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‘It Feels Like a 1776 Kind of Fight’

Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer for POLITICO.

The most momentous week in the nascent political career of Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill began with a question about the president and Ukraine: “Is anybody thinking that these are impeachable offenses?”

It was the text and subtext of a torrent of messages she exchanged over several days with a cadre of fellow first-termers, centrist Democrats, like her, who are veterans or former CIA employees and who have tried to adjust together to Washington at this particularly tumultuous time. Usually, they ping each other about different bills or votes but also their kids, family fishing trips or drinks after work. Over this past weekend, though, the familiar back-and-forth turned far more serious, and fast. What they were learning, Sherrill told me, recalling their running conversation, was “shocking” and “grave.” Had the president solicited a foreign leader to dig up dirt on one of his main potential rivals in the 2020 election?

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On Sunday, Sherrill attended a memorial service for a councilman in her New Jersey district, did two fundraisers and spoke to a group of high school students considering attending a military academy, reminding them that they were “signing up to a lifetime of service”—all the while stealing time to tend to the mounting stream of pressing texts. By 9 that night, on a conference call, Sherrill said, the group of seven had decided they needed to step off the sidelines. Until then, they had remained conspicuously noncommittal on impeachment, a position House Speaker Nancy Pelosi effectively had endorsed with her own refusal to fully embrace formal hearings. Now, they put what they had to say in clear, blunt language in a joint op-ed: They felt they had to “preserve the checks and balances envisioned by the Founders and restore the trust of the American people in our government.”

On Monday, in a shared Google document, they worked quickly, fussing over edits and choices of words, wanting it to land before Congress resumed. In the evening, some 10 minutes before their thunderclap of a piece published, Sherrill called her mother to tell her what it said and that she loved her.

On Tuesday, she went on CNN and MSNBC, and she talked to “The Daily” and WNYC. Characteristically measured, affable and unflappable, she said there was no ringleader in the group; and yes, they realized it would be an important statement. That evening, she watched as Pelosi stood before a bank of cameras at the Capitol and formally agreed to the very thing that she and her co-authors had requested. In a whirlwind span of some 72 hours, this former Navy helicopter pilot, this former federal prosecutor, this mother of four who had never held elected office of any kind before January of this year, and who for months had scrupulously avoided calling for impeachment, had become an agent of historic change.

Sitting in her office on Wednesday evening, finally at relative rest after a series of meetings and votes, she tried to put into words for me what had compelled her to act. She repeated variations of things she had said all week, and then, as she spoke of priorities of hers that might get shuffled because of the impending hearings, her chin started to quiver. Her eyes started to well. Sherrill started to cry.

“Um,” she said, struggling to collect herself to speak, “I don’t know why I’m getting so emotional …”

Given her usual discipline and disposition, this was unexpected. But it was somehow simultaneously also the most normal thing I saw on Wednesday in the midst of the growing frenzy on the Hill. These last few years have been unprecedented, a relentless stress test for this democracy. In two and a half centuries, three presidents of the United States have faced impeachment, and now, Donald Trump is about to be the fourth. All of it can feel overwhelming, and should, because it is. And Sherrill is at the center of this latest turn. She’s one of the reasons it’s happening.

None of this would be unfolding—it couldn’t be—if Sherrill and others like her hadn’t won in 2018, in districts like hers, flipping them from red to blue, giving Democrats control of the House of Representatives and thus the ability to perform meaningful oversight, including pressing forward on impeachment. But she had won partly by promising she wanted to work with not only those in her caucus but Republicans as well, preaching the necessity of bipartisanship. She didn’t come down here looking for a fight, and certainly not this one. It was “the squad,” not “the badasses,” who arrived clamoring to “impeach the motherfucker.”

From the start, and in a way that felt unusual for a freshman, Sherrill seemed to understand the source of her power. That her district mattered. That what she thought mattered. That what she said (and didn’t say) mattered. And then she said what she said on Monday. “As members of Congress,” she wrote with the others, “we have prioritized delivering for our constituents—remaining steadfast in our focus on health care, infrastructure, economic policy and our communities’ priorities. Yet everything we do harks back to our oaths to defend the country. These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect.”

Now, 48 hours later, in her office, she used a Kleenex to wipe her eyes.

“Hell of a lot of pressure,” I offered.

“I think it’s not the pressure of doing this, because I think we were all comfortable doing this,” she told me. “I think it’s the pressure of conveying to our country—because I think we all understand how egregious this is—and so, if we somehow fail in conveying that to the country, and fail in conveying how important this is, and fail in conveying why we need to support the Constitution and our values, and why need to be better than, you know, what we’re demonstrating, if we fail to bring America along with this, that feels … like a really big blow to our values. It feels like … a crack in the Constitution.”

Again, her voice got thick, shaky.

“And that,” she said, “feels like a really big responsibility.”

***

Even before the outset of the 116th Congress, I had decided to keep tabs on Sherrill. She was important, more important, perhaps, than many believed. I had a suspicion that what Sherrill did and did not do, as much as or even more than her more famous counterparts among the new women of Congress, would help determine the direction Democrats took and the broader dynamics of today’s fraught political terrain. That meant visits with her here, and especially visits with her in her district in New Jersey.

Until this point, as she attempted to drill down on her less sexy slate of issues, as she sat on the House Armed Services Committee and chaired the oversight and investigations arm of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and even helped form a bipartisan group working to protect the nation’s political system from enemy attacks, Sherrill resolutely had pushed back on constituents’ requests for her support for impeachment.

When she was quizzed about it at her very first town hall, at a big, packed gym at the Police Athletic League of Parsippany, she urged the people to wait for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation. She called him “widely respected.” Well aware, of course, that she had won due to the support of Democrats but not just Democrats, she made sure to mention that Mueller was a Republican.

She tried to impress upon the audience the stakes. “People know that impeaching our president is going against the democratic will of the people,” she said then. “Going against the will of the people like that is a huge step to take. I think it undermines our executive branch. It undermines institutions of our democracy. I’m not saying it’s not a step that I would take. It’s simply a step that I would take very carefully.”

Those last two words. They were a preview of what was to come.

I was at a town hall in May at which she said she wanted to wait to listen to Mueller’s testimony.

And at a sequence of town halls last month, spanning the broad political spectrum of the area she represents, from bluer Verona to redder Kinnelon to a sprawling retirement home in Pompton Plains, more and more of her constituents expressed impatience with her message of restraint.

“If not now,” I watched a 93-year-old man ask her, “when?”

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Mikie Sherrill answers Q&A with a packed house. | Sarah Blesener for Politico Magazine

Sherrill tried to sharpen her rationale. She cited the variety of congressional committees investigating the president as well as dozens of other investigations in different jurisdictions. She discussed the slew of pending lawsuits arguing for more materials and additional testimony. And she gently warned of the potential for failure and what it might mean.

“If we don’t get a conviction on any impeachment charges we might levy, then we have suddenly given precedence to the idea that the executive branch is not accountable—to anyone,” she said. “So, if we are going to go forward with something as critical as impeaching the president, which will stop all further legislation in Congress on the issues that we’re working on and overtake us, I think it’s critical that we can make the strongest possible case to the American people.”

Not even a month ago, sitting with her on a concrete bench outside a corporate headquarters in Florham Park, New Jersey, before we went to meet with a bipartisan collection of mayors and chamber of commerce types for a tour of a local airport, Sherrill insisted she wasn’t feeling pressure to change her mind as much as she was feeling pressure to explain to her constituents why she wasn’t.

“I think what I’m feeling pressure to do is to convey to people how much I care,” she said. “One woman—I was really taken aback, because she came up to me, and she goes, ‘You know, people just don’t think you get how important this is.’ And I thought, ‘Jeez …’ I’m going down to Washington weekly to fight for our country. I care so deeply.”

There were, however, “bright lines,” she added, and she would continue to look for them, she said, heading into the fall.

***

And then there one was.

She just knew.

“The President of the United States,” Sherrill wrote on Monday night in a separate statement that she posted on her Facebook page, “is threatening our national security.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, I walked with her from her office to the Capitol, where we stood outside the doors to the floor of the House.

“It’s so incredibly offensive,” she said, “because we, in my mind, are not a democracy—we are the democracy. We have always protected democracies across the world. I don’t have rose-colored glasses about some of the things the United States has done that have been bad for the world—but, my gosh, we’ve protected democracies from foreign influence. We’ve helped nations become democracies. And so, to have the president now try to use a foreign government to harm our democracy at home …”

“It’s just so beyond the pale,” she continued when we got back to her office.

She likened the president’s actions to those of the Mafia.

“To hear the president kind of shake down a foreign power, it’s just egregious conduct,” she said. “And so, the bright line, of course, is the fact that, in very basic terms, the president of the United States withheld congressionally directed military funding, illegally, from the foreign power, and then went to that foreign president and said, ‘Could you do me a favor? Basically, look into this guy running against me.’ That’s the bright line.”

Mikie Sherrill

Rep. Sherrill leaves a caucus meeting at the Capitol after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced formal impeachment proceedings against the president. | Getty Images

She was sitting in the middle of the couch in her office, and I was sitting on a chair across from her with a coffee table between. On her shelves were her helicopter helmet and a doorstop of a history of the Navy and a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution given to her by a constituent, and I asked her whether she knew that her op-ed with the other “badasses and the guys,” as she called the seven of them, was going to lead to … all of this? To more and more Democrats voicing similar support? To the dam breaking, so to speak?

She was, at first, the calm, cautious controlled Sherrill I’ve become accustomed to.

“That wasn’t part of the calculation,” she started.

“But I think we suspected that our decision would have an impact,” she added.

Here, though, after practically reflexively mentioning people’s tax burdens and health care costs and the importance of the funding of tunnels and roads for the many commuters in her district, she found herself grappling with the breathtaking stakes of this now much larger fight. And for Sherrill, it became clearer and clearer as she kept talking, this is far from merely about checking the 45th president.

“It’s critical for people to believe in our democracy,” she said, “and to not feel like … the whole thing is rigged.”

This is when her chin started to quiver.

“I think it’s incumbent upon me to be able to explain to our country why this is different and why we have to act.

“This is against everything we fought for in the military,” she continued, “as somebody who invested in her country from the time I was 18 years old. Um, so I think we all knew we had to stand up for these values, but now we have to remind people in the country”—she stopped, trying to gather herself again, to little avail—“who don’t seem to be coalescing around our values right now. We have to remind people that these aren’t just kind of a set of, um, you know, these aren’t just kind of things that somebody worked out on the back of an envelope in 1776. I mean, these are, these are things that a group of people who were deciding that they didn’t want to operate under tyranny, a group of people who were deciding that they wanted to try this experiment, where individuals, um, could actually have a say in the government …”

Sniffling, she kept talking. “I’m trying to talk through this,” she said. “I hate that I’m getting emotional about it, but I just think that, um, we as Americans are—it’s just there’s a little bit of a lack of faith right now, and I think it’s important that we remind people of the sacrifices that”—she paused again to try to settle her voice—“I think it’s important that we remind people of the sacrifices that have been made for the Constitution and for what we believe in.”

It feels, Sherrill said, like a “1776 kind of fight.”

An existential fight.

“It feels like a really big fight,” I said.

“It feels like a really big fight,” she agreed.

She took another Kleenex and wiped her face and stood up.

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