Nowhere has there been a more intense primary battle than in New Jersey’s Second Congressional District (CD2) for the Democratic nomination and the chance to reclaim the seat lost when Rep. Jeff Van Drew jilted the party over his bromance with President Trump.
The reporting on NJ’s 2nd CD food fight for the Democratic nomination between Brigid Harrison, political scientist professor and pundit from Montclair University, and Amy Kennedy, a high school teacher and non-profit executive has consumed all of the media oxygen.
Kennedy is married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who represented Rhode Island and is the son of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Also, in the Democratic Party mix is William Cunningham, who since 2016 served as the chief investigator for the late Congressman Elijah Cummings.
Cunningham, an African American, challenged Van Drew for the Democratic nomination back in 2018.
According to his bio, he was raised by his single mother and grew up in very challenging circumstance in Cumberland County living in a “downtrodden weekly rate hotel” and being homeless” for half of his high school career.”
He graduated from Vineland High School with honors, going on to graduate from Brown University and the University of Texas-Austin School of Law.
Before working for the legendary Cummings, he worked for two and a half years for Senator Cory Booker, who has endorsed Harrison, who has been endorsed by New Jersey Democratic Party broker, philanthropist, and insurance mogul George Norcross.
The race has been cast as an epoch struggle between two great white political clans, like a south Jersey iteration of the Outlander series. It’s the mighty Norcross clan that are backing Harrison, versus the clan of Kennedy that are backing Kennedy.
In this internecine combat between these two great dynasties the headlines are generated by stories about whether or not Norcross will lose his feudal-like grip on South Jersey to the descendants of the Kennedy family that have given the nation a president and two beloved U.S. Senators.
What we don’t get from the reporting on the ‘horse race’ is any sense of the ongoing COVID19 linked humanitarian crisis in the district which includes Cumberland County where for decades economic deprivation and health care disparities have all had generational consequences that have particularly effected families of color.
In fact, lost in the narrative of the primary contest is the demographic reality, reported by Pew Research Center last August, that Cumberland County was one of the 109 counties in the country where the white share of the population dropped below 50 percent.
Long before the COVID19 crisis, which has so disproportionately hit communities of color who are the backbone of the essential workforce, Cumberland County was in an economic free fall and New Jersey’s professional political class appeared largely indifferent.
The latest U.S. Census tells the story. In Cumberland County where the labor force participation rate is just 56 percent, as compared with New Jersey’s 65.5 percent. The percentage of the uninsured is 20 percent higher than the rest of the state.
As we shifted to at home remote learning to the state’s school children in the wake of COVID19, consider that access to a computer and broadband service lags significantly in Cumberland County.
According to the Robert Wood Foundation 2020 National Survey of County Health Rankings, Cumberland County ranks worst in the state when it comes the average number of years of potential life lost to premature death.
That same survey ranks Cumberland County as having the highest percentage in the state of so-called disconnected young people between 16 to 19 who are not in school and not working.
That translates to roughly six percent of that age cohort here in New Jersey, while in Cumberland it could be close to three times that.
“Disconnected youth are at an increased risk of violent behavior, smoking, alcohol consumption and marijuana use, and may have emotional deficits and less cognitive and academic skills than their peers who are working and/or in school,” according to the Robert Wood Foundation website. “Approximately 1 in 9 teenagers and young adults in the U.S. is currently referred to as disconnected; not in education, employment, or training.”
The analysis continues. “Several studies have shown that disconnected youth have a disproportionate share of related health problems including chronic unemployment, poverty, mental health disorders, criminal behaviors, incarceration, poor health, and early mortality.”
Back in 2017, I meet several Cumberland County young adults on assignment for WBGO. They were struggling with how to make their way in a world increasingly stacked against them between student debt and a depressed local economy that made it a challenge to fund their escape.
What happened in Cumberland County was not a natural disaster. It was the consequence of how through our pro-multinational tax policies, embraced by both political parties, places like Cumberland County saw their factories and processing plants move away, as companies put increasing profits ahead of community.
For so many of the incumbent Democrats and Republicans elected as representatives to Washington it was all very transactional. They promoted the accumulation of wealth for the same interests who funded their campaigns year after year.
This race to the bottom had consequences with the influence of organized labor waning as the United States government facilitated businesses moving overseas. At the same time, no matter who controlled the government, taxes for the wealthiest Americans were reduced and the tax burden was shifted away from corporations to American households.
Before COVID19, according to the United Way’s ALICE survey, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed, one in five of Cumberland County’s households lived below the poverty line while another 42 percent struggled with their monthly bills.
Twenty-eight percent of Cumberland County’s children were living in poverty, twice the rate in the rest of New Jersey.
Cumberland County and the 2nd Congressional District, is part of a national fault line that’s come in fuller relief in our post George Floyd Black Lives Matter moment.
It is one of only 20 Congressional Districts in the country that voted for President Obama twice in 2008 and 2012, and then flipped in 2016 to the GOP, choosing Mr. Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
These are places where ‘hope and change’ sounded hollow as America continued its slide into a land of obscene wealth disparity starkest along her color lines that now grows worse by the day.
Now, as these struggling places teeter on the edge of the Trump COVID induced abyss, we need campaigns that address the circumstances of the people not the candidates