Sources: Riley’s Name Circulates as Possible CD2 Primary Challenger to Van Drew

Rep. Jeff Van Drew

In the aftermath of his vote against the impeachment inquiry and subsequent loss by his state senate


ally, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2) could face a Democratic Primary from an unlikely rival. The name of Cumberland County Clerk Celeste Riley emerged in the last few days as a potential opponent, according to two party sources.

A former assemblywoman from the 3rd District and former running mate of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3), Riley is said to be a first choice among party members looking to oppose Van Drew, and was said to be getting nudged by party members (and progressive activists) who want her to run.

On election night, the incumbent clerk had a closer-than-expected showing:

Celeste M. Riley (D) – 12,517

Victoria Lods (R) – 11,095

At the very least, progressives and establishment Democrats in the Cumberland portion of the 2nd Congressional District were said to be in dialogue.

The mere reflection on the subject by people close to Sweeney reflects some fracture in the longtime monolithic South Jersey Democratic Organization, and dissatisfaction with Van Drew’s vote that is wider spread than merely the farthest left reaches of the party in CD2.

“We are Democrats, we believe in being Democrats, and Jeff violated that,” said a party source.

Retired educator Tanzie Youngblood, who lost the 2018 Democratic Primary to Van Drew, said she was outraged by Van Drew’s decision to oppose impeachment, and wished she could run against him next year, but admitted financial woes.

“It’s all about the money, which I ain’t got,” the Elizabeth Warren for President backer repulsed by Van Drew’s opposition to the impeachment told InsiderNJ in September. “I’d probably need $1.5 to $2 million, ad I’d need to have a quarter million of it raised going into the raise. And as I said, I ain’t got it.”

Unlike 2018, when the South Jersey party establishment came together to repel Youngblood, Democrats now appear divided by the congressman’s vote, and Sweeney is said to be no less irritated by Van Drew’s actions.

Van Drew and the senate president are longtime allies, but the South Jersey congressman’s refusal to vote aye in favor of an inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump in particular underscores the senate president’s delicate political position.

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

On the one hand, the Gloucester-based Sweeney (whose district includes part of Cumberland) wants to very specifically argue his opposition to Governor Phil Murphy on fiscal matters, but the statewide leader also does not want to be pigeonholed into the perception of South Jersey as so anti-Murphy that he would be party to facilitating Trump’s national agenda.

Two sources said Riley’s name circulated this past week amid intensified discussions following the elections. Her irritation over Van Drew on the Trump front was met with cross words for the Election Night performance of the clerk’s office among Democrats seeking quicker updates on results.

“She promised to make the clerks office more advanced technologically and yet we still can’t get results in real time,” a source griped.

Van Drew, the Camden wing of the Democratic Party, and Sweeney world were all said to be at odds over a specific campaign strategy in LD1, where Democrats suffered a lose to state Senator-elect Michael Testa.  There was plenty of blame on all sides. Riley’s home county of Cumberland underperformed for state Senator Bob Andrzejczak (D-1), the General Majority PAC funded by George Norcross III released an anti-GOP mailer widely derided as racist, and Sweeney – but for an early governmental appearance at Andrzejczak’s side – stayed personally away from the Trump-friendly district. Some Democrats objected to the decision to brand the legislative ticket “the Van Drew Team” and at least one establishment Democrat condemned the Van Drew-centric strategy as “narcissistic.”

Should Riley emerge and challenge Van Drew in 2020, she would presumably help Sweeney shore up his own progressive cred – in jeopardy at times owing to the fracture between himself and Murphy, while not impeding his own economic Path to Progress agenda.

More immediately, she would conceivably have progressive and some party establishment support toward a primary run next year, but the situation was unresolved this morning.

A Republican, still euphoric in the wake of Testa’s victory, rubbed hands together in anticipation of a possible Democratic Primary.

“Sweeney’s could be in a bit of a conundrum by veering leftward, presumably in conflict with the image Norcross has been shaping as a conservative Democrat,” said the GOP source. “The logic escapes me; what makes these folks think that by becoming more liberal that they can win in a still conservative swath of geography? Didn’t Testa make that case? And won’t [David] Richter -or someone else- pound away at this?”

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