Meet Tod Theise-- Taking On Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Practicing On Winston Churchill
My name is Tod Theise and I am running as the Democratic Congressional candidate in New Jersey’s 5th District. Don’t worry. These days I start out everything I write or say like that. I promise, it gets better.
Winston Churchill once proclaimed, “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” Many a right-wing ideologue has used Churchill’s pithy quote to support the notion that idealism is an inevitable casualty of experience. Admittedly, this theory plays out with regularity in the lives of millions of Americans who endure the hard knocks of day to day existence. They are left with an understandable suspicion that the deck has been stacked against them. Good people become increasingly disposed to dispensing with the “Golden Rule” in favor of a more immediately gratifying ethic-- one that justifies muting the call to be their brother’s and sister’s keeper for the sake of pragmatism. Politicians, pundits, preachers and plumbers run what amounts to a societal fight club. They pit neighbor against neighbor, admonishing that life is a zero sum game in which one man’s blessing comes at the expense of another man’s wallet. They collect the spoils of discord and strengthen their grip on our nation’s conscience.
History, both long past and recent, leads me to reject the idea that it is a political virtue for a nation to compromise its highest ideals for the sake of expedience. For eight years under George Bush we pursued this course and reaped economic chaos, a depleted military and unprecedented loss of liberty. This is not a manifestation of national maturity. It is an abrogation of our core values. Pitting the collective head and heart against one another in a competition for our national soul is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty that led directly to policies like institutionalizing torture in the name of freedom.
At a personal level, I reject the premise that the passage of time and the attendant hardships we face inevitably elevate the head over the heart in terms of rendering sound judgment. The catalyst for this pilgrim’s political progress from GOP acolyte to Democratic Congressional standard bearer has been a long-simmering matter of heart. I’m sure that there are many people like me strewn across the American political landscape. People whose challenges shaped their moral and spiritual evolution. People whose conscience exceeded the limitations of the prefabricated ideology they had been sold. Obligatory campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, what distinguishes my run for Congress more than anything is how and why I came to be a Democrat.
I grew up in a very traditional yet surprisingly diverse household. Both my sister and I were adopted, so the normal preoccupation with bloodlines never factored into how I viewed those around me. My mother was a first generation Hungarian allegedly descended from minor nobility. My father was a hardscrabble son of the City of Newark whose lineage traced back to Moses and Jacob Theise who settled in Poultney, Vermont shortly after Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office. My parents were moderate Eisenhower Republicans but neither was overtly political. The fervent interest in law and government was uniquely my own. I registered as a Republican in 1980 and worked on Ronald Reagan’s first Presidential campaign. I headed off to law school to prepare to save the world from the tyranny of the masses and returned home baptized in the abiding belief that I had grown to Churchillian manhood in record time.
I arrived home in June 1987 poised to pursue any of a wide array of opportunities I viewed as potential tickets to success. One problem: my father suffered a massive heart attack. I studied law in another part of the country and my connections were decidedly not in New Jersey. I chose to stay in my home town of West Orange to take care of my parents as they faced the prospect of a long term health crisis. This marked the first crack in the ideological house of glass I had constructed out of shards of social Darwinism. I saw firsthand how programs like Medicare not only saved my father’s life, but afforded him the kind of medical care that allowed him to live another decade-- a decade that enabled him to see two beloved grandchildren come into the world and me get married. The very government I had been enticed to cynically dismiss as antithetical to personal prosperity was the only thing standing between my family and destitution.
Over the course of the next decade, I became involved in my community in a variety of ways. I volunteered to mentor at-risk inner city youth in the Essex County Youth House. The Youth House was a filthy hole. It was the subject of a Federal Court Order demanding its physical reconstruction and putting an end to multiple forms of inmate abuse. The young men and women who passed through its halls like so much human refuse had little chance to escape the cycle of degradation that in most cases resulted in a lifetime of incarceration or death. In retrospect, the eight years I spent placing emotional band aids on gaping psychological wounds was arguably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. At that time, my heart and head played ping pong with my loyalties as I became increasingly involved in Republican politics. The old timers in the party were outwardly amused at what they perceived as wasted sympathies. They dismissed this bleeding heart routine as a phase I was going through, much like disco or the leisure suit.
As I achieved notoriety within the local and regional GOP, that shrill drumbeat of conscience faded until I had successfully exchanged idealism for a pragmatic pursuit of self advancement. I rose through the ranks to serve as press secretary for a prominent Republican politician who was the clear frontrunner for a United States Senate seat. About halfway through the campaign, the person I thought I knew and trusted implicitly was investigated and ultimately indicted by then US Attorney and now Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In his pursuit of campaign cash, a man who had been elected as a reformer left office in the exact state of disgrace as the person he replaced. I was never questioned by authorities in connection with the investigation and emerged untainted. As much as this betrayal left me disillusioned, it was witnessing the pathological lust for money-- a pursuit that openly invited corruption-- that had the greatest impact on my political psyche. Shortly thereafter, I dropped out of politics entirely.
In the span of four years I had lost my mother and father, my marriage, most of my savings when the dotcom bubble burst, my home and the political stature I craved. I was unburdened of everything I worked for since returning home fifteen years before with the great expectations of my youth. Around this same time, a young man I taught in Sunday school years before died from an aggressive form of stomach cancer at the age of twenty-nine. He and I remained close and I took a great deal of pride as I watched this son of Vietnamese immigrants graduate from an Ivy League university and grow to maturity. I cut out his obituary from the local paper, wrote the words “So as to never forget that life is cruelty and suffering” on the back, and wrapped it in clear tape to preserve it.
As painful as it was, this period of deconstruction was exactly what I needed. For Churchill, this would have served as a call to stiffen the upper lip and regroup in hopes or regaining paradise lost. For me, it marked a surrender of pretense and an opportunity to start my life over sans ideological baggage. I went to work in Manhattan at a large international law firm where no one gave a damn about what went on across the Hudson River. I met a remarkable woman who had grown up in a small village in Zambia where she learned to read and write on the dirt floor of a hut masquerading as a classroom. She defied her humble circumstances and a culture that denied women professional advancement by earning her certificate as a chartered accountant. I made the best decision of my life and married Belliah five years ago. In 2007, I joined the New York Guard as a 1st Lieutenant. My background as an attorney allows me to provide free legal services to soldiers and their families. I also obtained certifications in several areas of homeland defense and emergency preparedness including suicide bombing prevention and response.
And I got back into politics. My heart and head having established a firm détente, the way was paved for me to enthusiastically join a party that willingly embraces those who suffer and refuses to accept their continuing degradation. I’m grateful to have been afforded the opportunity by my fellow Dems to cut radio ads for then candidate Obama, run for County Freeholder, assume the chair of our local Democratic Committee and now run for Congress in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District. The 5th stretches across the top of the Garden State west to east from bucolic Warren County (where I live) to cosmopolitan Bergen County. It is currently “represented” by a fellow named Scott Garrett. Garrett’s positions are so extreme that he often finds himself to the right of Michelle Bachman. He is well-funded by corporate lobbyists and will say and do anything to get re-elected. In his 2008 race, he accused his opponent blind Rabbi Dennis Shulman of being a Hamas sympathizer. This should be one hell of a wild ride.
I still carry the obituary of my young friend in my wallet. He didn’t deserve to die such a brutally senseless death. Neither does a child who is denied life-saving medical treatment because his parents can’t afford health care or an insurance company refuses to cover a claim. I pray that I never forget that people suffer needlessly every day. We live in a society that entices us to do everything in our power to avert personal sacrifice and further marginalize those who already exist on the margins. The faith in which I was raised and inspired me to go to the Youth House and inner city streets has been hijacked and perverted by self-styled prophets to justify bigotry, greed and hate. The “Masters of the Universe” that infest Wall Street have turned our economy into little more than a rigged casino in which the elite play at the expense of working Americans. Alleged fiscal conservatives bristle at the notion that war should be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis while they invite unscrupulous contractors to loot the treasury with impunity. Our campaign finance laws amount to little more than legalized bribery allowing the powerful to amplify their voice at the expense of the democratic process.
I want no part of this mercenary utopia. In fact, I plan to do everything in my power fight against it. With your help we can take a significant step toward this goal by defeating Congress’s chief apostle of indifference and returning principled representation to New Jersey’s 5th District.