Congressman Jeff Van Drew bit the hand that fed him, simultaneously exposing the corruption of the party machine, while creating an opportunity for the first open Democratic primary in decades.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Decades of abuses by Party Bosses had left many rank and file Democrats in South Jersey to become disillusioned by the process of choosing political candidates for office, and deciding on leadership for local Democratic committees. It was a political machine, tightly controlled by one powerful man and his allies, through backroom deals, committee assignments, campaign fundraising, and political favors. That is until last Saturday, when Congressman Jeff Van Drew (NJ-2), desperate to hold onto power in the face of failing support, bit the hand that fed him, abandoned the Democratic Party, and exposed the corruption of the party machine once and for all.
Outside of wonky political circles, political pundits, journalists and political junkies, the name George E. Norcross III is largely unknown. His official title is Executive Chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, an insurance brokerage firm based in Marlton, NJ, but he is most often referred to as the most powerful unelected official in New Jersey, due to his incredible influence over the Democratic Party in New Jersey, and his unusual relationship with State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend and longtime ally.
Mr. Norcross has been accused by his critics of having an undue influence over state and local politics, in an effort to enrich himself and his business associates through tax incentives, public policy and favorable legislation. The FBI and Federal Prosecutors in Philadelphia, both have active investigations looking into his ties, with questions concerning the development boom in Camden, which was fueled by $1.6 billion in tax breaks that the state’s Economic Development Authority awarded to companies there since 2013. In May, an investigation by WNYC and ProPublica found that, of the $1.6 billion in tax breaks awarded to companies in Camden, $1.1 billion went to firms with ties to George and his brother, Philip Norcross.
In 2017, Congressman Frank LoBiondo, a moderate Republican who had represented New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District for 24 years, decided to retire, and it was Mr. Norcross who all but coronated Jeff Van Drew for the vacated seat, essentially blocking all other attempts to run for the seat. The party chairs were told to quickly coalesce around Van Drew, which they did unanimously, and he was given the party line on the ballot.
In New Jersey, only candidates endorsed by the County Chairman of the party, and voted on by their committee members, receive the party line and get to use the official party slogan, such as “Regular Democrat.” The official party candidates all appear in a single vertical row, making anyone outside that row look like third party candidates, even if they are running as Democrats. Over 90% of voters will vote their party line, so it’s nearly impossible to win an election without the support of the party machine. It is, in fact, the least democratic thing we do.
These important decisions on choosing a candidate are often made behind closed doors, through secret channels, and are unknown to all but party bosses and insiders. Even committee members of the party are not privy to these decisions, and are given only rubber stamp approval, for the decisions made over which candidate each committee will endorse. Therefore, even if you’re in the party, you don’t get a choice of candidates, let alone if you’re simply a registered Democratic voter.
Which is exactly how we got Jeff Van Drew, a conservative State Senator who had been running for years as a Democrat, even though he voted against gun control, marriage equality, raising the minimum wage and a slew of other Democratic platform initiatives. He acted and voted like a Republican but continued to call himself a Democrat, garnering praise from Republicans in his legislative district as a “maverick” who represented the conservatives there.
Many Progressives were highly skeptical of Van Drew, and there was an attempt to beat him in the primary, but without significant fundraising, party support, and no party line, their attempts were feeble at best. Van Drew easily won the primary and went onto to beat the deeply unpopular Seth Grossman, a Republican candidate who had almost no fundraising effort after the Republican Party pulled their support following racist statements by the candidate. Despite Grossman’s lack of support, he only lost by six points. In the end, many Democrats held their nose and voted for Van Drew in the hopes that we would be successful in flipping the House, which we did.
From the start of his campaign, Van Drew was running to the Right, claiming he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker, in an effort to assuage his Republican constituents that even though he was running as a Democrat, they could still count on him, and he was good on his word. Almost the first thing he did upon arriving in Washington was to publicly announce that he would not vote for Pelosi as Speaker, putting him on the outs with the Party.
He quickly joined the so-called Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of conservative Democrats, and was appointed to low-profile committee assignments, including the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Agriculture.
As a freshman Democrat with a low profile, Van Drew didn’t have many opportunities to shine, and throughout his political career, it had always been the spotlight that he craved. It was often said that he never saw a television camera or reporter’s microphone that he didn’t like. With his flashy suits and flamboyant pocket scarfs, he was always ready to get some air time.
He found his big break earlier this year, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would officially begin an Impeachment Investigation. Van Drew publicly opposed the investigation, eventually choosing to vote against launching the investigation, claiming it was a distraction, presumably from his critical agriculture duties, and that it had the potential to “tear this country apart.”
Mr. Van Drew became a regular contributor on Fox News, the President Trump’s favorite source of news and support, and often a place where potential candidates go to apply for a job with the President.
But here’s where things may have gone off the rails a bit for Mr. Van Drew. His political calculations had always been based on his representation of the 1st Legislative District in Cape May County, a heavily conservative county in an otherwise Blue state. Now he was representing a much larger Congressional District, that while still leaned slightly Right (Cook Political Report rates it as R+1), still had more registered Democrats than Republicans. The district had voted for Trump by six points, but had previously voted for Obama by eight points. He couldn’t simply count on Republicans to support him, especially with impeachment dividing the country.
As Impeachment loomed, and Van Drew held his ground that he would not vote for Impeachment his approval numbers dropped below 30%, and while his Democratic colleagues in the state urged him to reconsider his stance, he refused, even as word of primary challenges grew.
In the meantime, every state Democrat in his old district, who called themselves Team Van Drew were swept out of office by a combination of strong Republican support, and a write-in campaign of no confidence by progressives Democrats in the district. The tide was turning against him.
So last Saturday, seeing the writing on the wall that he might not even survive a primary challenge in his own district, let alone a general election, Mr. Van Drew made a stunning announcement. He would be leaving the Democratic Party and joining the Republican Party at President Trump’s invitation in the Oval Office of the White House.
Reaction was swift and brutal.
Democratic Governor Phil Murphy said, ”He’s putting politics over the Constitution, he’s putting cuteness over courage, and he’s cutting and running. He apparently saw some poll numbers he didn’t like. He’s on the wrong side of impeachment.”
“Jeff stabbed us in the back, certainly,” said Michael Suleiman, the Atlantic County Democratic chairman. “It’s disgusting. It’s a disgrace. Good riddance.”
Seven staffers resigned soon after. In a letter signed by five staffers, they wrote, “Sadly, Congressman Van Drew’s decision to join the ranks of the Republican Party led by Donald Trump does not align with the values we brought to this job when we joined his office.”
Two more staffers resigned a few days later, leaving only Chief of Staff Allison Murphy in the Washington Congressional office. Murphy subsequently resigned her position as Democratic State Committeewoman of Cape May County, giving up her vote for the upcoming election Democratic State Chairman between incumbent John Currie and Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr.
Murphy had previously indicated that she would vote for Jones, who is Norcross’s choice to replace Governor Murphy’s choice of incumbent John Currie.
In the days since Van Drew’s stunning revelation, the frenzy to find a suitable candidate has been intense. There were already several candidates considering a primary challenge, given Van Drew’s unpopular stance on impeachment, but now the nation’s eyes on South Jersey, not just the state’s.
Dr. Brigid Harrison, a political science professor from Montclair State University has announced she will run. Ashley Bennett, an Atlantic County Freeholder is expected to announce soon, and Dr. John Francis, a West Cape May Commissioner has said he plans to run. Amy Kennedy, a 14-year public school teacher from Brigantine, and wife of former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (RI-D), the son of the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, has announced an exploratory committee to look into running.
With so much at stake, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that others jump into the race soon, and it could be a messy primary. But one thing is clear, it’s not currently being controlled by the political machine, which is a first in decades. With the primary only six months away, it’s going to be crazy run.
There is a grassroots movement to break up the Party machine, disrupt George Norcross’s influence over Party Committees, and restore democracy to South Jersey. Groups like New Jersey Working Family Alliance, Action Together New Jersey, Indivisible and Real Democrats of New Jersey, have all been organizing at a community level, talking to potential candidates, organizing protests, making phone calls, writing letters, and gathering public support for the coming elections.
They see this as their opportunity to kick open a door that here to now, has been closed to them. They believe they might actually have a chance to elect a candidate of their own choosing, and to build support for taking over a party that has ignored them for too long.
They say that democracy dies in darkness, and if that’s true, then shining a light on the process will help democracy to thrive in South Jersey. We need grassroots movements, and voter engagement. We need working people, and communities of color, who have long been disenfranchised, to come together and join the fight. We need transparency from our political leaders. We need an open, fair democratic process, not power brokers and backroom deals.
This isn’t just about finding qualified, ethical, Democratic candidates to win elections, it’s about rethinking the entire political machine and how the process is run. We need Party leaders willing to listen to the voters and do what is best for them, not some power broker in an ivory tower in Camden.
This is a moment of change and if we don’t blow it, it could change politics in South Jersey and restore some faith in the political process.
It’s time to show up and be counted. It’s time for our voices to be heard.