OCEAN TWP. – In his 1992 vice presidential debate with James Bond Stockdale and Dan Quayle, Al Gore took a shot at the latter onstage when he proudly fire-blanketed Stockdale and himself, leaving the National Guard-stateside Quayle with his nose pressed all-so-obviously against the window of the war vets’ shared history.
“Those of us who served in Vietnam…” Gore announced solemnly, by way of introduction; an introduction by way of isolation.
Of course, Gore left out the part about being a reporter over there, not a fighter – while battle-hardened vet Stockdale won the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the future VP had made his point, and in the process left Quayle slack jawed.
Tonight, at the Ocean Twp. Senior Center, seeking the Democratic nomination to run against 19-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4), Mike Keeling of Asbury Park or Josh Welle of Manasquan – both Navy vets – could make a similar case against Belmar social activist Jim Keady. But the times have changed, of course, and Keady knows that, too, projecting his leftist activism in the most stentorian of tones as a lifeline to the lifeblood of this culture of progressives otherwise known as the Monmouth County Dems Progressive/LBGQT/Women’s/and Black Caucuses.
And yet – Keeling – gambling – went there.
“We are both service men who love America,” he said in his opening remarks, gesturing to the placid figure of fellow vet Welle sitting beside an absolutely implacably ramrod Keady. A graduate of Annapolis, Welle served in the Navy for 12 years and led missions in Afghanistan. Kelling served as an engineer aboard Destroyer Squadron 14, doing time in Turkey and Israel and elsewhere as he helped fight the global war on terror.
Keady lacks a military service record, and Keeling – speaking in a Strother Martin-like Kentucky accent – let that fact hang in a largely baby boomer crowd that, by the looks of it, might have just as easily sat out Vietnam for a tour of duty at Woodstock; or embodied the angry offspring of Agent Orange.
Still, service was service.
Later, handling a healthcare question, Welle doubled down.
“I was lucky in the military to get the care we needed to get the job done,” he said, striding past a sternly nodding Keeling.
It became a kind of Morse code all evening long.
Service. Military. Service. Service. Military.
But Welle – hip to the crowd – tapped it out with a progressive twist, stoutly expressing support for a single payer system, while pirouetting back to his essential life narrative. “I saw that when I was in the Navy,” he declared. He stayed on that theme all night. “In the mid-2000s, I was working on a green Pentagon project,” he said. “I pushed climate-friendly projects.”
Wait, a kick ass military guy who simultaneously fought climate change?
It seemed like a compelling general election message, but would it captivate the libs of present company?
Welle maintained the all-night discipline of reminding the crowd of his service, while holding down the flank occupied by Keady on his left.
“Integrate a wall with a DACA Plan? It’s sinful. It’s a sin,” said Welle, before pivoting to, “I’ve led sailors from around the world.” And later, “I did teach political philosophy at the Naval Academy. …We need more workforce development in this country.”
A guitar teacher by trade, Keeling, for his part, didn’t stick with the military narrative, veering into other progressive climes to steadily stay the in-demand left-leaning course while supplying a steady diet of personal narrative that entertained the crowd.
“I started working when I was 12 years old – for my father, construction,” Keeling said. “He didn’t pay me at all. I worked construction, I worked at Starbucks. I was a delivery driver at night.”
Taking a stab at a $15 minimum wage question, he ate chunks of time with a storyline that all but had him hoboing across the country in a John Steinbeck novel.
“I don’t know if we can get there all at once,” he said. “If you put it to $15 all at once there are going to be businesses that shut down. It won’t be two people working anymore, one guy working really hard for $15. We can be at $15 in six years down south. I’ll do whatever I can to get us to $15. My idea is to move it quickly but over time. If you do it too fast…”
It proved a garbled answer, and Keady – fiercely trying to maintain his lane as the most progressive guy in the contest, leapt to his feet.
“Wages,” he thundered, Keeling’s hard luck tale still fresh in the audience’s minds. “I have been fighting to get people at the bottom of the economy moved up ever since I moved to Indonesia to live with Nike sweatshop workers living on a cement floor with rats and cockroaches.”
The image stuck like a flung battle ax.
Keady paced at the front of the room.
“When I listen to the GOP and their march backwards with wages, I’ve lived on the other side, and we can never go back,” he yelled.
“It’s important that people know the facts about what we’re dealing with,” he added, demanding that someone in the room tell him what the state’s minimum wage is and on the heels of Keeling’s misstatement of that figure, pronounced, “It’s $8.60.” It was a slap at Keeling. “As a small business [tavern] owner at the Jersey Shore, I will stand and fight for a $15 minimum wage. Walmart, they kill jobs. They kill Main Street. They can afford to pay that $15 minimum wage tomorrow!”
Keady brought down the house.
Keeling was up moment slater.
“I’ve raised about $3000 [for the campaign],” he drawled. “You might laugh, but I’m very proud of that. Raising money’s not easy, especially when you’ve got a little morals and a little ethics about you. Am I behind in funds? Oh, yeah. That’s no going to stop me. If you think I’m going to stop just because the delegates didn’t vote for me, you’re wrong. We’re going to June. Luckily we have Trump to unite us. We have three different candidates but we’re on different paths. I didn’t get in this race to run against Jim. I didn’t even know he was running. Over time I learned to love him. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
“The feeling’s mutual, Mike,” Keady exclaimed.
Something was happening in the room. It had started subtly, but now, it was Naval veteran Keeling taking aim at Naval veteran Welle, the positive feelings for Keady seeming to bubble out of him as he eyeballed his fellow serviceman.
“Josh has raised a lot of money,” he said. “$2,000 a day?”
“Yeah,” said Keeling. “They don’t own me. They’re not going to tell me to drop out. They’re not going to tell me to take their money and scratch their back. I even set that up myself, my wife was at the parent student conference,” he added, pointing at the Keeling signs in one corner of the room. “Im not dropping out till I get beat but I promise to support who wins.”
Keady rose, brimming with goodwill.
“Mike is a tough act to follow,” he said. “What I will if I don’t win the county lines is we will reevaluate. Whoever happens to win I will sit down with one of these two guys. I will talk to campaign staff and many supporters. We will struggle with that question. Where do we go from here? We have budgeted $1.2 million to win this race. Now, I’m at just a little over $150K. What I’m most proud of is 94% that comes from contributions under $200. Mike pledged me $200 at the last debate.”
Keeling nodded back at him.
“How do we peel votes from Chris Smith?” Keady said. “The former Interlaken mayor – a Republican wrote me a $1000 matching grant check. Look, I’ll get those guys that are common sense Republicans. But there are 80,000 Democrats that have not voted in last elections. We’re not going to win with a Republican-lite safe message. We’re going to win by firing our people up and getting them to the polls.”
Huge cheers ensued.
At the outset, the natural gang-up looked like him and Keeling against Keady, but the scene had shifted.
The veteran of the war in Afghanistan went to the front of the room.
“The last debate I was called a Republican by Mike,” he said.
“I didn’t call you one, you just stood up when I mentioned it,” Keeling deadpanned and the crowd roared.
Welle steadied himself.
“We raised $185,000 – $120K in three weeks,” he said, then unloaded at last on Keady. “You call me moderate-lite Jim, you didn’t support Phil Murphy, for you to aggrandize that, it’s just untrue.”
Boos ensued. The Keady people, outraged.
“You supported Wisniewski,” Welle reminded Keady.
“Boo!” a Keady backer barked. It was true that Keady backed Wisniewski in the Democratic Primary, but then he vigorously backed party nominee Phil Murphy in the general election.
“The way you win elections is like President Obama won in 2008,” Welle said, pacing. “He wasn’t supposed to win Iowa but he did by organizing. We need to bring people together around shared values. I brought in Michael Bland from Long Branch, who’s going to win this campaign the way he did in did it in North Carolina.
“How do you beat Chris Smith?” he added. “You go into every American legion and VFW hall. You give someone a career, not a hand-out. You fix the schools. You fix the teaching system. I care deeply about these progressive issues because I fought to protect them. I spent my time in the Navy fighting don’t ask don’t tell. I’m not going to stand here and let these two gentlemen falsify my records as I fought to defend the Constitution.”
He fast pivoted back to the ultimate target: Smith.
“He’s never faced a veteran,” Welle said.
Keady sprang to his feet a moment later.
“I was supportive of Assemblyman Wisniewski,” he said of the Bernie Sanders doomed gubernatorial candidate, referring to the Democratic Primary. “I don’t think I am alone in this room. During the 2016 presidential race I was a proud delegate for Senator Bernie Sanders.”
“When Senator Sanders did not win, I felt myself in a unique position as a seasoned social justice activist to [back Murphy]. In the last days of the campaign, I loaned my entire staff out to Democratic campaigns, because I was committed to the party. Do we have robust debates during the primary? Of course! If anyone believes they’re getting hit too hard in the primary, wait till the GOP machine comes against us. I’m putting it to all of you, I believe I’m the best prepared.”
Welle clapped tepidly in a show of sportsmanship.
“No,” Keady said when InsiderNJ asked if he regrets he didn’t punch the military service clock. “No. There are other ways to serve.”
Keeling admitted as much in his closing statement when he gave a nod to Welle on the military service record front then acknowledged Keady’s social justice record as just as valuable.
Hand claps followed.
Fighting Keady’s counter-offensive to make him look like the 21st Century version of Quayle, Welle was going to need the money, or so it appeared, to fight for support in a crowd where once military service might have been sufficient, or a sufficient, noble starting point, in a field now surging with progressive rancor over Trump, harnessed on this night – by the look and feel of the packed room – to a relentlessly leftward stepping Keady.
It was volatile.
Having summoned considerable public primary passion early in this contest, the contenders appeared unfazed by the history of past Democratic candidates who went up against Smith and, going back to 1982, uniformly lost in lopsided general election fashion.