ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — On the second floor of a used car dealer in this struggling casino city, Democratic poobahs gathered to address a very local scandal: The mayor had just resigned after pleading guilty to embezzling $87,000 from a youth basketball program.
But a far bigger national story— the impeachment inquirybrewing in Washington — wasn't far from their minds either, since the Democratic congressman they helped elect last year, Rep. Jeff Van Drew, has become perhaps the most vocal opponent in his party to removing President Donald Trump.
Van Drew, a dentist and longtime local pol known on Capitol Hill for his snappy suits and pocket squares, is one of just seven House Democrats holding back support for the impeachment inquiry, earning him praise from the presidenton Twitter and protests from progressives.
Unlike the others, Van Drew hasn't been shy about explaining his position, and in an interview with NBC News, he made it clear that he's not budging anytime soon: "Everybody says, 'Be on the right side of history' — I think the right side of history is not to impeach."
His district covering the southern tip of New Jersey sided for Trump over Hillary Clinton 51-46 percent in 2016, and interviews last week with some three dozen constituents, activists and officials reveal that Van Drew has plenty of support back home — just not always from fellow Democrats.
Over bánh mì and egg roles provided by a local Vietnamese group that also meets above the auto dealership, members of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee expressed disagreement with Van Drew's stance, but were mostly willing to give him the space he feels he needs.
"Sometimes you gotta stand alone," said Torres Mayfield, a former police officer running for City Council. "The more we rebel against (Van Drew), the worse it's gonna work out for us. As long as it's in his mind and in his heart that he's doing the right thing for the constituents and the residents of this area, we have to support him."
Anuu Zia, who is also running for City Council, said that while "of course our community would be happier if he went against Trump," the party would continue to support the freshman lawmaker.
But another committeeman, Pablo Lora, insisted Van Drew "has an obligation to support the impeachment because all the people who voted for him are expecting him to."
As Van Drew sees it, impeachment is a pointless, divisive exercise that will poison the well of bipartisanship and prevent Congress from taking up more important issues, like prescription drug prices and infrastructure.
He says he hasn't yet seen convincing evidence that a crime was committed — "It would have to be in the transcript" — and believes it's better to let the voters pass judgment on Trump on Election Day in November 2020.
"For God's sake, it's a year!" he told NBC News.
"Impeachment, first of all, will fail because it's not going to go through the Senate," he said, referring to the unlikely prospect of 67 senators voting to remove Trump, the threshold for a conviction. "So, at the end of the day, President Trump will still be the president...and he'll still be the Republican candidate."
Van Kemp has been back in his district for the congressional recess taking the pulse of voters and he said that while his stance on impeachment is unpopular with people for whom being a Democrat is "part of their lifestyle," most others have reacted positively. "Republicans actually very much like my point of view," he said.
Meanwhile, support for the impeachment inquiry has grown dramatically in the House in recent weeks.
Of the 235 Democrats, 228 — or 97 percent — are now on board with the inquiry, according to an NBC News tally, leaving a small rump of opposition that seems to dwindle by the day as holdouts defect to the majority one by one.
The seven remaining holdouts all represent districts that Trump won in 2016, in some cases by much wider margins than in Van Drew's district, in deep red states like South Carolina and Oklahoma.
And most are freshmen lawmakers elected in last year's midterm Democratic wave, making them acutely aware of how tenuous their standing is. They got elected on promises to bridge the partisan divide, but are now feeling as though there's no good choice.
In Maine, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, whose district went for Trump by 10 percentage points in 2016, caught an earful from donors at a recent house party because he's not backing the impeachment inquiry.
"Everyone I talk to is angry that Jared Golden isn't taking a stand," said Marie Follaytar, co-director of the progressive group Mainers for Accountable Leadership.
House Republicans, meanwhile, are showing no signs of abandoning Trump and think they can turn impeachment into a campaign issue by portraying Democrats as obsessed with removing the president at the expense of bread-and-butter issues.
"Voters clearly believe impeachment is sidetracking the country and Congress," read the guidance from a polling memo leaders sent to House Republicans last week. "Congressional Democrats who represent Trump districts appear to be in a precarious position here, as their voters clearly side against impeachment and are much more willing to vote for a GOP candidate opposing impeachment than a Democrat supporting it."
House Democrats' campaigns chief, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, told lawmakers on a conference call on Friday to keep talking about kitchen table issues, but also to say no one is above the law.
Ezra Levin, who co-founded the progressive group Indivisible, said he thinks Democratic holdouts have the politics backward on impeachment.
"If they hold out for much longer, they're going to look like cowards, trying to have a foot on either side of this — and that's a good way to end up underwater," he said. "The fact of the matter is they will be running for re-election with a 'D' next to their name and the Democrats are going to be pushing for impeachment."
Indeed, despite Van Drew's vocal opposition to impeachment, the Republican National Committee still lumped him in with other New Jersey Democrats to accuse them of "cav(ing) to the far left" and doing "everything they possibly can to reverse all that President Trump has delivered to the people of the Garden State."
Helen Duda, who organized a 60-person pro-impeachment rally outside Van Drew's district office, said he should at least support the inquiry to gather more facts, even if the lawmaker ultimately opposes impeachment.
"As much as I never expected him to really be progressive, I'm really shocked by how far he's going to defend Trump," said Duda, who worked for the progressive candidate who ran against Van Drew in last year's primary.
Van Drew is, in fact, a reliable Democatic vote in Congress. But his appearances on Fox News, apparent eagerness for a photo opportunity with Trump during the State of the Union Address, and vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker struck a nerve with the left even before impeachment.
"Now, everybody is done with him," said Shayla Woolfort, a flower farmer who co-founded Cape May County Indivisible. "I mean, honestly, I don't know why he doesn't just switch parties. I don't think it would make a difference."
Woolfort and other progressives say they're looking to recruit someone to challenge Van Drew from his left in next year's Democratic primary.
Van Drew said he would "respect" a primary challenger, but doesn't sound worried and the prospect of a challenge is not making him any more likely to change his mind on impeachment.
"Where are we gonna be when it's all done?" he asked. "Further divided, more hateful, more distrustful, with the same president and the same presidential candidate. What have we accomplished?"