VINELAND, N.J. – Amid glossy photos of prominent politicians adorning Democratic Congressman Jefferson Van Drew’s Capitol Hill office is a framed picture of him with Donald Trump.
It’s from 2008 when Van Drew was a state senator and the future president visited Atlantic City to christen the Chairman Tower at the Trump Taj Mahal. Both are wearing business suits, red ties and smiles.
“Nothing really amazing,” Van Drew, who goes by ‘Jeff,’ recalled about the moment. “It was a ribbon-cutting. He was very gracious. Very nice. Ivanka (Trump) was there. We talked for about 10 minutes.”
That he would choose to display the photo among those of Democrats Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley speaks to a level of respect the freshman congressman from South Jersey has for Trump, a nod that is uncommon among Democratic lawmakers, many of whom view the president as a polarizing figure.
House Democrats overwhelmingly backed an impeachment inquiry of Trump in October. Van Drew was one of only two Democrats who broke ranks with House leaders and opposed an impeachment inquiry over accusations that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump denies the allegations and has called the inquiry a “hoax.”
Collin Peterson, a 15-term veteran from Minnesota who chairs the Agriculture Committee, was the other dissenter.
Months before the impeachment inquiry began, some Democrats tried to avoid the president as he entered the House chamber in February to deliver his State of the Union speech but not Van Drew, who made it a point to shake Trump’s hand.
Van Drew, a former dentist from Cape May, says he dislikes the president’s “rudeness” at times, but agrees with some of his positions and doesn’t openly shun the president as some of his colleagues have.
“My job isn’t really to like or dislike him,” he said during an interview with USA TODAY in his Capitol Office. “My job is to exact as much good will and help for my district and for this nation and for this world that I possibly can while he’s president.”
After days of explosive testimony detailing Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, House Democratic leaders are want to hold a vote on articles of impeachment by the end of the year. It the articles are approved, that would send the matter to the Senate for a trial on whether Trump should be removed from office. But Van Drew remains opposed to impeachment, saying it would fracture the nation. The stance has won praise from the president who has tweeted out his words.
While he considers the president’s actions regarding Ukraine as “unsavory,” the congressman said he has yet to learn of anything that would persuade him Trump did something to warrant removal from office.
No president has ever been removed from office, Van Drew, 66, points out. And to have a “small, elite group” of lawmakers do so when an election is less than a year away seems to him to be not only unfathomable, but un-American.
“To some folks that’s reminiscent of what was done to kings and queens many years ago,” he said. “Everything our country doesn’t stand for.”
No bipartisan support for impeachment
Democratic leaders were hopeful at least a few Republicans would back impeachment following nearly two weeks of public hearings laying out Trump’s efforts to dig up dirt on Biden and play up a widely discredited theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton. But Van Drew’s skepticism indicates that even getting full Democratic support in the House for articles of impeachment will be difficult.
Potential GOP defectors, such as Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida and Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, have also shown no inclination to support impeachment.
Hurd, who sits on the Intelligence Committee presiding over the inquiry, said during a Nov. 21 hearing that he believes the administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine “undermined national security.”
But he also said he believed “an impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear and unambiguous and it’s not something to be rushed or taken lightly.”
“I’ve not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion,” Hurd said.
If the House approves articles of impeachment, the GOP-led Senate is expected to hold a trial in January. But Senate Majority Leader Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he “can’t imagine a scenario” where 67 senators – the minimum required to remove a president – would back such a step. Doing so would require at least 20 Republicans to break from the party.
A Trump district
The sprawling Second District of New Jersey stretches along the South Jersey shore, from the boardwalk of Atlantic City to the Victorian mansions of Cape May and west to the working-class exurbs of Philadelphia. In between sit the sprawling Pine Barrens and the rolling farms that gave New Jersey its “Garden State” moniker.
The president has ties to the district. The Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel, the Trump Marina Hotel Casino and the Trump Taj Mahal were all prominent features of Atlantic City before they folded in recent years.
He won the district by nearly five percentage points in 2016. It’s one of 31 Trump districts that Democrats represent (including New Jersey’s 3rd and 11th). Van Drew won it 2018 by nearly eight points, succeeding Republican Frank LoBiondo, who served 12 terms before retiring.
Constituents have been passionate about Trump, Van Drew said.
Some enthusiastically back him, embracing his stances that “upset the apple cart,” such as being tough on China and demanding the United Nations collect more fees from member nations. But Van Drew said many of his female constituents are turned off by the president’s demeanor, reflecting a problem Trump has with suburban women voters in other parts of the country.
Erika Tanko, 20, of Hammonton who studies at Rutgers University-Camden, said she’s surprised – and disappointed – Van Drew opposed moving ahead with the inquiry.
“He should have voted for impeachment, especially because it’s what a lot of us want,” she said.
But Robert Lewis, 47, a construction worker from Vineland, agrees with the congressman that it’s best to let voters decide next year.
“If you feel he’s not the right person, then everybody come out and vote,” Lewis said. “I mean, you wait ‘til now to want to impeach and it’s almost time to give him four more years or boot him out anyway.”
Seeking compromise in partisan times
Van Drew is a doting grandfather with an affinity for single-malt scotch, fancy suits and vigorous exercise.
A “workout fiend,” he never takes the elevator to his ninth-floor apartment in Washington. He’s known as a high-energy politician who frequently drops in on events around the district and has an oft-stated desire to reach compromise on issues such as infrastructure, prescription drugs and immigration.
His record veers from the right (he wants border security that’s better enforced and his 80% NRA score is by far the highest among the 14-member New Jersey congressional delegation) to the left (he opposes off-shore drilling and thinks undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as young children should automatically be granted citizenship).
While Democrats re-took the House in 2018 largely riding a blue wave of anti-Trump sentiment, Van Drew won his district on a promise to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.
“I want to be the kind of congressman who reaches across the aisle to do what’s right for the entire country,” he said when he kicked off his 2018 campaign.
He’s a Blue Dog Democrat who sits on the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of House centrists who in July successfully pushed through a compromise immigration and border security bill that infuriated liberals and was seen as a defeat for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“That was one of my finest days,” Van Drew said.
‘Watch what you wish for’
If Trump is acquitted, Van Drew fears that will give the president a chance to claim “exoneration” and make it harder to unseat him in the 2020 election.
“I say to folks sometimes: watch what you wish for,” the congressman said.
Many of his constituents agree.
Clark Katz, a retired Army Staff Sergeant from Bridgeton, said the impeachment process has given the country a black eye.
“I think what they’ve done by creating this impeachment is create an image in the world that says: ‘hey it’s not a democracy’,” said Katz, 78, a registered independent who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016 and Van Drew in 2018. “How do other nations in the world perceive us now? Divided. Weak. Unable to get together and stand together.”
Norm Robertson, 68, a retired engineer from Vineland who also voted for Van Drew and Trump, said impeachment is needlessly dividing the country.
“They should really spend their time on working on something else,” he said.
But Don Pensa, a commercial artist from nearby Pittsgrove, disagreed with Van Drew’s stance.
“I think it’s very necessary to go forward with this impeachment so other politicians understand that there’s a price to be paid for this kind of conduct,” said Pensa, a Democrat who voted for Clinton in 2016. “Seeking support in an election from a foreign government is just completely wrong. It’s an impeachable offense.”
Trump’s answer:‘I shouldn’t be impeached’
The division in Van Drew’s district mirror opinions nationwide.
Support for impeachment remains at about 50% compared to 43% who oppose it, according to a CNN poll released Tuesday that reflected the same voter sentiment in a poll the network released a month ago before the hearings began.
Among Democrats, 90% favored impeachment while 87% of Republicans were opposed. Independents were split, 46% to 47%.
‘I am a moderate … a capitalist’
Van Drew ascended New Jersey’s political ranks over more than two decades by winning 16 out of 17 local and states races as a Democrat in one of the reddest areas of the Northeast.
Describing himself as “sincerely bipartisan,” he said he shares little politically except party label with ultra-liberal Democrats such as firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even though her New York City district is a mere two-and-a-half hours drive from Van Drew’s.
“I am a moderate. I am a capitalist,” he said, sitting in an office where a portrait of Ronald Reagan hangs next to ones of Martin Luther King and FDR. “So I’m closer to Nancy (Pelosi) and Trump than AOC or those folks.”
Asked if he would vote for hard-line progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., if she were the Democratic presidential nominee against Trump, Van Drew paused.
“We’ll see. We’ll take a good look at it,” he said, adding that he expects to vote for whoever wins the nomination.
And he bemoans that some fellow Democrats have demanded the president’s impeachment for months, saying it helps feed Trump’s narrative of a rigged process.
“That makes folks understandably feel this guy doesn’t have a shot and there really is something going on and there really is a deep state,” Van Drew said. “I’m not saying there is but the fix is in.”
His stance has already drawn interest for a potential primary challenge from Democrats already angry at his refusal to support Pelosi for speaker in January.
“Van Drew started off his congressional career on shaky ground, and the impeachment vote has done nothing to help his standing within his party,” wrote Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University who has been mentioned as a possible primary opponent.
Lou Magazzu, a long-time Democratic operative in Vineland who has known Van Drew for 25 years, calls the congressman “an extraordinarily effective representative” who knows his district.
“My party, Democrats, have to decide, would they rather have a more perfect progressive be the nominee and lose the seat or would they be prepared to have a conservative Democrat who they may not agree with at all times hold the seat?” he said. “He’s not going to get pushed out. Not without a lot of people having his back.”
Mike Testa, the Vineland Republican who won Van Drew’s former state Senate seat in November, called Van Drew a savvy politician who has wide name recognition.
But he said local constituents “see Jeff Van Drew as someone who straddles the fence politically. And I’ve learned a long time ago in politics that when you straddle the fence, you eventually get split in half.”
Rallying cry for GOP
Van Drew’s resistance to impeachment has become a rallying cry for Republicans.
The same day Katz and Pensa were discussing Van Drew’s vote, the president was on Twitter touting what their congressman said during a recent Fox News appearance, that the impeachment probe was “fracturing the nation.”
Van Drew’s words from the Fox interview were displayed by House Republicans on a large placard positioned behind GOP lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee as they questioned Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, during a Nov. 19 impeachment inquiry hearing.
Van Drew shrugs it off.
“I would rather that my words weren’t used for that but you have no choice,” he said. “I believe what I said. And I do believe all of this hasn’t really accomplished a lot of good for us. It hasn’t brought people together.”