OCEAN TWP. – The white male. Writ large on a tortured worldwide stage in the Trump era, his psychological profile may finally prove as elusive as Melville’s white whale; and yet the 4th Congressional District offers that rarest of glimpses of the creature in question, this time – ironically – amid all the trappings of a Democratic Primary cycle largely defined by the #MeToo women’s movement.
Competing to take on U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4) ($392.5K COH) in the November general election, just days after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) designated the 4th a “red-to-blue” district, Democratic contenders Jim Keady ($61K cash on hand), Mike Keeling (zero cash on hand) and Josh Welle ($133K COH) thrashed out the big issues of the times at a standing-room-only debate event sponsored by the Monmouth County Democratic Committee.
A native Kentuckian who served as an engineer aboard a Navy Guided Missile Destroyer ship, Keeling struck a confessional tone in the local senior center when he addressed the #me2 movement. “I feel like I can’t be as big a part of it as I want,” he said, “because I’m a man.
“But I’m doing my very best – to listen,” he added. “My wife calls me out and says, ‘Michael, stop mansplaining.’ Truth is, I’m learning. I’ve got a long way to go. But my office is going to be running a tight ship.”
Ever in gear to provide the most progressively aggressive answers, the polished Keady – a former Asbury Park councilman – jumped out of his chair to meet the question. If elected, he would fight to shut down that congressional hush money slush fund to cover people up on sexual assault and sexual harassment.
He’d implement a zero tolerance policy.
“It’s important that we as men step up,” he said.
He, too, acknowledged the encumbrances of gender as classically defined.
“As someone who grew up in the culture of toxic male masculinity – high school sports, pro-athlete, coach – I’m listening to the women of our district, I think everyone is, and I’m asking, ‘Did I do enough, did I say enough, did I listen?'”
Sustained cheers greeted his remarks.
For his part, Welle committed himself to strengthening laws that protect women, and advocated stepped-up education measures at the university-level to ensure that young people understand society’s mandated protections. “We need to make sure women feel safe to pursue all their dreams in leadership,” said the candidate.
The question teased out the now well-rutted plot points of the contest, as activist Keady pitched himself throughout as a bolder, more base-galvanizing progressive than retired Naval officer Welle, who tried to strike “practical progressive” stances as they hurdle toward a March 3rd Monmouth County Democratic Convention. While Keady repeatedly put a high gloss finish on his progressive credentials and camped to Welle’s left ($15 federal minimum wage, full stop, compared to his rival’s advocacy of a NJ $15; and jabbed on single-payer healthcare [I’m glad we’re in agreement at this point of the campaign; I don’t think we always were.”]), Welle emphasized “stop the partisanship, stop the bickering, stop the tribalism” bullet points. “Who puts people over party?” he wanted to know at one point. Throughout, Keeling mostly sided with Keady, prompting Welle in his closing remarks to observe in his closing remarks, “I’m not sure if they didn’t get together and frame this as if I’m a Wall Street big business guy.”
To date, Keady v. Welle has defined a highly-watched primary, and if Welle has stockpiled more money, Keady’s allies could gently high-five this week with the news that Welle had lost his campaign manager, Mike Bland, and rearranged his campaign apparatus, signaling a decidedly trouble in paradise vibe. In response, Welle world burnished the veteran triumvirate of Mike Beson (Welle’s longstanding confidant), Pat Politano (consulting) and Dave Parano (field) as nothing less than sturdy political spade work.
Despite the DCCC’s recent designation, most New Jersey political operatives cite CD4’s voter history – and Smith’s on average 65-35% blow-out of all contenders going back to the 1980s – as exhibit A for Democratic Party overenthusiasm. Exhibit B? Trump’s 15-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Exhibit C? Smith’s apparent self-inoculation against Trump push-back with votes against Obamacare repeal (as packaged) and against the Trump Tax Plan, which eliminates state and local property tax deductions and deals a double whammy to most NJ taxpayers. But Keady said he plans to tap those reserves of previously uninspired district Democrats and independent voters by running an unapologetically people-power driven campaign. The Navy veteran Welle, who last night told a story about how as an officer he improved barracks conditions for his sailors, stuck to his commitment to being a better representative for veterans than the highly veterans’-rated Smith.
“Bold, progressive values,” Keady proclaimed.
“It’s not a bold, progressive district,” Welle shot back.
The packed room included state Senator Vin Gopal (D-11), Ocean Twp. Mayor Chris Siciliano, Monmouth County Democratic Chairman Dave Brown, and former Monmouth County Freeholder candidate Sue Fulton. Whether or not the insiders at their core feel that Smith can be picked off, the Democrats glued to the plastic chairs looked energized for a political fight, and the common theme in animated back-channel conversation ran something along the lines of, “When was the last time Dems were this engaged in CD4?” Maybe one would have to go back to the Nixon years, when the late, later jammed-up U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson, a Democrat, held the since reconfigured 4th District seat occupied by Smith going back to 1983.
Monmouth University Pollster Patrick Murray attended the debate.
“We don’t know much yet about the candidates in terms of how they will get out the vote,” he observed. “We know Keady already ran in CD3, and ran into problems when he didn’t get the organization line in Burlington. We know Welle has some solid people behind him, which suggests he can run a good campaign. Keady is running to the left – or rather trying to position Welle to his right – but there will be a lot of Democrats out there thinking about knocking off Chris Smith and the potential to do that.
“It’s difficult to predict, because they both [Keady and Welle] did really well,” Murray added. “The thing that stood out the most for was the fact that it was a Democratic crowd in New Jersey’s 4th District, in February. There is a lot of excitement out there. I think the expectation is still there for Chris Smith to win, but there’s something going on there. I think both Keady and Welle are right to identify discontented moderate and liberal voters who don’t come out to vote, with an eye to basically ginning up the western part of that district.”