WILDWOOD – The dump gulls shriek like shrikes down here in the wintertime, a wretched flapping general rebuke of what’s left of life on the boardwalk in the off-season; as if terminally offended by existence itself, no matter how insignificant amid boarded and padlocked steel-curtained shop fronts facing the dead ocean.
A few blocks up Rio Grande Avenue, however, things looked a little livelier in the Mudhen, where on this
Saturday morning, members of the Cape May Democratic Committee gathered in the high-ceilinged brewery to greet candidates intent on defeating U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2). The congressman two weeks ago joined President Donald J. Trump (“In Wildwood, like we’re in the middle of winter, there is nobody in the middle of winter,” Trump exclaimed at the time) in a packed convention center and heped turn Wildwood into a veritable red sea. Today, the candidates – all equally appalled by the cocoon of Trump and Van Drew – sedately made their individual cases: Montclair University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrsion, educator and mental health expert Amy Kennedy, West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, former Booker Staffer Will Cunningham, and retired FBI special agent Robert “Turk” Turkavage.
If most insiders see a two-person contest between Harrison and Kennedy, the event’s host, Cape May County Democratic Committee Chairman Brendan Sciarra, already made his choice of a candidate to take on Van Drew in the general election. He, along with five other chairs representing portions of the 2nd District, endorsed Harrison.
“I’m committed to Brigid,” Sciarra told InsiderNJ as committee members drank coffee and jawed with the candidates. “She’s tenacious and I think she’s going to do a great job. She’s going to represent CD2 well. If we get past the primary, I think we’ll be in for a fight. She’s very good on issues she can go toe to toe. She lets the people understand about the issues and she’ll fight for us. It’s very important going against Jeff Van Drew to understand all the issues. He’s been in public service for over 20 years. …She can dig into him.”
Sciarra once backed Van Drew. On Jan. 28th, he watched the former Democrat mount a stage and pronounce his loyalty to the sitting Republican president. “It was interesting,” acknowledged the Cape May chairman, “and it wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with it.
“But we can’t get caught up in smoke and mirrors and superficial stuff,” he added. “We need to build a party from the ground up.”
So even though he already threw in with Harrison, he gave the floor to those Democrats looking to compete in the June Primary, ahead of a scheduled March 8th Atlantic County Convention, which will essentially decide whether the Montclair University Professor has to worry about the primary. It’s an unspoken undercurrent in the room. If Harrison wins Atlantic, and other candidates (including Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett) stay in the contest and muddy the anti-machine path of a stark alternative, the Montclair professor will be strongly positioned to go against Van Drew. But if Kennedy – who already has the backing of the Atlantic City Democratic Party – beats her in Atlantic, the two women will engage in a legitimate continuing primary fight, with the mental health specialist – and wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) in a commanding position in the county that contains the district’s largest city.
Even still, the other candidates intently made their respective arguments.
“I’m looking at our country and how divided it is,” said Francis, the Planetwalker, who once walked from California to South Jersey in the name of the environment and stopped speaking for 17 years, in the name of improving his listening skills.
“We’re not even able to listen to each other,” he added. “I’m writing a book on kindness.”
Then there was Will Cunningham, who worked on Capitol Hill for six years.
“I am running because I am a proud son of South Jersey but we have work to do,” Cunningham told InsiderNJ.
He spent three years as a staffer in the office of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and three years as a chief investigator attached to the House Oversight Committee with the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
“I overcame homelessness in Vineland, New Jersey; my mother still makes $11 an hour,” he added. “I don’t look very far to see struggle.”
Heading for the door and another event, Kennedy said she was underwhelmed by Trump’s rally with Van Drew. “It was a lot of mess in the streets and a lot of anger and animosity that came with it and then the buses left,” she told InsiderNJ. “People are ready for someone who is not just spewing negativity but who is committed to social justice.”
But Democrats look mangled (more on that in a minute).
Why does she think she can unite a party wherein U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York says if it were a different country she would not occupy the same party as someone like former Vice President Joe Biden.
“People know that a Kennedy Democrat is a Kennedy Democrat,” Kennedy said. “While there may be moderate, liberal and progressive groups, there is something we can united behind to restore order, civility and justice.”
Harrison made the rounds like Kennedy, at times the two of them very nearly back to back at the center of their own small groups.
The professor enjoyed a reunion with county countymember Jeff April, whose law firm once put up $1,000 for a scholarship that went to Harrison when she was a student.
“I’m backing Brigid,” April said, pointing at a beaming Harrison.
The relatively flat performance of Iowa voters – not to mention the debacle of the process – makes Democrats look less than fiery and even bumbling in a presidential election year, InsiderNJ noted. But Harrison disagrees, and said the particular issues ongoing in the 2nd District bode for a much different general election.
“I feel people are quite charged up,” she said. “Here we are in a full room. People could have been sleeping in [on a Saturday]. Every room I walk into is charged up.
“People are angry about Van Drew,” she added.
As if to prove the point, later in the day, InsiderNJ mentioned the name “Van Drew” to a roomful of Democrats and someone shot back, “You mean VD?”
But in Wildwood, the mere mention of Iowa caused more than a few people to wither with worry.
The Hawkeye State seemed at the moment synonymous with dysfunction at best – or, at worst for current company’s purposes – Democratic Party incompetence.
The candidates tried to take something positive away from a result – without an immediate result.
“I’m a supporter of Bernie Sanders,” said Francis, referring to the second-place Iowa finisher. “I guess I’m a kind of a realistic progressive.”
Cunningham laughed nervously at the question – but not with any sense of gloom.
“I’m a gay man, but I’m also a Christian,” he said.
Even though he hasn’t yet selected a presidential candidate, he admitted to being proud of former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“We need to keep the goal in mind,” Cunningham said. “We are going to need to be unified no matter who wins this election.”
The ebullient Kennedy said, “The enthusiasm in Iowa is what we were really excited about. People are really engaged and want to turn out for this election.”
If most of the congressional candiates are uncommitted on the presidential question, and Francis likes Sanders, former FBI man (and former Republican turned Democrat) Turkavage likes Biden.
“I’m leaning toward Joe Biden and my secondary choice would be Mike Bloomberg,” Turkavage told InsiderNJ. “The most practical and pragmatic positions are coming from Joe Biden.”
Is Biden done?
No, said Turkavage.
“I do believe Joe has the stamina and the intellect [to win],” he said.
Harrison, for her part, focused on what she sees as a flawed and unfair primary proccess.
“We need to have a change in how we select our [presidential] candidates,” said the poli sci professor.
In Iowa, agricultrual interests tend to dominate. Other issues, like infrastructure, don’t get as much attention. “I would support a national primary,” she said. “Every Democrat in the country goes to the voting booth on the same day rather than having someone’s vote in Iowa counting to such a degree, wheresas we don’t get to cast a vote in New Jersey until June.”
There was no formal speaking segment at the breakfast.
The candidates saturated the room and treated committee members like subjects whose arms could be twisted.
Van Drew, again, was the main topic of discussion – and not in a good way.
A few of the contenders left here to go north, up to exit 36 and a Golden Corral event in Atlantic, the battleground du jour.
Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman said his committeemembers are taking a wait and see approach.
“It’s reminiscent of folks in Iowa prior to the caucuses,” he said.
There’s that word again.
“Our county conventions are run much more efficiently and effectively in Atlantic County than they are in Iowa,” Suleiman said with emphasis.
The next big date, he said, is Feb. 20th.
On that day at 6:30 p.m. in the Teamsters Hall in Egg Harbor City, the party organization will conduct a policy-oriented forum.
“My folks are hungrier for substance more than platitudes,” said the chairman.
He said he doesn’t feel the party fractured beyond repair, or sufficiently ill-repaired to be overridingly unprepared.
“I think most of the candidates are progressive,” Suleiman said. “If you look at what Joe Biden did in the
Obama Administration, he’s kind of an old school Barack Obama liberal. Same with Pete Buttigieg. They’re not far left liberals, but they are progressive. It’s the same with this congressional field. Brigid came out in favor of the legalization of marijuana, and Amy Kennedy hasn’t. And yet, because of the organization support Brigid has to this point, she’s supposedly the moderate and Amy’s supposed to be the progressive. I think all our candidates – at the national level and in this congressional contest – are a little left of center in terms of messaging.”
A little left of center.
While the candidates hobnobbed, Cassandra Gatelein and Shayla Woolfort of Indivisible discussed the developing contest in CD2. They’re the chapter co-chairs here of the progressive organization that backs social, reproductive and environmental justice. Indivisible was primarily responsible for organizing the counter rally when Trump came to Wildwood on January 28th.
“We have not officially endorsed anyone yet,” said Woolfort. They don’t intend to back anyone prior to April 1st, when they have scheduled a candidates’ forum, which is a foundational part of their vetting process in this battleground primary.
“We’ve never supported Van Drew,” the co-chair added. “We’ve actively worked against him. We’re excited that we can get a candidate to run against him.”
“Someone who actually represents our values,” said Gatelein.
Through the turmoil of their own party’s fortunes, and of their own party’s making, at least in Iowa – “I had to walk through deserts and mountains,” said Francis, refusing to be undeterred or undermined, to some the sounds of the Trump rally resound with far worse scorn – and horrible consequences even now unborn – than the winged, veering scavengers left behind in this off-season, where June means more than simply a return to the beach.
- Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez
- Amy Kennedy
- Atlantic City Democrats
- Atlantic County
- Atlantic County Democrats
- Bernie Sanders
- Brendan Sciarra
- Brigid Harrison
- Cape May
- Cape May County Democrats
- Cassandra Gatelein
- Cory Booker
- Donald Trump
- Egg Harbor
- Elijah Cummings
- Jeff April
- Jeff Van Drew
- Joe Biden
- John Francis
- Mike Bloomberg
- MIke Suleiman
- Patrick Kennedy
- Pete Buttigieg
- Robert Turkavage
- Shayla Woolfort
- Will Cunningham
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