues, but they did not defend him.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whom Van Drew said left him a voicemail this weekend, said he was “disappointed” but declined to speculate Van Drew’s motivation.

“I don’t think he’s received any heat from votes that he’s taken,” the Maryland Democrat said, noting the first 20 bills or so the House passed were supported unanimously by Democrats.

Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Van Drew made his decision “that he believes reflects the perspective of his district,” which includes Atlantic City and several more sparsely populated South Jersey counties.

“Ultimately, Jeff Van Drew will have to answer to the people of the 2nd Congressional District in New Jersey,” Jeffries said.

It's unclear how that constituency, a district that President Donald Trump carried by about 5 percentage points, will react. Van Drew, long considered a more conservative Democrat, won by a higher margin in 2018, following the retirement of Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo. 

Liberals in the district had been preparing to mount a primary challenge to him after his vote against launching the impeachment inquiry, and there were already Republicans gearing up to run against him that he may now face in a GOP primary. 

“My constituency, the majority of them are Republicans, but the biggest majority of them are people who really vote for people because of their individuality and because of how hard they work. And that’s what I’ve always done,” Van Drew. “So I have an election coming up, and if they disagree with what I’ve done, then they will vote me out. And that’s something I will very willingly accept; that’s their right.”

Malinowski said if Van Drew is hoping to become a Trump ally, that could be difficult beyond the impeachment vote because his voting record shows he has voted with Democrats on the vast majority of bills. 

“I feel a little sorry for him because he did this to get tweets from President Trump and he’s gonna find the president embraces people and discards them, sometimes in a matter of days,” he said. “He’s not going to be useful to them for very long.  And I don’t know where he’s going to be.”

Patrick Kelley and Andrew Siddons contributed to this report. 

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.