A sports paradise of a high school where teachers in the 1980s and 1990s made students do pushups as punishment for wrong answers in the classroom, and led bench-clearing pink belly torture raids to celebrate the birthdays of their junior varsity athletes, Christian Brothers Academy, in its meticulous molding of any number of DAs, elected officials, bankers, and kick-butt conventional Catholic Church-going crusaders, probably never produced a political animal quite like Jim Keady of Belmar.
A former Asbury Park councilman who fancies himself a progressive champion of poor people’s campaigns and other forgotten and broken-hearted ventures, who went up against Nike in an effort to expose slave labor, and infamously went toe to toe with Governor Chris Christie at the Jersey Shore in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Keady said the foundation of his political philosophy boils down to a simple frame of reference.
“At a very fundamental level, I don’t like bullies,” the CD4 Democratic Party candidate told InsiderNJ. “I’ve grown up to be 6 ft. 4, but it wasn’t always like that. I got bullied quite a lot as a kid. I am running to be a voice for those people who don’t have a voice in D.C. Whether it’s Christie or Donald Trump, big banks or corporations, I’m against bullies.”
He slapped hard at incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) early in the conversation.
“Far too many people living down in D.C. aren’t serving the interests of the people,” he said, before InsiderNJ pulled him up and asked him if he intended the specific reference to residency.
“He hasn’t lived in the state of New Jersey since 1983,” Keady said of Smith. “He spends less than 20 percent of the year in New Jersey. He slept seven nights in New Jersey in 2006.”
He trotted out other Smith transgressions, the congressman’s children’s in-state tuition designation in Virginia, for example. And yet, as Democrats crowd one another in CD7, appear to unite behind Andy Kim in CD3 and Mikie Sherrill in CD11, and prioritize the reelection of Josh Gottheimer in CD5, Keady’s district has not found a pedestal in the roil of progressive party agitation and energy this year, as his party seeks mid-term vengeance against President Donald J. Trump.
Keady wants to change that, he said, identifying Smith’s failure – in his vigorous, decades-long pursuit of pro-Life issues, to adequately serve CD4’s female population.
Then there’s Trump. Smith voted against repeal of the Affordable Care Act and voted against the President’s NJ-injurious budget. Should he be fine in 2018?
“He’s voting with Trump 74% of the time,” said Keady. “He voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act, but before that he voted to repeal it 50 times. His strategy has been, when votes he knows that will be unpopular come up, he’s one of the last people to say where he’s going to be on a vote.
“I think he’s the absentee congressman,” added the Democrat. “It’s hard to know what the concerns are of your district marginally.”
A former elected official who took over his late father’s Lighthouse Tavern in Ocean County, Keady said he arrives at the doorstep of a general election challenge with the twin barrels of activism and business acumen. He prides himself, too, on foresight.
“Now our former Governor, Chris Christie, has reached a point where his approval rating is at 15%,” said Keady. “It took eight years for a majority to realize he was a blowhard bully.” As for Governor Phil Murphy and his agenda, “I’m looking forward to the boldest progressive party platform we’ve seen in years.”
Of course, there are some challenges ahead.
Keady’s running in a Democratic Primary, and there are two other candidates in that contest: Josh Welle, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan; and Mike Keeling. The CBA grad who would go on to St. Joseph’s University means to occupy the left-leaning side of the party; but he did that before, in 2016, when he ran in CD3, and lost the primary to a candidate who promptly flew off the rails in the general against incumbent U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-3).
Keady said he will hit hard on gun safety, fair housing and fair wages – all issues he’s championed before – with results, both as a councilman and activist.
To those who think he’s just a warpaint-wearing wild man intent on the high fives of bar backs who recall his disruption of Christie’s Belmar press conference, Keady leans on the Lighthouse Tavern.
“I run a main street business – and there are very few people with that experience on Capitol Hill.”
He runs a small business and he ran a small nonprofit.
He’s the local guy, whose golf-playing, belly-aching pals from CBA remember him and like him – and, he insists, are prepared to endorse him.
“I’m not Jim Keady the Democrat, I’m just Jim Keady,” he said.
As for avoiding the errors that tripped I’m up in 2016, Keady said, “What I learned from that election is the power of the county line.”
He wants three out of three: Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer; and he feels he will have the superior progressive credentials in a Democratic Party dogfight.
“Absolutely,” he said. “One of my opponents said Wall Street is not the enemy. Tell that to millions of Americans who lost their homes. Look, we have enough people fighting for Wall Street. They’re called Republicans.”
But what about Governor Murphy?
Doesn’t he hail from Wall Street?
Goldman Sachs, to be precise.
“Certainly it is a concern of mine,” said Keady, who briefly flirted with an independent 2017 bid for governor, “but what I have focused on is the platform he put forth, and all the members of the Democratic Party must make sure he executes a bold progressive agenda. I like to deal in political realities, and it isn’t just the governor’s job to do this stuff. Everyone has to participate.”
Again, he wants all three county lines.
Getting Monmouth would be good.
“If we go 0 for three, we will evaluate the situation,” he said.
Monday night set the scene for the first CD4 Democratic Primary debate.
Keady and his team couldn’t help doing an endzone dance in the aftermath.
“It’s hard to tell if they’ve been handcuffed [by corporate interests],” the Democrat said in response to an InsiderNJ question. “Neither has passed any public policy. I’m the only candidate in the race who’s held elected office. I don’t think my opponent has a grasp of the policy issues.”
Asked if he woke up in a fetal position on the morning after Trump became president, Keady said no.
“I tell people this all the time, if you want to understand where a good portion of the electorate is at, just stand behind the bar,” he said. “We need to get out and do more organizing and active listening. I don’t condemn anyone for exercising the right to vote. But if you get mad and you’re about ready to throw your shoes at the TV screen, stop and call our campaign. We want to put the energy to good use. We need to get out of our respective echo chambers and build the party up from the bottom.”
As for those wary Democrats who want to conserve resources for what they deem will be winnable congressional races this year, Keady implored them to reconsider.
“We should concede no territory – maybe that’s the athlete in me,” he said. “I can’t accept a game plan that says we’re not going to engage and defend on that part of the field. This is about building the party from the ground up. We need to get people engaged in grassroots progressive politics and think about the long-term.”
As a 2016 Bernie Sanders backer, he said he has no time to focus on the slights offered his wing of the party by Hillary Clinton.
“I think we need to move past it,” Keady said. “I liken it as someone who went through a divorce and a child custody negotiation. It’s not about how the adults feel about who was wrong or right, in the end, finally, you have to ask yourself what is in the best interest of the child, and in this case the kid is the Democratic Party.
“President Trump draws out the worst in the American body politic,” Keady added. “He’s made it ok for people to say things and do things I thought were relics of the past. From a policy standpoint, his destructive policies are hurting people, particularly the poor and marginalized, and those who don’t have a voice. I firmly believe we can win this district. In two decades of doing this I’ve never felt the atmosphere that is out there now. This is a unique time. We need to capitalize on it. We need someone who has the experience of a grassroots political campaign and a businessperson. There are those who say we should be going after moderate Republicans in the district, but I say let’s galvanize progressives, and win.”
Somewhere, those underdog-championing teachers back at CBA, a handful of them, or two, or one, who nursed the hardest-edged activism of the 1960s, or a commitment to the corporal works of mercy, if they still lived and heard about a bullied kid called Keady full-grown now, were probably proud.
The next CD4 Democratic Primary debate is scheduled for Thursday evening at 6:45 p.m. in the Ocean Twp. Senior Center