InsiderNJ’s 2020 Real Time History of Congressional District 2: Van Drew v. Kennedy

Kennedy and Van Drew
Kennedy and Van Drew

 

MILLVILLE – An opposum scampered across Highway 47 in the vicinity of Jenny’s Place, where you can almost hear the soundtrack from Dusk Til Dawn shredding the violet Pine Barrens mist and when a car comes in for a landing, a cloud of dust ensues, of course, and a month from now the people in these parts will decide a ground zero purplish congressional election with national implications.

The place has a little America feel to it, with just about everything you’d need to kickstart civilization after a cold spell crammed into its sandy borders: pristine wilderness to southwestward, the Delaware bay area and Maurice River with its fishing trade, beaches and family recreation areas, the rusted husks of glass factories, New Jersey’s biggest municipality by landmass, and the barrier island of epicurean delights and a guillotine blade severing haves from have nots otherwise known as Atlantic City.

There are even a couple of the state’s best bookstores down here.

If the country itself feels divided, the district bears some of the brunt of that volatile chasm, as veteran incumbent U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2), who changed parties from Democrat to Republican earlier this year and pledged his loyalty President Donald J. Trump; attempts to fend off Democrat Amy Kennedy.

Kennedy
Amy Kennedy

Daughter of former Atlantic County Freeholder Jerry Savell, Kennedy beat the good old boys network in the Democratic Primary to force this faceoff with Van Drew, whose party switch prompted Trump to come to the district in January.  Trumpeting the New Jersey congressman’s fealty in Wildwood as he attempted to weather the national disgrace of impeachment, the president decried what he called the Democrats’ “witchhunts and deranged partisan crusades.”

“It’s all they know how to do,” Trump cried. “They spent the last three years, and even probably before… trying to overthrow the last election, and we will make sure they have another crushing defeat. We’ll have a victory in November that was even better than 2016.

“Voters are making a mass exodus from that party… the socialist party; and we are welcoming them with wide open arms,” the president added, referring to Van Drew as a “courageous leader… because he has had enough of their socialism, extremism, wild hoaxes and scams.”

Van Drew received 45,226 votes in a token primary, compared to 43,414 for Kennedy, who ran over the machine with the help of strong numbers out of her home base of Atlantic County, progressives, public sector unions and rank and file organization Democrats.

After beating the Trump-loving Grossman, Van Drew reached out to President Trump on the floor of the House ahead of Trump's state of the Union speech.
After beating the Trump-loving seth Grossman, Van Drew reached out to President Trump on the floor of the House ahead of Trump’s state of the Union speech.

 

Beginnings

If anyone in the GOP – not the main players but their followers – was going to feel irritated or hurt by

Cumberland County GOP Chair Michael Testa.
Senator/Cumberland County GOP Chair Michael Testa.

Van Drew switching parties, the Republicans at the highest food chain levels undertook certain moves to mitigate them. These included making Senator Michael Testa (R-1) the co-chair of Trump’s reelection campaign, and- lower down –  installing Victoria Lods as a Cumberland County Freeholder candidate. Testa had won the senate seat by literally running against “the Van Drew Team.” If a tenuous connection existed between the new senator and Van Drew, their allegiance to the Trump campaign strengthed the ties between them – at least for this campaign cycle. Former Senator Nick Asselta (R-1), beaten by Van Drew for the seat now occupied by Testa, found himself in the position of enthusiastically backing the Republican ticket (and the man who defeated him as a Democrat) in no small part by virtue of the fact that his political protege, Lods, might snag a county seat in a presidential election year. Hillary Clinton defeated Trump 50-44% in Cumberland in 2016, and Testa in losing Cumberland last year lost by a significantly smaller margin than expected.

There was opportunity, the GOP felt, to turn Cumberland into more of a battleground.

The mechanics helped the official assimilation and acceptance of Van Drew but the district also contained a history of party switching among friends and compadres, many of whom proudly found their common identity as South Jerseyans more useful and more self-defining than party.

In one part of CD2, Van Drew changing parties carried the sting of Benedict Arnold reanimated. But elsewhere – and perhaps this was the mood the congressman encountered in the gyms and wharfs of his his home county of Cape May and in the rural reaches of Cumberland – Van Drew’s party switch seemed… what was the word?

Normal.

 

Mayor Oliver

 

Here, Maurice Twp. Mayor J. Roy Oliver – a Vietnam combat veteran – changed from Republican to Democrat because at that time one needed to belong to the Democratic Party to win there.

Oliver was always a conservative.

That part of it didn’t change.

Cape May County Democratic Committee Chairman Sciarra.
Cape May County Democratic Committee Chairman Sciarra.

Businessman Brendan Sciarra was a Republican.

Now he’s a Democrat running for county freeholder in Cape May.

Party?

It didn’t really matter.

“Half of them [local residents] are related to you anyway,” Oliver cracked.

He was standing at the edge of New Jersey, eyes twinkling as the sun went down over the delta, joking with Eastpoint Lighthouse keeper Nancy Patterson about Trenton’s suggested solution for how to shore up the sinking historic landmark.

Move it inland.

“It’s all swamp inland,” said the blunt-spoken Marine.

Patterson cracked up.

Governor Phil Murphy?

Don’t get him started, the mayor said, biting his lip.

Atlantic City

 

Toward a South Jersey Ideology

Ok, so he knew Van Drew. Knew him well.

But this year was different, wasnt it? Why would someone willingfully change parties to stand alongside Trump, who stirred hate in the country, demonized her institutions and comported himself like a spoiled tween?

Wouldn’t a U.S. Marine be offended?

The sun was going down over the bay. The waves thundering on the bulkhead.

The Murphy comment lingered. Perhaps it had something to do with that sense in these parts of neglect by the establishment in Trenton. But that’s absurd. South Jersey has controlled state government for some time now, that coalition of counties from this area the common denominator in all the deals for leadership going back 20 years. Since 2009, Gloucester’s own Steve Sweeney has occupied the state senate throne. Governor Chris Christie – and Harris seemed just as quick to dismiss him – was a fierce cross-the-aisle ally not only of Sweeney, but critically, Van Drew; which explains in part Christie’s eagerness now to serve as the glue between Trump and Van Drew.

Weren’t those guardians of the Pine Barren galaxy in fact the equivalent of a very inner armchair circle of Delaware River swamp creatures they might just as soon trap or cage down here?

Yet pointing the finger at Trenton – the core of a deep state state – was the same as pointing the finger at oneself.

Wasn’t it?

Perhaps, which made the connection to Trump – supposedly the enemy of every opportunist for whom government supposedly functioned – that much more necessary; for the consequence of a life here conditioned by the elements and more in tune with the outdoors than most other places in New Jersey, harder and salt-weathered, created a crusty resistance to those who dwelt in a comfort zone of political power.

If South Jersey had taken Trenton hostage, well, Democrats had taken Trump hostage in Washington.

There was the beginning of a political logic there.

If an establishment saturates even the outer reaches of this place, it will find a new way to be anti-establishment. So that anti-establishment person – even he who treads at the edge of anarchy – will find a fan club in this place, where South Jersey’s control of Trenton merely opens another opportunity to find some other strand that in political terms resembles the harried outer coastal plain. Trump won the district in 2016 – 51-46% over Hillary Clinton; while an unfunded Tea Party Republican who called diversity “a bunch of crap,” gave Van Drew fits on election night, and perhaps deepened the seeds of his own self-doubt as a Democrat – before he won 53-45%.

Atantic County Dem Chairman Mike Suleiman
Atlantic County Dem Chairman Mike Suleiman

 

Hogwash, argues Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman, whose jurisdiction includes that more decidedly urban sector of CD2. Trump’s an enemy of the people, and of the country, in Suleiman’s view, which was why he unflinchingly gave that initial nose-to-nose ultimatum to an impeachment wobbly Van Drew.

Either drop Pelosi’s ax on the guy or you’re done.

He was sitting outside near Clam Creek with a cup of coffee in his hand this morning, two days removed from the first presidential debate, widely disparaged as a travesty, mostly sparked by the president’s behavior but not helped by Democrat Joe Biden’s suggestion to Trump that he “just shut up.”

“What this guy did, coordinating with Russia, putting our democracy at risk, now in light of him not paying taxes, potentially owing foreign governments money – he’s supposed to be looking out for us,” the chairman complained.

If Trump is the picture of political lechery, Van Drew epitomizes political treachery, in Suleiman’s view.

“If we as a party – had we stuck with Jeff, we would have lost all credibility,” he told InsiderNJ. “‘You’ve got to vote for impeachment or we’ve got to go in a different direction.’ Now he’s wishing he voted for impeachment. He would have had token opposition and he would have still been a congressman. We held our ground, and we’re going to kick his butt with Amy.”

What about the debate?

“A disgrace,” Suleiman said, putting down his coffee. “Embarrassing. The president is unhinged.”

Behind him stood the painted boats in the harbor and the docks and the ravages of the city and the glass tubular and square pleasure silos of the casino trade and the bridge crawling across the bay leading to Amy Kennedy’s hometown of Brigantine.

“Amy’s got to win Atlantic County by at least five points,” said the chairman, considering the collision, and Van Drew’s hard support points starting with Cape May, and Kennedy’s base, that has to include a strong performance in Cumberland and Gloucester – but mostly, here in Atlantic.

Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr
Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr

 

Ah, those people who hold to party instead of other people, Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr mused on the Music Pier on Wednesday morning.

Trump and Biden had just ferociously mud-wrestled the night before in pursuit of the White House, but Barr was more offended by Suleiman’s behavior from late 2019.

“I found that to be extremely disrespectful, particularly when he’s as young as he is,” Barr said of Suleiman’s ultimatum to Van Drew.

Barr’s reaction at the time?

He followed Van Drew into the GOP.

“I couldn’t be in a party that didn’t want somebody that had worked so hard for the district, for the party, blood, sweat and tears, contributed money and developed young people,” Barr said. To say to an individual, ‘you must obey or you won’t be allowed to run again.’

“I was dumbfounded,” the councilman added. “I encouraged the congressman to do exactly what he did. At that point it was an easy answer for me. He said, ‘Will you follow me?'”

Of course, Barr told Van Drew.

For him, it goes beyond establishment or anti-establishment or working as an aide when Van Drew was in Trenton.

It goes to a very deep and very personal place.

“He helped my brother and I get 24-7 care at a time when it didn’t look so good for us,” said the wheelchair-bound councilman. “It looked like we were going to go into a group home when my mom was injured with a broken collar bone. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ Those are the things Jeff has done.”

The councilman looked over his shoulder.

Assemblyman Antwan McClellan and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen (R-1) were approaching.

His new cross-the-aisle allies?

No.

McClellan, at least, is a lifelong friend.

 

Maurice River Twp. Mayor J. Roy Oliver.
Maurice River Twp. Mayor J. Roy Oliver.

 

Driving Around the District 

Down on the end of Cumberland County the wind slaps you around if you don’t have your feet set under you and so they stand solidly down here, maybe with their thumbs hitched in their jeans, at the edge of a river where optimal crabbing and boating require river dredging. Originally from Millville, Oliver, who wears a United States Marine Corp. sweatshirt because that’s what he is, served as tax collector and clerk of Maurice River Twp. and now holds elected office as mayor.

“I’m backing Jeff Van Drew,” Oliver told InsiderNJ. “I first met Jeff Van Drew when he was passing out fliers at the Pathmark to run for the assembly seat in Trenton. He was a Democrat and I was a Republican at the time.”

The both switched parties.

But their friendship endured.

“I’m sure she’s a nice lady, but I’m totally in Jeff’s corner,” said Oliver. “We need somebody who can hit the ground running.”

They need the sitting congressman to work with the U.S. Corps of engineers to dredge the river ten feet.

“Fourteen would be ideal but that’s wishful thinking,” he noted.

Dismissive of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) as much as Murphy, Oliver’s eyes flickered as if he wanted to say something.

But he didn’t.

“I’m a Trumper. Even though I’m a Democrat, I’m a combat veteran, and he’s done more for the vets in 47 months than Joe Biden and Barack Obama did in their tenure,” said the mayor, commissioned as a second lieutenant, who suffered from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“He’s been very supportive of the veterans,” he added of the president.

Vineland looms over the landscape down here but it can never totally dominate with Millville constantly approaching or in its rearview mirror, and the working class home of former Assemblyman Bruce Land, two years Oliver’s junior, who also went to Vietnam and saw combat, is also home to Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella.

Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella

A family man and Red Cross volunteer who serves as Executive Director of Inspira Urgent Care and Occupational Medicine, Derella was horrified by Trump in the debate on Tuesday night and generally describes the president’s tenure as a failure. “If you dont surround yourself with really talented people, you see what happens,” said the freeholder director, standing by the veterans’ mural in Vineland at the urban core of the county. “We see that locally at times. People get so frustrated, they want to make a change. Right now, people are completely frustrated. They really don’t know where to go.

“I’ve encouraged my friends, whether they’re Republicans, Democrats or independents, ‘do your homework,'” Derella added. “Make sure you have a good basis to make a good logical decision. Our candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are running with some experience and they understand how we need to bring this country back to unity.”

The freeholder did not appreciate Van Drew’s opposition to Trump’s impeachment and his decision to change parties. “I was very disappointed personally when he made his switch, he had been a friend for many years,” Derella said.  “He changed some of his views and values from what Democrats have worked hard to bring into our community. That [CD2] race is a very hot topic. I can tell you that Cumberland County is democratically 100% behind Amy Kennedy. There was a primary but we have pulled together as one unit, as we should, and we are really supporting those who came out on top in that primary. I personally have had a couple of meetings with Amy Kennedy and I think she will be an outstanding congresswoman.”

In southern Cumberland County, Harris talks about the military and river dredging. Here, Derella cites Kennedy’s work in the fields of mental health and education. He needs federal resources for public transportation. Moreover, “She’s going to be very supportive of Broadband,” said the freeholder director. “We do not have the connections we should have. It really impacted virtual education [during the COVID-19 crisis]. That need is here. She’s willing to champion that for us.”

As for the argument that she is new and untested, “Somebody has to get their start somewhere and Amy has picked the right time,” Derella said. “Jeff’s voting record really made me step back. When you’re elected, you have to be a statesman or a stateswoman.

“Jeff is part of what’s going on in Washington today,” he added.

Testa Country.
Testa Country

On the other side of town, in a restaurant with his back to the corner of the room and darkness outside across the fields in the vicinity of Panther Road, state Senator Michael Testa (R-1), chairman of the Cumberland County GOP, framed the arguments for why Kennedy needs to lose and his candidate, Van Drew, should win. He inhabits an odd terrain in a sense, because a year ago, before Van Drew changed parties, Testa ran over the Democratic Party ticket to displace the so-called “Van Drew Team.” Now he and Van Drew are on Team Trump, the latter as a congressional candidate and the former as co-chair (with his colleague state Senator Joe Pennacchio) of Trump’s reelection campaign in New Jersey. Fast a towering political figure in these parts, Testa stands on the foundations of his father and grandfather, the late judge Frank J. Testa, whose name adorns the local municipal justice building. In a short year in Trenton he rose rapidly to join the most aggressive ranks of Republicans critical of Murphy’s maintenance of the COVID-19 crisis and of the economy.

“I do think you’re wrong with regards to the president not denouncing white supremacy,” Testa said on the day after the debate. “He denounced that early. I’m not sure he knew who the Proud Boys were.

“I denounce any kind of racism; it’s despicable,” he added.

Roughly 67% white, 38% Hispanic and 14% Black, built in part by Jews and Italians, surrounded by pines, and big stretches of grape arbors and fruit and vegetable fields and farm markets, Vineland concentrates long streets into a downtown dominated by the professional law offices of Testa Heck Testa and White.

Testa went to Trenton in that spirit of dead ahead accomplishment – and local and regional pride.

“South Jersey is always forgotten,” the senator said. “Many times you’ll see me aligned with Senate President Sweeney [on the basis of their South Jersey origins]. Cape May generates $550 million in tourism tax dollars and gets one million back. Essex County sends $4 million to Trenton and they get $6 million back. President Trump led this country to the greatest economy and the people of South Jersey are starving for that economic boom to come to South Jersey.”

Some glass factories still exist.

“But it’s nowhere near what it used to be,” Testa said. “We went from a manufacturing economy to now, our largest employer is the New Jersey Department of Corrections.”

His brother is a lieutenant.

As he talked about manufacturing and the economy, his point led to another argument.

“Donald Trump’s mantra of backing the blue to stand by our police and not automatically condemn them, that message really resonates, because so many of us are involved or have family in law enforcement,” said defene attorney by trade Testa, who opposes judging and condemning any action by a police officer on the strength of a quick video taken on a cellphone.

“What happened to George Floyd was despicable, a real murder, but others we have seen minute clips of, we don’t have all the answer,” the senator added. “There are bad apples. We need to get them out of every police department. Joe Biden wouldn’t even mention the words ‘law enforcement.'”

In the meantime, he condemned what he cited as the identity politcs of Trenton Democrats.

“All of us are created equal, that’s what Abraham Lincoln believed and what I believe,” said Testa. “In Trenton, the Democrat Party engages in identity politics above all else. We are passing our debt onto our children. A 35-year bond is just going to be unsustainable. For so many of our young folks, New Jersey is really not a viable option. Why would college students come back to New Jersey?”

A family man with three children, close to his father, his working partner at the firm housed downtown, he laments that many young New Jerseyans will increasingly interact with their family via FaceTime.

It would never be acceptable to him,  a man so passionate on the subject, he seems willing to argue late into a Wednesday night; and on the boardwalk in Cape May County, Testa’s running mates, that two-thirds of the unit that felled Van Drew’s team last year, reasserted the GOP cause at the heart of the congressman’s home base.

Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen with Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr and Cape May NAACP President Alexander Bland.
Assemblymen Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen with Ocean City Councilman Bob Barr and Cape May NAACP President Alexander Bland.

Their issues?

Law and order and respect for the military.

They too are familiar with Van Drew’s work product and praise him.

“When I was mayor of Lower Twp., any time we had an issue [then Senator] Van Drew always did what was best for Legislative District 1,” said Assemblyman Erik Simonsen (R-1).

“Jeff didn’t care if you were a Republican or Democrat, and Jeff hasn’t changed,” said Assemblyman Antwan McCellan (R-1). “He cares about people.”

But what about Trump?

What about that ghastly debate?

“I didn’t watch it personally,” said McClellan, who’s planning for a wedding. “Working for the sheriff’s office, the most important thing is taking care of law enforcement, our veterans, and last but not least, our seniors.”

Simonsen grinned. “I do not agree with the rhetoric and the way he conducts himself at times,” the assemblyman said. But he applauds Trump’s stewardship of the economy.

As for Kennedy, “I don’t know her personally and she doesn’t have a track record on anything.”

“Start at the bottom and work your way up,” recommended McClellan. “I don’t see that track record in our community.”

But Vineland born and bred Will Cunningham, who ran in both the 2018 Democratic Primary and in the

Cunningham

2020 Democratic Primary, naturally has a different view. “We need someone in office who cares about the community more than their own career,” Cunningham – who accumulated nearly 9K votes in June – told InsiderNJ. “The party switch was tactical and strategic. When I ran in 2018, I told people he didn’t care about our community. I’m the only candidate who ran against Amy and Jeff, and I dont doubt Amy cares. I don’t doubt she is willing to put in the hard work.”

Over the period of times that Cunningham, an attorney who worked for Senator Booker, immersed himself in his own campaigns, he has experienced one on one dialogues with both Kennedy and Van Drew.

“Some of this is instinctually how you feel when you talk with someone,” he said.

Ground Zero

McDevitt

Back in Atlantic, the county with the biggest plurality of Democrats, Kennedy’s home base, the place she needs to win by five points, according to Suleiman, in order to win the district, two people who fought in the referendum election in May have joined forces for the Democratic challenger. Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 Unite Here!, wanted a change of government at the local level, but now he and Mayor Marty Small both want Van Drew gone.

They’ll untangle the x’s and o’s (along with Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver) of how Atlantic City govenrment will run later, onthe other side of this election’s horizon.

For the moment, “We’re supporting amy Kennedy strongly,” McDeVitt told InsiderNJ.

In the lead-up to the Democratic Primary, Small said Atlantic City’s continuing biggest problem is lack of revenue.

Small
Mayor Small

 

“In 2008, $154.5 million Atlantic City dollars left Atlantic City,” the mayor said. “If you came here yesterday, and you stayed at the Tropicana, you paid a parking tax. You paid a hotel tax. If you went to an event and bought an alcoholic beverage, you paid a luxury tax. You bet, that’s sports betting. You leave. The residents of Atlantic City didn’t get a dime. We need more revenue streams.” He supports doubling the 75 cent city limits toll and holding the money in a trust fund account dedicated to local property tax relief. “We are working hard on that,” said the mayor.

He was revenue finance chair for four years, during which time the city, he said, delivered three flat budgets and one five and a half percent tax decrease. He wants to oversee an upcoming tax decrease too, as he waits for final ratables to come in from the citywide revaluation.

Trump’s shadow hangs over the city like a pile of debris blown about in the wind.

When Mike Tyson fought Michael Spinks here in the 1980’s adjacent to a site currently slated by the city for demolition, the terror from Brooklyn blew him out in one round, which is what might have happened to the people here at the hands of Trump, to hear Small tell it, but for their toughness and resilience, as they weathered the wreckage wrought by the Trump Plaza tycoon turned TV personality turned incumbent president.

“This is the Trump Plaza site,” the mayor told InsiderNJ, pointing toward the cavernous entrails of a building that looks like it’s teetering on the brink of hell.

It is, actually.

It’s slated for a January 29th public implosion.

“Debris was falling on the boardwalk whenever there was a northwest wind,” said the mayor.

It was a hazard, to say the least, and the ignominious aftermath of the Trump era in this beat-down town struggling to climb off the canvas for a comeback. Owned by Carl Ichan, who bought the Trump Plaza from its namesake, Small describes it as an eyesore on the whole city skyline.

“We got one opportunity to get this right and as aggressive as I was to get this building down, I’m going to apply the same aggression to get the right development here,” said the mayor, who wants to see family entertainment on the site.

“We have to offer more amenities,” he added. “We have to attract families, not just gamblers.”

Small acknowledged the symbolism of the coming detotation of this once lavish home to the secular rituals of Trump – and the upcoming Nov. 3rd election.

“It is huge,” he said. “In 2014, four casinos closed [among them the Trump Plaza], which resulted in a loss of 10,000 jobs. Atlantic City is a resilient town. Every time someone counts us out, we reinvent ourselves and we come back. People always counted us out, but we’re stronger than ever.”

He says the reationship between the city itself and the casino industry has improved, but sees an opportunity for the people here to exact a measure of justice at the ballot box by repaying a president who he says abandoned Atlantic City.

“I’m all in on Amy Kennedy,” said the mayor, a former Stockton basketball star and local sports hero who is himself on the Nov. 3rd ballot.

“Our city is all in on Amy Kennedy,” Small added. “Jeff Van Drew switching parties and the people’s disastate for Donald Trump is a perfect storm. His personal and professional history here – he left a lot of people hanging and he actually bragged about it on a national stage. He used bankruptcy laws to his advantage, and as soon as he made his money, he got out. He’s an opportunist.”

Will the historically underperforming city rise to the occasion of this election to make a specific statement?  Can it outpace those farther flung regions and its own Repubican suburbs to eject Van Drew out of office?

 

The Wrinkles in the Waves

The underground currents and crosscurrents of intrigue in this district almost threaten to overtake the two participants.

The Democrats figured state Senator Chris Brown (R-2) would become the natural heir to the legendary

Assembly Minority leader Jon Bramnick, right, with fellow GOP Senator Chris Brown (R-2).

Bill Gormley, a retired powerhouse Republican senator who in 2007 yielded to a ten-year Democratic Party reign by the late Senator Jim Whelan.

But Brown is not that sharp-elbowed, pepper-tongued operator who loves to dive head first into argument and seems to relish picking fights with Democrats at the Statehouse. Instead, Testa appears emergent as that player with tentacles stretching everywhere, a political hydra with the chairmanship of the Cumberland GOP still in hand, and now national connections, thanks to a confluence of good relations in what’s left of the NJGOP, and strong polical alliances with state Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt, and former Governor Christie and Trump world, not to mention his father’s own longtime ties to former Governor Tom Kean.

Testa’s talent makes politicians in both parties discuss him in the context of what they refer to loosely as “the Christie model,” and expect the senator to follow Christie to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the event that Trump reclaims the presidency, and from there vault to a gubernatorial run. As Steinhardt and former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16) appear locked in a battle of futility in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by over a million, sources buzz about recreating a white hatted anti-Democratic Party corruption machine as the GOP’s sole shot at relevance, and right now Testa appears to be the only one energetic enough for the role.

If that’s true, and no one can really say it is, the senator would appear to be especially motivated to work on Trump’s behalf.

But there’s worry among Republicans, who golf with pals of theirs in Pennsylvania, who tell them they’re not feeling great about Trump’s reelection chances on the other side of the river. The money’s going elsewhere. The maps are being reconfigured. Michigan and Ohio are suddenly more of a focal point than the state where Biden was born.

Still others are even more preoccupied by next year’s legislative elections.

“As soon as I saw that op-ed on InsiderNJ, I knew it; there’s a GOP candidate for the assembly,” said a source, in reference to a piece authored by Atlantic City Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz, presumably a Republican option to run with Brown.

But with a month to go before Nov. 3rd, most politicos appear focused on what’s immediately in front of them.

There’s the continuing speculation about Atlantic City Democrat Craig Callaway working with Van Drew, or at least spitefully muddying the machine after running afoul of the Kennedy Campaign. But Small beat the Callaway group in the primary and remains on the ballot for the general and is supposedly tight with Kennedy. There’s also a sense that the Kennedy Campaign’s air war is smothering Van Drew.

Still, though, the veteran’s forces have an ad out there that specifically tries to link Kennedy to the most leftward reaches of her party on the law enforcement front, and Van Drew has a reputation as one of the most voracious campaigners in the state.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew
Van Drew on the trail last year.

Suleiman, for his part, doesn’t think Van Drew running around from flea market to flea market will restore him to congress.

“I think it’s remarkable how lost Jeff is without Michael Muller and Mickey Quinn and the Democratic Party apparatus,” said the chairman. “He’s losing the social meda game by a lot. I am seeing his ads more on television but maybe you count on your name recognition. I don’t know what he’s doing. A lot of people have already made up their minds.

“Amy has a better chance of pulling Republicans off than Jeff can pull Democrats,” Suleiman added. “But all due respect to Patrick Kennedy, the roots of the Savill family are very strong here, and built by Amy and her mother and father. Amy was a Northfield teacher. They know her from her teaching days. Those roots are really going to matter. Her family is very influential here in Atlantic County.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) on Lake Hopatcong.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3)

Kennedy and Sweeney haven’t interacted in any significant way.

Suleiman, for his part, would like to see that change in the next 30 days, in part because Gloucester is important to her cause.

“We need Atlantic, but we also need Cumberland and Gloucester,” said the chairman.

He defends Sweeney – the Building Trades wouldn’t be with Kennedy if the senate president moved against her; and South Jersey poohbah George Norcross III – he’s given money to the House Majority PAC, he said, which is torching Van Drew. But the faces of the establishment are more easily associative with their symbiotic Republicans of the last regime, starting with Christie. It begs the question about how hard – if at all – they want to push back against a rebuilding opportunity the GOP senses here.

Also, and this is critical – will women -behind Kennedy – rip down a world where the men appear cozy because its a world they made to sustain themselves?

In any event, “The winner of this race will not win by more than four points,” insisted Chairman Suleiman. “If it’s more than four points, I’ll jump in the bay here with my clothes on.”

In Cape May, Van Drew country, Barr sees it differently.

“I’ve delivered over 2,500 signs,” said the councilman. “This is the most momentum I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of interest. We’ve never put out more [yard signs]. The level of interest is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He’s [Van Drew] in a very strong position.”

Testa, too, says he expects Van Drew to win – and win big, while another source doubted Van Drew’s ability to field a ground game without the same sturdy confluence of labor support in the 2nd that former U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2) employed as a Republican.

“Jeff has survived only because he’s kept a foot in everyone’s camp,” said a source.

But now there’s a segment among those individuals genuinely infuriated by him.

Dennis “Denny” Levinson (The Press of Atlantic City)

 

Also, a Republican source fretted, as much as he and Testa appear cojoined, has he sufficiently endeared himself to Atlantic County Executive Denny Levinson?

That’s another question.

“There’s whole ceremonial thing with Denny, and I don’t know if Jeff has the patience for that, or if Denny would really take to Jeff,” said a source.

 

On the Boardwalk at Twilight

The normalization of Trump in the atmosphere nags even here.

Marines and law enforcement personnel and attorneys who have mastered the political forum, and politicians toughened by the seasons and by politics unpleasant, who engaged a year ago in debates on a higher plain than the presidential debate of this week, make the case for Trump and appear locked in by the machinations of politics and the sorcery – available in any campaign cycle for those aggressive enough to go after it – of aspiration.

Is it enough to stem the tide of those tired of rage, and of the ranting of one who seemingly feels betrayed by the media that made him, and betrayed by the Democrats here who empowered him before it came apart and the faded casinos became the rubble to propel him to television and the presidency?

A man shambled up the boardwalk in darkness.

He reached out a hand to a passerby.

There were no words.

Only a need. An unspoken need.

Unfulfilled everywhere.

Blame circulated and recirculated.

From the podium a scream echoes again and again in a political bloodstream that here never became higher pitched or frantic in the seemingly noble and quiet presence of Asselta and LoBiondo and even Van Drew, as they tried to work in bipartisan fashion, all of it now in the congressman’s case, affixed, as if it were normal, to the Trump train.

Had all of it been subsumed in gradually, incrementally unleashed emotional anxiety?

It was not a normal election.

Kennedy’s somewhat easy walk through of the Democratic Party machine proved as much.

Van Drew’s party switch – not in a bar among old pals or a municipal parking lot – but in the glare of a national spotlight in a presidential year – proved as much.

And what it means now amid so much frontline intrigue among inside  players, only those voters of a divided CD2 can decide.

Eyes twinkling diabolically above a COVID-19 commando mask, a woman on the Ocean City Boardwalk shook her head in dismay on Wednesday as she listened to Republican assemblymen McClellan and Simonsen civilly express their views. She lifted an arm in the direction of InsiderNJ, as if seeking entrance into the discussion and moments later, she waved the camera away but refused to budge, as she opened the book in her hand to a Biblical text and denounced Trump as wicked for pretending to lead a pro-life cause, and Joe Biden as wicked for championing choice. But Trump was worse, she said. The worst of all. she left the point hang there. She half teased a response, then jumped in before hearing one. “And that’s why he he’ll win,” she railed with certainty, again indicating the passage from the Bible she said predicted the event.

Take it to the bank, she shrieked.

“Do you think the people out there voting in the election are people of God?” she asked. “Do you think they actually do what’s right and not opportunistic and expedient?

“They don’t,” she snapped. Her mask slid off as she yelled, waving away the camera, refusing to be filmed.  Like Cassandra, she extended her arms over the length of the boardwalk, where unmasked autumn revelers soaked the last of the season’s warmth, hovering at the edge of the election and, perhaps, another COVID-19 surge, where at the moment, no citizens’ debate about the stakes of the presidential raged.

“They’re wicked,” the woman yelled. “All wicked!”

It was an opinion barely heard as the wind overtook her fast receeding, wailing voice, within the more immediate, but connected collision of Van Drew versus Kennedy in Congressional District Two.

AC

 

Editor’s Note: I owe a special debt of gratitude to Carina Pizarro, who did all the filming, took all the photos and conducted parts of the interviews for the completion of this piece. 

 

 

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  • Kathleen Demarest

    WOW!!! That was a piece of work!
    Submitted at 12:02 am.
    Mark Pizarro deserves a well earned rest……..
    AND…..a two week vacation.

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