The defection of Jeff Van Drew to the Republican Party summoned multiple CD2-based Democrats looking to take a crack at him in the general election and faced with the prospect, as Van Drew's Donald Trump-backed incumbency deoxygenates the formerly declared candidates in his new party, of a Democratic Primary, maybe a bloody one, in which women form the core of the contest.
The race already has national dimensions. Facing impeachment, Trump wrapped himself around Van Drew’s party affiliation change and the South Jersey district he won by single digits in 2016, as evidence that Democrats don’t give a damn about people so much as the guillotining of his presidency.
Democrats see it differently, of course, having interpreted Van Drew’s unwillingness to back impeachment as a character flaw: a severe case of supposedly red district jitters at the prospect of his own imminent demise, followed by an even more alarming case of oval office obsequiousness. Now, on the verge of a scheduled January 28th Wildwood rally by the president and his supporters and beachhead invasion optics in a Democratic district, in a state where he should, by every rational reckoning, remain lovelorn, Democrats find themselves wrangling amid a thicket of ever sharpening elbows ahead of a March convention in Atlantic County, home to 60K registered Democratic voters, or 42 percent, in a congressional district with 144K registered Democrats.
Th Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) wants to avoid a bloodbath, but also must avoid – in an atmosphere already saturated with Washington-level egos intent on symbolism for their own ends – the appearance of an engineered result.
More on that in a moment.
Partly to keep a moneyed entity (presumably Amy Kennedy) from entering the race, Montclair University Prof. Brigid Harrison secured the backing of six of the eight county chairs in the district behind the endorsement of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3). Arguing that top down political machinations of that sort created conditions for the Republican version of Van Drew to hatch in the first place, Kennedy refused to stand down, entering the Democratic Primary on Jan. 6th, three weeks after Harrison’s formal entrance. Other candidates emerged, among them Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett, who won her freeholder seat three years ago following the mysognistic meltdown of Republican incumbent John Carman. Three men also surfaced in the CD-2 race: progressive globe walker and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, educator (and former Booker staffer) Will Cunningham, and former FBI special agent Robert “Turk” Turkavage, a Van Drew doppelganger of sorts, who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat around the time the congressman pivoted from Democrat to Republican.
Each wants to be the one who stops Trump in his tracks here in New Jersey and deals humiliating repayment to Van Drew.
As interesting as the various story lines are, and as gingerly as anyone of the candidates must handle
those endorsements of machines perceived by liberal voters to have badly corroded, either in the hands of South Jersey bigwigs or Atlantic City little wigs, three of them have been dominant to this point, and for obvious mathematical reasons, two of them now appear decidedly viable. Atlantic County’s convention could whittle the field to one, with Harrison forces seeing a way to stop Kennedy if they nail down their home county’s party line. It will be a tough task, as Kennedy, coming from behind, as some momentum on the strength of promised fundraising prowess and party name ID.
Unlike his fellow chairs in those counties ultimately less individually crucial to the primary’s outcome, Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman stayed neutral, and is happy he did. “I’m glad we have a pool of candidates stepping forward,” said Suleiman. “It doesn’t behoove us to have a circular firing squad. At the end of the day, we want to unite behind one candidate and defeat Jeff Van Drew. We shouldn’t have a food fight; the Republicans aren’t doing that, after all.
“Much to my chagrin,” the party chairman added.
her home county as the candidates undertake a door-to-door scramble for the support of over 300 county committee members in time for the March 8th county convention. But she refuses to admit a significant loss. She was never an insider’s insider to begin with, and feels comfortable operating on the outskirts of the cocoon. When InsiderNJ called her this week, the psychiatric screener by trade was on call to stop a suicide.
She’s not pounding on doors trying to harvest votes so much as literally responding from a Cape May emergency room to prevent people from taking their own lives.
If her day job keeps her out of a Machiavellian mindset, that’s kind of the idea, she argues.
Her campaign is about helping people. She’s positioned herself as the candidate who best understands the needs of the working class, precisely because the Egg Harbor Twp. granddaughter of Lenox China workers lives there. Her mom was the single parent who overcame medical issues to raised three children; who still works in the casino trade.
“I understand what it’s like to struggle financially and feel invisible,” the freeholder told InsiderNJ. “This is a people power movement not an edict from the establishment. I’m running to give a voice to people in this district. I would never rule me out. I am an elected official who has proven I can win a race.”
If Kennedy uses mental health awareness as the organizing principle of her campaign, Bennett offers a front line daily work product to prove her dedication.
“Everyone’s talking about Van Drew and forgetting about the needs of a hard-working district,” Bennett said. “I’m out in the community handling crisis, and I see it up close and personal.”
She hasn’t given up on trying to secure the backing of the Atlantic County committee – though insiders ascribe Bennett to long shot status at best – but ultimately she believes in her ability to make her case to those she says have a vested interest in this contest: the voters at the polls.
“My campaign was full of friends and family who wanted to see me be successful,” she said of her 2017 takedown of the blithering Carman, a Trump-backing incumbent who wondered aloud when the women’s movement would make dinner, shortly before Bennett cooked him on Election Day. “We did not have institutional money but we got creative getting our message across, and the reason we were successful is because we spoke to the needs of people in the district.”
If successful this time, Bennett said she would focus on improving healthcare for everyone.
“People don’t care about what you call it, but they just want healthcare that doesn’t break the bank,” she said. “They want a prescription refill without going under.”
She said she hasn’t focused on fastening herself to a presidential candidate at this time. She’s just intent right now on galvanizing 2nd District voters.
“My story is mine,” she said. “But it is not unique. It belongs to a lot of people nationwide.”
The daughter of former Atlantic County Freeholder and Absecon Councilman Jerry Savelll, Amy Kennedy was already in a political family when she met Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy. Amy Savell became Amy Kennedy, but in a tug of war between Hyannis Port and Brigantine, Brigantine won, and Patrick Kennedy, himself a former congressman and of spring of New England aristocracy, relocated in Atlantic County, New Jersey. The couple shared a passion for mental health, and the veteran public school teacher fulfilled a leadership role in the area of social and emotional learning and mental health at the Kennedy Forum,
Trump’s appearance on the national landscape as a presidential candidate appalled the Kennedys.
“I’ve been watching in disbelief and just thought, ‘it’s now or never,'” she told InsiderNJ. “I’m feeling this is really a unique moment. I don’t have aspirations just to hold a political office or make a lifetime career.
“This is vile what’s happening in our country,” she added of the Trump presidency. “If I’m in a position to push back, I don’t want to wait and watch it and be frustrated from home.
“Now is my time if I want something to be different for my kids,” she said.
Kennedy doesn’t want her family, her home, her country, to have to hear the divisive, ugly, hurtful, racism-inciting offensive – all her words – rhetoric anymore. Nor does she want to witness people in the district financially hurt by this president.
Her gravest concerns?
“The environment,” said Kennedy, who holds a Master’s Degree in environmental education, who laments Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreements.
She also describes feeling awful, “Particularly when we saw the mothers being separated from their babies at the border.”
Mental health consistently represents a critical organizing principle for the candidate’s understanding of issues and the needs of real people, and she sees in this President the worst kind of trauma-inducing model for the country.
But New Jersey Democrats have their own troubles and foibles, exacerbated by the behaviors of someone like Van Drew, whose years of playing footsie with the opposing party finally – as Trump scoured the environs for a win amid the grind of impeachment headlines – resulted in a politically timely uniform change.
“As I’m going around, it’s really fractured, the whole party in the state,” said Kennedy, who starts the contest at a disadvantage organizationally behind Harrison, but with national-scale resources at her disposal.
Certainly, her connections to the Kennedy network – her husband was former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) – make Amy Kennedy the significant fundraising favorite. “I recruited candidates from all over the country,” Patrick Kennedy told InsiderNJ. “Amy will be in that league. It’s all about relationships. She’s perfect for this role.” Her allies hope that her snag earlier this week of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee’s endorsement portend broader support in her home county, where she will likely will need the county organizational line to offset what Harrison owns in Gloucester, Salem, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland and Burlington.
But Kennedy also trusts in an anti-machine atmosphere to eke out a progressive message to chop into those counties where Harrison has the upperhand.
“I’m hopeful,” she said of her campaign’s transcendent capacities. “There’s a lot of people bubbling up from their anger at what’s going on, who see me as somebody who isn’t influenced. I don’t owe anybody anything, and that can be a breath of fresh air to people looking for a Democrat to be there. I’m a school teacher, and they can identify with my values. The people who have been shut out inspire a group of voters who are tired of it.”
From her parents’ example in public life, she learned the little things matter. Her father taught her attention to detail, like why a stop light is necessary on a given corner. Her husband’s history in public life reinforced toughness as a virtue.
“Patrick has a thick skin,” Amy Kennedy said. “You must accept that when you put yourself out there, you will be the recipient of undeserved goodwill and undeserved criticism. Take both and know you’re doing your best. It really is an important thing for Patrick.”
Kennedy’s willingness to run with her husband’s support presents an arguably irresistible irony, as if Trump’s attempt to embrace the district should come back to torment Van Drew in the form of family resistance as deeply connected to the Democratic Party as any in the country’s history.
“I have a deep connection with South Jersey,” Amy Kennedy said. “If, through my last name I can offer anything in an equal and opposite force to the attention Trump might bring to this race [that’s not a bad thing]. There’s going to be detractors.
“But Kennedys are used to that,” she added.
Like fellow Holy Spirit High School graduate Kennedy, Harrison is the daughter – and youngest child – of a local politician. Her father was a Republican councilman in Runnymede. Her childhood sweetheart at the age of eight was future Monmouth University Political Scientist and Pollster Patrick Murray. The two of them used to hold hands at recess.
The Vietnam War stirred Harrison’s earliest consciousness and awakened the beginnings of her political convictions. She ran for Atlantic County Freeholder in the early 1990s as a Democrat and lost. She subsequently mostly focused on raising her family and on her academic duties: writing political and governmental texts and teaching at Montclair University. When Hillary Clinton emerged as a candidate for president in 2016 Democratic Primary, Harrison became more involved as an overt public party supporter, especially with Trump on the horizon.
His presidency presented new levels of perhaps unforeseen horror.
“I got into this race because of impeachment, but impeachment will be over not the driving force of the campaign,” said Harrison, who lives in Longport.
When she looks at the infrastructure of the 2nd Congressional District, she sees decades of neglect.
“Not just Van Drew, but he’s part of it,” she said.
Child poverty. Struggling schools in the district. The highest foreclosure rate in the country. Unemployment. Tent cities in Vineland.
“It’s all owing to neglect that representatives have demonstrated,” said the professor.
In an economically marginalized district that twice voted for Barack Obama and voted again against the perceived established order when it voted for Trump four years ago, Harrison plans to remind voters that the Trump Administration is waging war on New Jersey. She makes a case for how Trump’s elimination of SALT deductions impacts the poorest people of the district. Landlords impacted by the policy raise the rates on their tenants, which worsens what for most is an already tenuous situation.
“The white supremacist hate-spewing individual perceived to be the common core supporter of Trump – that’s not who we are,” Harrison said. “That’s not who the district is. Democrats out-register Republicans in the district by 17,000 votes.”
As congresswoman, she would prioritize the widening of highways while promoting eco-friendly alternative modes of transportation, like public ferry ways between Atlantic City and New York City.
“The job of getting things we need will be made easier with a different president, given the vindictiveness this president demonstrates toward states that don’t support him,” said Harrison, but the record of the district voting for Van Drew, a Democrat, proves to her that people want a check on presidential power, not a congressional vassal.
The professor speaks in a detailed way about why Trump’s awareness of evidence of an operationalization to collude with a foreign government constitutes an impeachable offense. “Someone thought of this,” Harrison said. “Someone thought ‘our politics is more important than our democracy.'”
She’s never liked Trump.
Like others from the area, she has her own stories to tell about him.
Harrison grew up a mile from Atlantic City. In the 1980s, she was making her way as a young adult under the specter of the real estate tycoon. “He was the worst embodiment of unearned rich arrogance,” recalled Harrison, who worked at Bader Field directing planes and helicopters to available landing strips while she attended Stockton.
Trump would routinely land and take off from Bader.
“He was always among the worst,” she said. “He was arrogant and never tipped. I remember thinking, ‘This is not a good person.’ I also worked as a stringer for The Mainland Journal. I had a friend who was a staff photographer, who took photos on a boat of a special event. Trump was married to Ivanka at the time; and Marla Maples was on this boat with Trump. My friend told me, ‘If I sell these photos, I will never work in this town again.”
But her own sour experience with the future president clashes with the cozy nexus of power between South Jersey Democrats, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (whose former political director, Bill Stepien, serves as Trump’s political director and is active on behalf of the Van Drew reelection effort) and the Trump White House.
Harrison hears the buzz.
But she also knows the game.
Here is her own recollection of the event leading up to the lion’s share of party organizations backing her:
“I watched Jeff Van Drew for 20 years and he disappointed me many times, including his positions on LGBTQ and other issues. For years he operated with impunity.
“He’s never taken a hard vote because Democrats allowed gave him a pass because he occupies a conservative district,” Harrison added.
When he voted against impeachment on Oct. 31st of last year, “My biggest fear was the party would allow him to do this and run as a Democrat. I waited for someone prominent to stand up and say, ‘whoa, buddy.’ I waited. I kept thinking someone was going to say, ‘This is wrong.’ What I started to see on blogs was that Van Drew made the right decision. But you don’t put politics ahead of the Constitution. I waited. At the League of Municipalities I started talking to party chairs, telling them, ‘you can’t let him do this.’ They said, ‘Let’s wait.’ I thought, ‘They’re going to support him.’ I started pushing it. They said they are hearing it in their own counties. Elected officials don’t want to run with him.”
At Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr’s event in the Irish Pub she saw Senate President Sweeney at the bar.
“I have had an interesting relationship with the senate president,” said Harrison. “He thinks I hate him. I don’t hate him. I told him, ‘You can’t let Van Drew get away with this. I told him, ‘Hell, I’ll run.’ He was coming at it from days of having lost the LD1 race. That affects his bottom line. I kept waiting for someone to step up to say this is wrong constitutionally and politically. …This is a moral question. I believe Van Drew thinks it was the right decision for his constituents when he goes to Wawa and the gym where he is, but it’s not all of the district.”
On the weekend that Van Drew told his staff he planned to change his party affiliation, Harrison said she knew the race would be transformed and feared “someone with a big wallet” would enter the contest and buy the race.
“I’ve seen it happen. Jim Florio wanted to run for senate, and Jon Corzine bulldozed him. This governor – who I like and admire – pushed aside two less affluent candidates because the governor could garner the support of party chairs. I was really fearful I would be pushed aside by someone with a big checkbook.”
She said she prevailed on Sweeney to press “go” on the party endorsements of the chairs he had helped line up for her.
One of the muttered theories is that Mar-a-Lago member (and enduring Christie ally) George Norcross III, under investigation for his role in a tax incentive scheme (which Christie signed into law), helped furnish the ever malleable Van Drew to back Trump and change parties, possibly in tacit exchange for the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to softball his inquiry. It’s just a theory, but it’s kicking around with a vengeance in this cutthroat primary with Atlantic imminent.
“I understood the optics of the roll out would be awful but I have worked to earn their support,” Harrison said. “I knew I needed to move quickly.”
Harrison discounts the conspiracy theory.
“If that’s true, they are really deceptive,” she said. “I find that hard to believe, simply because in a presidential election year the line is really important. Senator Booker and the remainder of Democrats will be up for reelection.”
But they have done it before, InsiderNJ pointed out.
Not in a presidential election year.
But they did cut a deal when Christie ran for reelection 2013, protecting Sweeney and Van Drew in districts where Christie – had he campaigned in South Jersey – might have coat-tailed Republican challengers. In her concession speech, democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono denounced the Democratic bosses who abandoned her sooner than offend the incumbent Republican governor and former U.S. Attorney.
“They have,” Harrison said. “They have.”
She still doesn’t believe it, she said, in part because of “The degree to which Van Drew’s decision is being taken personally by people,” she said. “One of his closest friends said to me, ‘I will still be his friend, but I can’t support him politically.
“I am certain he made this decision alone,” Harrison added.
In any event, the political science professor takes credit for keeping the issue alive in the minds of wobbly or transactional chairs who perhaps did not immediately see the larger constitutional dimensions of moral failure on Van Drew’s part in the lead up to his no vote on impeachment and party switch.
“I blazed the path,” Harrison said. “Now everyone wants to walk down it. This was a leadership litmus test. It was about someone stepping up to take on this guy. My background and policy expertise and understanding of the district will win the day.
“I don’t have a fancy name or deep pockets, but I know the district and I care about the district,” the professor added.
CONCLUSIONS (for the moment!)
“Trump and Republicans have failed working people time and time again: they slashed taxes for their
wealthy friends, gutted the SALT deduction that benefits middle class families, and worked to dismantle the Affordable Care Act,” Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie said ahead of the president’s trip.
“New Jerseyans in Jeff Van Drew’s district and across our state voted to rebuke Trump’s anti-middle class agenda,’ the party chairman added. “They voted in favor of our progressive agenda that puts families first by fully-funded public education, passing a living wage for all workers, and improving economic mobility for every resident. And most importantly, they voted for a party that represents their values.”
A source with deep ties to the district mused on the accelerating CD2 collision as the area around his home prepares to get turned upside down next week in time for Trump’s much-ballyhooed Wildwood rally.
He denied that Kennedy versus Harrison is a proxy fight between Governor Phil Murphy and Sweeney, even as insiders, conditioned by two years of Trenton pushing and shoving, appear intent on seeing the struggle in those terms.
Sweeney, said the source, took Van Drew’s party switch personally, and felt acutely the loss of Senator Robert Andrzejczak to Mike Testa. “Steve Sweeney,” insisted the South Jersey source, “is a man who takes things personal.”
But this is bigger; bigger than the little wriggling egos of NJ politics can comprehend, the source said, with a groan of resignation – and gloomy recognition.
Kennedy appears to be strong in her quest to grab Atlantic County, the source added, while Harrison is doing well in Cumberland (30K votes in a Democratic Primary, on paper).
“Whoever gets the line in Atlantic and wins the primary will get a fundraising bump, which she’ll need, going up against Van Drew,” the source added.
Kennedy is perceived to be better positioned to nationalize the race with big names on even terms with Trump’s presidentialization of the district. There is already talk about a coming splashdown appearance by former Secretary of State John Kerry. Of course, being a Kennedy is a two-edged sword in a tooth and nail general election district, with the legacy of anti-communist JFK arguably a plus, while liberal lion EMK might seem like another planet – or even a detriment, when spun in the worst way. Ultimately, the local pol’s daughter will merely “have to be herself,” the source argued.
While her allies note the presence of South Jersey operative Mike Muller as the NJ political director for Mike Bloomberg’s prez campaign as significant enough to create top-level operations, Harrison is mostly perceived, he said, “to know her stuff; to be good on nuts and bolts issues.” While the organizational rollout looked like overkill on her part with too much connective tissue to what is right now seen as a compromised web of party organizations, “Strategically, she didn’t do anything wrong,” the source said.
It is a real contest among candidates, but at the heart of it among women, in a battleground southern corner of a state once thought to be too blue to have a story in this 2020 cycle, who will straddle the world of millennials moving into the district in droves, suspicious of conventional organization, and those neighborhoods ravaged by an opioid epidemic from hell, vast rural stretches of unemployment and nihilism, seniors who remembered their parents in public life, the Trump casino-deadened streets of Atlantic City, embittered ex-electeds and skeptics, and the pristine reaches of the bay and South Cumberland, and for better or worse, labor to win the backing of machines – for, the source said with a laugh of hard-edged irony,”if you want to be the party candidate, you have to convince the party organization you are worthy of their support,” while simultaneously trying equally hard to prove independence.
- Amy Kennedy
- Amy Savell
- Ashley Bennett
- Atlantic City
- Atlantic City Democrats
- Atlantic County
- Atlantic County Democrats
- Barbara Buono
- Bill Stepien
- Bob Andrzejczak
- Brigid Harrison
- Chris Christie
- Colleen Mahr
- Congressional District 2
- Cory Booker
- Cumberland County Democrats
- Donald Trump
- Egg Harbor Township
- Fanwood Democrats
- George Norcross
- Hillary Clinton
- Hyannis Port
- Ivanka Trump
- Jeff Van Drew
- Jim Florio
- John Carman
- John Currie
- John Francis
- Jon Corzine
- MIke Suleiman
- Mike Testa
- Monmouth University
- Montclair University
- NJ Democrats
- Patrick Murray
- Phil Murphy
- Robert Turkavage
- Steve Sweeney
- The Mainland Journal
- West Cape May
- Will Cunningham
Click here for the full Insider Index