All Eyes on Atlantic County in the 2nd Congressional District

From left: Bennett, Cunningham, Harrison, and Kennedy.

EGG HARBOR CITY – No one came close to fulfilling the role of billionaire Mike Bloomberg darkening the doorway of the Teamsters Hall in this little scrub pine South Jersey congressional contest. So a night after the Democratic presidential candidates eviscerated one another in Las Vegas, the competitors here seemed sedate – even lovey dovey and without even a hint of Jersey Devilishness – by comparison.

There was maybe one tense moment, actually, or two, but not really, and certainly no one stumbled out of here looking like a former New York mayor who just got mugged by the party he’d like to lead.

Running in the Democratic Primary in CD2, six contestants appeared in front of members of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee ahead of a March 8th convention when the organization will decide which candidate to back; a collective decision of significance, since Brigid Harrison already possesses the support of six out of the eight counties. If she locks up Atlantic (the biggest in a Democratic Primary), it will be difficult for one of her rivals to break through, short of shock and awe money (which is a possibility in the case of Amy Kennedy, whose husband, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, raised cash for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and a progressive alliance among the remaining candidates.

There was no hint of urgency at the forum, against the backdrop of a national rift and increasingly avid nailbiting about top of the ticket implications here in New Jersey; for if Democrats can’t resolve a fracture between the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren and Bloomberg-Joe Biden wings of the party, what might that mean come June of a long presidential election year slog?

Bennett

“I’m for Bernie [Sanders],” Freeholder Ashley Bennett told InsiderNJ.

No one else seemed eager to go there at the moment. Will Cunningham said he liked Elizabeth Warren’s performance on the debate stage last night, moments after dismounting the debate stage here. Kennedy gave a nod to former prez candidate U.S. Senator Cory Booker (as Harrison does routinely as well). But the perceived frontrunners in the primary to take on U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) obviously didn’t appear overly eager to affix themselves to a presidential candidacy.

Party Chairman Mike Suleiman circulated.

“I think you saw a little difference in healthcare,” he told InsiderNJ, when asked about differentiation on the issues among the candidates immediately after the forum. “We all support universal healthcare, it’s just a matter of how we get there. The war on drugs and legalization of marijuana [Harrison backs legalization of recreational pot; Kennedy backs decriminalization] was a difference among some of the candidates. At the end of the day, they’re all going to be better than Jeff Van Drew, so we’re going to be behind whoever the nominee is, that’s for sure.

Harrison, left, and Kennedy.
Harrison, left, and Kennedy.

Harrison at the outset of the forum discussed how unsettling it was to observe Van Drew (who switched parties sooner than back impeachment) pledge “undying loyalty to [President Donald] Trump,” which made her want to do something. “I threatened to primary and did the best I could to push him out of the party,” said the Montclair University Political Science Professor. “He was never really a Democrat.” For her part, Kennedy noted “the rise of anixety” and the divisive leadership of the president and his backers. “This is the time for leadership, a moral compass and true values.” Bennett likewise kept the focus on the need to beat Trump. “We’re a party of nuance. We need to get away from lanes and labels,” she said. In nearly the next breath, Will Cunningham, who worked in Booker’s Office, sparked nervous laughter when he announced, “Mitch McConnell is Satan Incarnate.”

Bennett and Cunningham

Frederick John LeVergne poked at the forum itself, complaining that the chair failed to insist on opening with the Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag, not Trump, obviously).

They obliged him midway through the forum, and people rose out of their chairs.

Having apparently opposed Van Drew when the congressman was a Democrat and before his impeachment vote and the lead-up to the vote, LeVergne seemed to operate from the standpoint of self-perceived pristine anti-Van Drew chops. Moreover, “I made [former Congressman] Tom MacArthur cry backstage,” he declared.

“I’m a door kicker inner,” LeVergne added. “He [MacArthur] found out I was going to run and he got out of Dodge. I made that man weep.”

LeVergne’s machismo contrasted sharply with the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit-like solemnity of Robert “Turk” Turkavage, who sat next to him on the dais.

Turkavage was 17-years old when he joined the FBI.

Now in retirement, he shared a story about going door-to-door on the campaign trail. Standing on one front porch he confessed to being 65 years old. Why would he want to run for congress, the homeowner asked him in disbelief. Turkavage spoke of his service in the bureau, where he worked as a special agent, where he went to work every day.

“Not just to put people in jail,” he said, a remark that sparked uneasy laughter and at least one distressed groan, as if Turk – measured in his self-assessment of crimebuster – had materialized at the head of the wrong room and the wrong party, which might not have been far from the truth, considering he was a Republican who – roughly parallel to Van Drew’s gyrations and for roughly the opposite reasons (Turkavage deeply resents Trump’s public savaging of the FBI, while Van Drew resents Democrats publicly savaging the president) changed party affiliation at the end of last year. Just two years ago he ran for the GOP nomination and scored the support of Cumberland before his candidacy ran aground in his home county of Atlantic.

“…But to do something for my country,” Turkavage added.

Mild chatter continued as he took his time at the front of the room detailing an agonizing personal journey, walking the crowd through the inner turmoil he hopes to resolve with a congressional win.

When he left the FBI, he said, and worked in management at JP Morgan Chase, he did good work and fulfilled what he described as the vital service of helping people to keep from losing their 401(k)s, he said, but there was something missing – something of the patriotic fiber of his earlier law enforcement career.

So he decided to run for Congress.

It gave him a shot at constituent service and enduring service to country.

He is, however, a late-to-the-dance long shot for the nomination, painful alongside Van Drew’s simultaenous instantaneous absorption into the GOP by order of the president.

“I would be supportive of all [the other Democratic candidates] – but one [because of one key issue],” Harrison said in her closing remarks after she had climbed off the stage to walk amid the committee members.

It had to be Kennedy. The rivalry of the two women commands the most obvious dynamic in the contest. Harrison felt the vibe of what the room was thinking and quickly added good naturedly,”It’s not Amy.”

InsiderNJ later asked who it was, suspecting it might be Cunningham, who last week criticized Harrison on Facebook.

Harrison said no.

It was, in fact, Turkavage.

She described the freshly painted Democrat as anti-choice, which makes him a non-starter.

“As someone who will fight for protection of the reproductive rights of women outlined in Roe v. Wade and would work to strengthen reproductive justice for all women, I would have serious difficulty supporting his candidacy,” said Harrison, who presented herself to delegates as the candidate with serious labor and organization (Building Trades, AFL-CIO, AFT, Bricklayers and others) support.

Harrison

She admitted that she doesn’t know enough about LeVergne – having just met him for the first time tonight – to know if she could confidently back him.

Kennedy in her closing remarks tonight celebrated her fellow competitors for the seat currently occupied by Van Drew – and the committeemembers whose support she seeks.

“I am encouraged by the quality of the other candidates and the people in this room,” she said.

Without naming Trump or Van Drew, she extolled the virtues of her own allies: teachers, parents and women.

“Integrity, dignity,” Kennedy said.

It’s not so much a ferocious, radical departure on issues.

“What we’re looking for is the temperament, the personality, in the people we’re electing – that role model,” she said.

Kennedy

West Cape May Commissioner John Francis was not in attendance, incidentally.

No visible sharp elbows protruded all evening as the candidates took turns mildly answering questions, quick to agree with one another, with Bennett occupying the Bernie Sanders wing without the angry arm waving and the far more moderate Turkavage standing in for Joe Biden, whom he’s admitted to favoring for the prez nomination.

In the end it was Bennett – a social worker who relates all policy, including her advocacy for universal healthcare – to real-time trauma – who received one of the biggest applause lines.

“It’s as easy as ABC – Ashley Bennett for Congress,” summed up the freeholder.

“That’s a good line,” said a committee member, within earshot of InsiderNJ as laughs of goodwill for Bennett showered the room, and the Teamsters Hall gradually cleared, with an awareness of the stakes palpable albeit the atmosphere relatively uncombative ahead of that critical March 8th party convention on the outer coastal plain horizon.

The room in the Teamsters Hall.
The room in the Teamsters Hall.
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