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The Cost of Activism in the Trump Era: Your Job

Saily Avelenda just wanted her congressman to meet his constituents. He complained to her employer.

Courtesy of Bob Karp and the Daily Record

Last week, Saily Avelenda sat alone in her quiet backyard in West Caldwell, New Jersey —her husband at work, her two young sons at school—and, glued to her phone, watched her story go viral.

That morning, WYNC had broken the news: New Jersey Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, sent a form fundraising letter to a board member of the bank where Avelenda had worked. The conservative agenda was under attack by “organized forces,” it warned. At the bottom, in a handwritten note, the congressman added, “P.S. One of the ringleaders works at your bank.” 

That “ringleader” was Avelenda, senior vice president and assistant general counsel at the Lakeland Bank, at its headquarters in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. After the election, she had helped found a grassroots group, NJ 11th for Change, that was publicly urging Frelinghuysen to meet with his constituents in a town hall.

Avelenda first saw the letter in March, when her boss came into her office and showed it to her. He asked her to describe her involvement with the group, and to write a statement explaining the situation for the bank’s CEO. In April, after six and a half years at the bank and a recent promotion, Avelenda resigned. 

Then the WYNC story aired, and Avelenda’s phone started to ring. She spoke with a reporter from The Washington Post, one of the first of 14 interviews she fielded that day. A video she filmed that day for NowThis Politics has accrued 1.15 million views.

For the media, the story’s appeal was undeniable: An elected Republican official, newly embattled due to his Trump-friendly votes, had taken a shot at an activist—and bloodied his own image in the process. The headlines agreed: Frelinghuysen’s “tattling” had cost his constituent her job. 

But the story had one nagging loose end: Avelenda had not been fired. She had left. Was losing her job the cost of her activism?

I first met Avelenda in early April, in a Montclair coffee shop. I was curious about the letter, which she had not yet made public. Avelenda was perfectly made-up and crisply dressed in a pantsuit, her dark hair neat despite the rain. Even discussing the letter made her uneasy. 

So at first we spoke of other things—why she helped start NJ 11th for Change in the first place. Avelenda described how, on the morning after Trump’s election, she felt a personal sense of responsibility for the results, even complicity, due to her own complacency that Hillary Clinton would win. While Avelenda had given money to Clinton’s campaign, she had not called or canvassed. “It was me and every other me,” she said.

Brought together by a Facebook post, Avelenda met with a group of strangers who would become the steering committee for NJ 11th for Change, which now counts more than 7,000 Facebook members. (The 11th District, a wealthy, suburban region in the north of the state, has a population of about 650,000.) Their main demand was that Frelinghuysen hold an in-person town hall, which he had not done since 2013. In February, they held “constituent town halls” to highlight his absence.

When the group decided to register as a nonpartisan super PAC, Avelenda handled the paperwork. They received $30,000 in contributions with no formal fundraising effort. (Ever cautious, Avelenda also elicited legal advice to be sure she could pursue these activities at her job; she could.) Members of the steering committee, which met weekly, said they felt like a new family—one with ambitious plans.

After running virtually unopposed for twelve terms, Frelinghuysen was newly vulnerable and on the 2018 target list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He had won his last campaign by 20 points, chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and was the scion of an aristocratic family who had served in Congress for centuries. But in part due to a 2010 redistricting, his moderate district went for Trump by just .9 percentage points. And Frelinghuysen, a professed moderate, was voting “yea” on every bill on the Trump agenda.

NJ 11th for Change members began to rally outside Frelinghuysen’s offices every Friday, demanding a town hall. The media began to notice. After Frelinghuysen said he’d vote no on Speaker Paul Ryan’s first try at a Republican health care bill, the group received a tearful thanks from Rachel Maddow. (Frelinghuysen has since voted yea on the American Health Care Act.)

The day before I met Avelenda in the café, the group had chartered three buses with the progressive group Blue Wave to bring constituents to Frelinghuysen’s D.C. offices. In a last-minute concession, he agreed to meet with them. When they arrived, Frelinghuysen stood in the doorway to greet them like a grandfather, wearing ill-fitting pants and a somewhat lost expression. His appearance was utterly at odds with the considerable power he wields, as every government bill must pass through his committee for funding.

Avelenda told me that Frelinghuysen cultivated that “grandpa” image, posing for photographs with schoolchildren and veterans at the IHOP. “But would grandpa send a letter to your employer?” she asked.

The letter showed a very different Frelinghuysen—reckless, bullying. Avelenda felt obligated to make the letter public, because her group’s purpose was to show constituents “the real Rodney.”

But Avelenda could not publish the letter while working at the bank. She had promised her boss not to use the company’s name in her political activities—and she hadn’t—but her own name was unusual and easily searchable. (That was how, she suspected, Frelinghuysen’s staff traced her from a quote in a Politico article to the bank. The board member who received the fundraising letter, Joseph O’Dowd, is a Frelinghuysen donor, and the Politico article was included with the letter.) “It would be different if my name were Mary Smith,” she told me.

I called Avelenda two days after the story broke, an event she called “the hurricane.” She had a television interview later that day and needed to get her hair done, in part for her mother’s sake. Avelenda’s mother was a Cuban exile who, as a teenager, spent 27 months in a government labor camp.  When she heard the Frelinghuysen story, Avelenda’s mother—a staunch Republican—went on a diatribe: She had not left Cuba at great cost for her daughter to be bullied in a free country! And before Avelenda went on the news, she was going to get her hair cut and dyed.

Frelinghuysen’s words were intended to intimidate her, Avelenda told me. This assessment is shared by nonpartisan ethics experts, including Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. McGehee told me, “A reasonable person would look at this letter and say it was intended to intimidate” with “an insinuation of retaliation.”

But did Avelenda feel intimidated, and compelled to stop her activism? No, she laughed: “There is only one person on the planet who can intimidate me, and that is my mom.” 

Frelinghuysen did not comment for any news story (including this one), apart from a brief, disavowing statement his campaign office provided to WNYC
that called the letter “innocuous.” 

The Lakeland Bank commented only on its Facebook page, quoting from a code of ethics that they “promote our employees’ full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility” so employees could support “the political process in the manner that she or he desires.” (This sentiment was doubted by many of the thousand comments the post accrued.)

So why had she resigned? Avelenda described her last weeks on the job: sleepless nights, uncharacteristic panic attacks, and an intolerable office dynamic, of which the letter was one integral part. She came to realize that, by passing on the letter, the board member and her boss had enabled Frelinghuysen’s attempt to intimidate her. 

Avelenda foresaw more conflict between her bank, with its characteristic conservatism, and her activism, particularly as the 2018 election neared. She could not promise to keep her name out of the news. She resigned and, three weeks later, published the letter.

For Avelenda, the cost of her activism was a dilemma: She could not continue to both hold Frelinghuysen accountable and keep her job. She had to choose. 

It is extraordinary that a mere member of a constituent group—a good citizen exercising her civic rights—felt she had to give up her job to demand that her congressman represent her interests. While some companies, like The New York Times, ask that employees refrain from political activities for ethical reasons, Avelenda’s bank claimed to support employees’ political engagement as a part of their ethic. After Avelenda’s story came out, I wondered if other new activists would face surprising costs for confronting their representatives. 

Reassuringly, McGehee told me that Frelinghuysen’s actions were unusual. Less reassuringly, she read them as part of a larger “Trump effect,” created by a president who every day overturns the norms of political behavior. She likened it to the body politic moving from a smooth stream into the rapids. “I’d say Frelinghuysen got caught up,” said McGehee. Indeed, the letter was sent shortly after the February recess, when a slew of raucous town halls swept the nation.

Dan Weiner, a lawyer at the Brennan Center, told me that many people wrongly believe they have free speech in their private workplace. He said, “In most states you can be fired if people don’t like your politics.” (USA Today ran a story on this pinned to Avelenda.)

In what is shaping up to be a viciously partisan midterm election, the battle may become more personal than activists thought, and with higher personal stakes—and not everyone will be free to make Avelenda’s choice. 

Avelenda does need a job eventually. Her husband works, she said, but she is the family’s breadwinner. And considering how conservative banks tend to be, she told me, she’s worried no bank will hire her. The cost of the letter’s publication may be this particular career, which was not, she said, “a cost I thought I would pay.”

For Frelinghuysen, too, the letter has costs that are still being tallied. While his letter was not necessarily illegal, McGehee and other experts say, it was politically unwise. A day after Avelenda’s story broke, the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, asking it to investigate whether Frelinghuysen broke House ethics rules. 

By the end of the week, the Cook Report had downgraded Frelinghuysen’s chances of winning from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” an assessment echoed by Inside Elections.

For its part, the DCCC took out a digital ad campaign against Frelinghuysen quoting Avelenda: “My congressmen ... used his name, used his position, and used his stationary to try to punish me.” On Friday, outside Frelinghuysen’s Morristown offices, in New Jersey, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor who is the first Democrat to challenge Frelinghuysen, said, “I want him to apologize to Avelenda.”  In Avelenda, Frelinghuysen inadvertently created a liberal rallying point and maybe even a “hero of the resistance,” as one Facebook post put it, to her own incredulity. 

One final cost for Frelinghuysen is clear: Now that she’s no longer at Lakeland Bank, Avelenda can be on his case full-time.