“South Jersey deserves a real Democrat,” Nate tells me. “Senator Van Drew’s voting record is more like a Republican’s on issue after issue. He voted against gay marriage, just a few years ago. He wants to reinstate the death penalty. He wants to take New Jersey out of the regional climate change deal. He voted against raising the minimum wage to $8.50! That’s just not what South Jersey needs.”
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, May 17, 2018
e’re at the edge of a field in Elmer, New Jersey, where Nate Kleinman has been farming for the past five years. Nate is a seed farmer and researcher, so the farm itself is more like an overgrown laboratory, then a series of neat rows. He isn’t farming for effect. No chemicals or pesticides are used and they irrigate from a spring-fed pond. He shows me around the farm, passing chickens and goats, pointing out various wild plants and things he is working on, plants he’s experimenting with, his successes and even some failures. In the greenhouse, he points out various plants he is attempting to cultivate, many of them unusual, not because they are exotic or new, but because they are heirloom varieties from the past that he has secured from the USDA.
When Nate isn’t waxing poetic about climate change, the need to invest in sustainable food production, or wild broccoli rabe, he is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District. He’s likely the only politician you’ll meet in New Jersey that shows up in overalls, but he also has a degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and attended graduate school in the Netherlands. He worked on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, was a Democratic Party delegate in Colorado, was a political aide to Congressman Joe Sestak in his Senate race, and a legislative aid to Pennsylvania State Representative Josh Shapiro.
For a June primary that will be held in less than a month, Nate Kleinman is the only Democratic candidate to have spelled out in detail what his legislative agenda would be. In a video on his campaign website, Nate points out that despite having been a State Senator since 2007, Van Drew, the front-runner, doesn’t have any information about his voting record, his views, or his plan for the Congressional District should he win. Just a few random tweets including a congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles for winning the Super Bowl, and happy birthday message to himself.
You can read Kleinman’s detailed platform on his campaignwebsitebut when asked to explain what his top priorities were he has this to say, “It all starts with social justice. So many issues fall under that, starting with healthcare and education. We need universal, single-payer healthcare. We need more support for public schools, universal preschool and public college. We need to end mass incarceration and stop the failed war on drugs. And we need to do something about income inequality. I support a universal basic income, because every American deserves to benefit from this being the richest country in the world.”
“The next thing, especially considering where we live, is climate change. This is the pivotal issue of our time. Any member of Congress here would be against offshore drilling. That’s easy. Even Republicans like Congressman LoBiondo are against offshore drilling. But really fighting climate change goes way beyond that. Senator Van Drew opposes the regional climate change agreement because he says it’s ‘bad for business’, but eventually there won’t be any businesses left in South Jersey! When just half the world’s icecaps melt, this entire district will be under water. Huge swaths of it will be gone in less than a century. This is an urgent problem — I saw the devastation of Superstorm Sandy firsthand over nearly two years of relief and recovery work in South Jersey — and Van Drew and the Republican Party are just whistling past the graveyard.”
“And finally, hanging above it all is the elephant in the room. Donald J. Trump. The man has admitted to committing impeachable offenses, starting with obstruction of justice when he fired James Comey. He’s destroying the environment, damaging our reputation around the world, and doing everything he can to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. He hoodwinked working people across the country into believing he has their backs, but it was all lies. His tax law proves it. And he can’t even bring himself to criticize white supremacists! It’s just shameful. And I have no idea where Jeff Van Drew stands.”
Nate Kleinman was born into a politically active family in Pennsylvania. His mother was a doctor and his father took on the job of raising the three children. His grandparents had always been politically active, having participated in the March on Washington and actively campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Politics weren’t just part of the conversation, they were integral to his understanding of the world.
“I definitely had a privileged upbringing. I grew up in the suburbs, in Jenkintown, just north of Philly, but I often went to work with my mom at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philly. I saw firsthand from a young age what life was like there. It made me more aware of my privilege, but it also kept me from feeling disconnected to those poor communities of color, just a ten minute drive away.”
From the age of ten, Nate says he was sort of a political junkie. “I’d stay up late, hiding under the covers and listening to KYW to hear the election results come in. I was a weird kid,” he laughs.
But it wasn’t until a few years later, during the Bosnia war that his parents agreed to house a pair of refugee siblings.
“In 1994 my family was asked if we would house two refugees from the war in Bosnia. My family, being Jewish, felt it was our duty to open our doors. Gordan (12) and Bojana (15) came to live with us and we became very close. We still are. That was when all the stuff I normally just read about in the papers became real. The reality of war and suffering, literally moved into my house. It had names and faces. I couldn’t ever ignore it anymore.”
In recent years, Nate’s activism has taken a back seat to his other passion, sustainable farming in a small town in Southern New Jersey. But when Representative Frank LoBiondo announced his retirement last fall, and Senator Van Drew was “basically announced as the heir to the throne,“ he decided to re-enter politics.
Nate Kleinman is still largely unknown, and despite a strong platform, is a long shot to steal the primary away from the house favorite.
As of today, Senator Van Drew has $450,000 in the bank, most of it from wealthy donors and political action committees, but appears prepared to spend as little of that on the primary as possible. The campaigns of Tanzie Youngblood and Will Cunningham, the other two Democratic candidates in the race, have both earned a solid base of support that has remained constant, but doesn’t seem to have grown in any sort of meaningful way. The Van Drew team doesn’t seem to view the rest of the Democratic field as much of a threat, evident by his lack of engagement with the other candidates and his overall lack of primary campaign spending. He seems focused on the general election.
Meanwhile, the question remains, will voters in New Jersey’s 2nd District vote for the devil they know or will a blue wave of progressive candidates overtake New Jersey? Can an outsider change the game, and upset the race?
The national party believes that a conservative Democrat is their best bet to win in the fall and have thrown their support behind Van Drew. But will the actual voters follow? The issue at hand is politics versus policy—power versus ideology. What is more important to the Democrats of South Jersey? Choosing a candidate that has a progressive agenda and believes America is headed in the wrong direction, or compromising traditional Democratic ideology in exchange for what is considered more of a sure thing?
One could make the argument that unless the Democrats flip Congress in the fall there won’t be any meaningful change. But in today’s toxic political environment, electing leaders with a promise of compromise rings hollow. Very few politicians are actually working across the aisle in Washington. It comes down to who holds the reigns of power and what is the agenda of the party in charge?
This primary is going to be a glimpse into what we can expect to see in the fall. Will voters choose a Conservative or a Progressive to lead them? Who is going to best represent the needs of the country?
The voters have their work cut out for them, both in the primary, and again in the general election come November. In the meantime, at least one man in overalls is holding out hope that a progressive Democrat will prevail and represent the voters of South Jersey.
The New Jersey Primary Election is on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. To learn more about the elections in your district go to Rock The Vote.
You can follow David Todd McCarty on twitter @davidtmccarty