Kennedy v. Harrison and the Deals of Yesteryear Amid a 2020 Tempest

Amy Kennedy and Brigid Harrison in Cape May this morning.

The campaign cycle attempted to restore some sense of institutional normalcy and direction within an incubus of compounded crises, as if the learned behavior of an election could break through a COVID-19 Myth of Sisyphus. The trouble was that it was no ordinary election, its very process jarred by a faulty all vote-by-mail (VBM) template, within a deadly virus, inside a ravaged economy, layered on the cop killing of George Floyd, and the closer proximity problem of the NJ police shooting of Maurice Gordon, within a roil of protests, amid statues collapsing, President Donald J. Trump whine-bragging about having ordered a slow-down of testing at the height of the coronavirus, and oh, yes – a volatile presidential election year. The dreariness of its dungeons and dragons politics in jeopardy of larger untold forces, most of the New Jersey action in the end seemed mostly wrapped safely around dull, almost impenetrable Jersey machine-centric dynamics, as the South Jersey establishment – webbed together by party-transcending relationships – tried to assert itself meaningfully – and stay afloat – amid (or against) popular forces.

The 2nd Congressional District concentrated the main currents of an ongoing rivalry between South Jersey Camden and Gloucester-based Democrats and the scrappy porridge of progressives, teachers’ unions, working families, and Craig Callaway anti-referendum activists, adequately pumped with the intrigue of an earlier-in-the-year party change by U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) from Democrat to Republican. With Norcross for months locked in a war with Governor Phil Murphy over former Governor Chris Christie-Sweeney-engineered tax incentives that benefited his business interests – and all backed by Van Drew when he served in the state senate – the move looked like the machine playing footsie with Trump: giving him a narrative toehold on the Jersey Shore in the aftermath of his having been impeached, perhaps in exchange for some regional leverage. Van Drew insisted it was patriotism; or a mix of patriotism and pragmatic politics. But some deals are the province of exclusive clubs, the legitimacy of that theory in this case undercored by Christie – a cross-the-aisle George Norcross III and Senate President Steve Sweeney ally – present in CD2 with Van Drew (at the very least, he was front and center at that Wildwood rally, which played up the Trump-Van Drew mash-up), and his former political minder Bill Stepien now Trump’s political charge. Those relationships were sturdy enough to create doubts about the machine’s general election endgame.

George Norcross III had originally sworn to stay out of it, but his state legislative ward, Sweeney, had focused his forces behind Montclair University Professor Brigid Harrison, who managed to secure party organization lines in six out of the eight counties. In the county with the greatest plurality of Democrats, however, commiteemembers had gone overwhelmingly with Amy Kennedy, a school teacher with some hefty politicial associations, making the primary, by the estimation of Kennedy’s allies at the very least, a collision between a coalition of fed-up Dems and indies, and a supposedly tired machine with some pretty obvious lingering Christie connectivy, and some fairly overt Trump monogramming proclivities. At the very least, Tanzie Youngblood, Van Drew’s progressive-branded opponent in 2018, opted for the Kennedy vision, coming out in favor of her fellow teacher-by-trade earlier today.

The early conventional wisdom tilted the contest toward Kennedy, mostly on the strength of Atlantic County. She also has significant advantages in money, name ID and the anti-machine, a robust off-the-line Gloucester County alliance, and anti-institutional temper of the times. But Harrison had the endorsement of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who had jumped off the line in Atlantic to affix himself to her candidacy, ostensibly on the stoutness of their friendship but mostly out of political allegiance to the machine, where U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also found a way to poke his nose into the drama with a thumbs-up verdict for Harrison. Even U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) and U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) had thrown in with Harrison, “a friend.”

Curiously, Governor Murphy – who pre-virus had led the state on a bucking bronco ride on the South Jerey machine, his tenure mostly charactized by meeting Sweeney’s irritability with his failure to keep the NJEA at bay with an exorcised show of force on the tax incentive program, which directly connected on Norccross – had stayed out of the contest. Soured would-be Murphyites cursed his unwillingness not to white-hat the election and land in the Kennedy corral with a clear condemnation of ongoing Norcoss gooniness, their mood perhaps failing to incorporate the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) dealmaking with Sweeney for Chapter 78, and Murphy’s own animated feet-first splashdown next to U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) at the boss’ younger brother campaign kickoff earlier this year – an event that included Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), doubling back on New Jersey for a specifically Camden-centric event. Moreover, some deals are the province of an exclusive, presidential election year club.

If politics had nulified Murphy on the contest – not that they needed him, a Kennedy ally, confident in the numbers, argued – Norcross had another play. It was big. Former presidential contestant big. Was the statewide-branded Booker, U.S. Senate champion of reparations and semi-progressive causes, sufficiently appealing to primary voters in the 2nd District to coattail Harrison?

Or was Kennedy’s on-the-ground relationship-building, in part secured through her father, a former Freeholder Jerry Savell; and the Kennedy name – burnished forcefully and authentically (she was the wife of former Congessman Patrick Kennedy, son of the late liberal lion U.S. senator Ted Kennedy) in a primary and very symbollically in the face of the party-changing Van Drew – too compelling a synergy?

Late internals close to Kennedy showed she was up, but Trump – perhaps to Christie’s and definitely to Van Drew’s chagrin – was also catastrophically down at the moment (granted, the cycle was volatile), and so the General Majority PAC – a Norcross-connected cash cow – planned to go in deeper for Sweeney’s candidate, as early as tonight, the Norcross operatives behind the scenes in Harrison world guranteed TV atmospherics amplification.

Having groused at the outset about the machine failing the district to begin with by putting its faith in the always Republican-leaning Van Drew, Kennedy wanted to use Trump’s nationalization of CD2 with his political homunculization of Van Drew, to give South Jersey Democrats a true, national-contact level fight-back, complete with (conceivably) Hammonton native Jill Biden, campaigning alongside her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden (once the colleague of the late Ted Kennedy), and the Democratic nominee in the 2nd District.

What better fit than a Kennedy to make that case, she argued.

Its power base incrementally under siege – by Murphy (at least for his first two years); the tax incentive investigations; the state party chair’s race, which went sideways; 2019 legislative losses, among them Van Drew acolyte Robert Andrzejzack; and now a COVID-19-tarred Trump looking like he was melting irretrievably, South Jersey appeared late here to be fighting out of a very threatened crouch. Whoever won the primary – Harrison or Kennedy – had the potential of creating a substantial national-sized flashpoint, or – potentially, if Trump had a second act amid signs right now of expiring (a Fox News poll had him double digit dangerously behind Biden) – collateral deal damage in that old Christie-Norcross-Sweeney fun-blender. The original calculation, if in fact it existed as insiders suspect, looked troubled. With Trump tanking, the General Majority PAC’s late wager on Harrison had the potential to play out as bet-hedging against a suddenly November-lonely Van Drew, who could find himself fried in a Biden landslide. Hence, the PAC primary money on Harrison.

Booker, for his part, had his own mildy annoying narrative to fend off.

For years he had struggled under the charge – originally front-end loaded by Sharpe James – that he just wasn’t authentic enough, his mayoralty later undercut by corporate Brick City intrusiveness; his happy talk for teachers mangled by his support for charter schools. If Amy Kennedy was backed in a significant way by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), it was not an obstacle course for Booker to find his way to Team Sweeney. The anti-teachers’ union tag sank his already flailing presidential campaign like an insult to injury anvil, and he didn’t mind throwing a loose elbow at them if it helped the old guard down in South Jersey. Even as he looked to stampede to reelection victory (the Republicans seemed intent on out-machoing each other by going maskless in public, a debate about policy supplanted by nerdly demonstration of defying the too-cautious cringiness of COVID-19-bullied Democrats), Booker had a July 7th speed bump in front of him otherwise known as Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress and New Jersey chairman of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

If Hamm had next to no shot, he had already won in terms of commanding a campaign authentically, that is to say, one which put him at the head of a street movement he had been leading his entire life, going back to the 1967 Newark troubles that tore up his town and left him with a particular sense of justice-consciousness when it comes to taking on police brutality. The horror of George Floyd’s killing was merely the latest episode of an ongoing crisis Hamm had shouted himself hoarse over, usually weekly. That said, Booker had also been out front on the issue, in a senate mostly pockmarked with white faces and light places, heavy on suburban pastels and ignorant when it came to cities, just not as long as Hamm, and without sufficient vigor when he was mayor of Newark, at least by Hamm’s reckoning, and the reckoning – at that time, of Ras Baraka, the bullhorn-wielding police brutality benchpresser turned local grumblingly politically appeased Booker successor.

If Harrison’s campaign was sinking its teeth into Kennedy wherever it could (and a third candidate, Will Cunningham, a fomer Booker staffer, likewise routinely Kennedy-sniping) – the machine at stake, after all, an otherwise worthless contest (for outside of CD1, where Norcross’ brother was the congressman, the organization had a state government, state legislature-control focus) bucked up by a back-against-the-wall chance to save-face, Hamm was less interested in muddying Booker than he was in driving his essential progressive message, (mostly) peaceful bedlam the inevitable outcome of his agenda ignored. To that end, he door-knocked earlier this week with Pamela Thomas-Fields, off-the-line (like Hamm, who occupied, unlike Booker soldered to Harrison, no stanchion to Kennedy) mayoral candidate in Atlantic City, a Callaway friendly, where sitting Mayor Marty Small had the line with Kennedy, another scrambled series of loyalties maybe contributing to Murphy’s decision to stay out of it for the moment, as a contest amid the most intense times since the 1960’s, even in usually predicatable, controllable and malleable CD2, in a presidential election year with club players alert to more then just trembling grounds underfoot – intensified.

 

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