The ground beneath us has shifted significantly in recent weeks, affecting how Americans view race, justice and the role of government in society, but one man believes he is in a unique position to do something about it.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, June 23, 2020
“When I was young, I believed that if you worked hard, got the right education, and did the right thing, then life would become, if not great, well at least easier,” explains Will Cunningham, a Democratic candidate for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District. “But the reality is, it didn’t get easier, it just got difficult in a whole different way.”
Will Cunningham has told his story so many times, he approaches it with a kind of abbreviated shorthand, glossing over details most people would consider heroic, or at least critical to his success, and minimizing others that you might find unbelievable. But this isn’t some form of mock humility or a dramatic gesture for effect, it’s just that this isn’t some anecdote, or case study he read, it’s his life.
“The truth is, people like me don’t end up running for Congress,” he says and it’s clear he knows precisely how improbable his journey has been.
“If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all. Why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.”A Man for All Seasons
He grew up poor, he explains, born to a 16-year-old single mother, ended up homeless several times, blah, blah, blah, worked hard in school, ended up getting into an ivy league college, graduated law school, went to Washington, D.C., worked in Congress, yada, yada, yada.
Despite it all, he recognizes that there were about a million moments in his life that could have gone sideways and taken him down an entirely different path. The thing is, he knows how lucky he is, and how hard he worked to get here. These are not mutually exclusive ideas to him. Given that he’s an openly gay Black man living in America, it took both luck and hard work to even get to where he is right now, which is not a corner office on Madison Avenue, or even a Freshman Congressman’s office. He’s still working to catch that elusive dream, and unlike other young men who fantasize about making out of the neighborhood and to the big time, he has turned an Ivy League education and subsequent law degree into a quest, not to get rich, or become famous, but to help people like himself struggle just a little less.
“You can get an Ivy League degree and still be from a poor family,” explains Cunningham, “and that’s my reality. My life changed, but my family’s didn’t. I see it everyday because I see it in my own home. My mom has gone to work every single day during the pandemic, as an essential worker. She makes $12 an hour. That’s what drives my campaign.”
He stops and thinks for a moment, seemingly trying to put his emotions into words, then continues, “I mean, I know she’s proud of me, but we’ve both had to come to the realization that me getting a fancy law degree didn’t change the family, it just changed me. It’s hard to see people so close to you struggle just to get by. This race, my candidacy, is a way to do something about that.”
That’s why he says he advocates for a $15 minimum wage and why he believes in free community college that invests in local residents, who are actually the ones most likely to stay. Community colleges he points out, appeal to people who don’t necessarily want to leave their communities, but still want the skills they need to prosper right where they are. Will argues that you shouldn’t have to leave South Jersey in order to get the skills you need to survive in South Jersey.
“My best friend Jamie from high school, did what so many kids in South Jersey do, they take one or two classes a semester at a local community college,” he says. “She graduated with her Masters degree two years ago, but it took her a decade. The persistence it takes, while life is happening around you, is incredibly hard. Not everyone can do it. Maybe it shouldn’t exactly be easy, but it shouldn’t be this hard. We could be doing a lot more to make it at least accessible.”
The way Will sees it, there are two kinds of people running for political office today, those with access to power and privilege, and those without. For all his accomplishments, for all his personal success, he finds himself running a campaign against two opponents that started out with incredible access to the halls of power—access that he never had. He’s got an Ivy League education and a law degree, not to mention years of experience in government helping to create policy, working next to legends like Elijah Cummings and Cory Booker. But despite being arguably more qualified for public office than any of his opponents, he’s not white, he’s not from a prestigious family, and is not part of a powerful political machine.
This is the problem with America today, he explains. The people we allow to lead us, the ones we elect to higher office, are the least likely to understand the needs of the majority of the people they are supposed to represent. It might be an oft or even overused term, but they are truly out of touch with the people they claim to serve. They are, too often, far more concerned with how their policy decisions will affect big donors and corporations represented by powerful lobbyists, than they are with how those same decisions will affect their constituents. It’s not all some evil plot to screw over the little guy, it’s just a byproduct of a political system built on the corruption of campaign finance. You need money and power to win, and the real money comes from power, not the people.
Will’s reality is that he is running for a Congressional House seat currently being held by Jeff Van Drew, a retired dentist and once conservative Democrat who shocked his community, and embarrassed the Democratic Party when he betrayed them on national television in the Oval Office, telling Donald Trump, “I pledge my undying support for you.”
This isn’t his first attempt to unseat Jeff Van Drew, but this is the first time he’s in a position to oppose him as the Republican he always took him to be. In 2018, Will tried to warn people that Van Drew was not what he seemed, but the machine felt differently.
The Democratic Party machine in New Jersey, led by political power broker George Norcorss, decided that Van Drew was their best chance at controlling the long-held congressional seat being vacated by a retiring Frank LoBiono (R). Progressives were furious with the choice at the time, but were were told to fall in line and support Van Drew. Cunningham was one of the few candidates to call him out as someone who did not hold Democratic values and who was simply an opportunist looking to grab power by any means necessary. In the end, he was proven correct and the Party is still trying to wipe the egg off their faces, but it didn’t endear him to the Party elite.
Desperate not to repeat that same mistake again, and yet clearly learning nothing from their previous mistake, the moment Van Drew announced his decision to switch parties, Democratic Party leadership moved to back a candidate they felt they could once again control and a majority of the County Committee Chairs, publicly endorsed Brigid Harrison, an unknown political scientist from Montclair State University, and despite her complete lack of experience in government.
A few months later, Amy Kennedy, a former school teacher, also with no government experience, but with a rather unique, high profile, politically-connected husband, joined the race as well, and it became, for many, a two horse race. The fact that Will Cunningham had already made clear his decision to become the first openly gay, Black man elected to Congress in history, two white women of wealth and privilege, were now battling it out for the chance to unseat the former dentist and take their seat at the table.
But as things do in turbulent times, things may be shifting once again. There may just be a crack in the facade of the machine and an opening in the minds of voters, that maybe, what they’ve been sold, isn’t quite right. Maybe America, is all too ready for progressive ideas after all.
“Progressive policies benefit everyone,” Will explains. “The pandemic was eye-opening for so many, because progressive policies, and those who touted them, were always categorized as unrealistic, they they were too expensive, too pie-in-the-sky. But then, in the midst of a global health emergency, we recognized a need for bold, systemic change and suddenly these policies that had been advocated for years, to no effect, were being looked at, as the most reasonable solution.”
Four years ago, progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders and others were seen as outliers, fringe ideas of the Lunatic Left, but today most of his policies have been adopted by the Party establishment and they’ve become the very platform Democrats are they themselves running on.
Will argues that we are in unprecedented times, so it’s only natural that we would need to look to innovative ideas. Amy Kennedy has been lukewarm and even cagey at best, in her support for legalizing marijuana, the prohibition of which has resulted in unimaginable harm to communities of color, and Brigid Harrison does not support Medicare for all, which is at the very heart of the fight for equality in America. It’s not that they are bad people, Will explains, but that they do not understand how their policies, and more importantly, their lack of understanding about the struggles of at-risk communities, will affect those they propose to serve. In his opinion, a tepid response to a crisis is not exactly a courageous stance to take.
“Our remedies for the current situation must be as bold as the severity of the devastation, and only bold, progressive policies that change the system, meet that threshold for me anymore,” Will explains. “America’s back shouldn’t have to be against the wall, in order to enact bold changes that actually help people and impact families—to be thought of as realistic.”
Will looks at the economists who subscribe to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and who no longer believe that our current economic model even makes sense anymore. He sees a problem with the very way in which we approach economic policy, let alone theory.
“Austerity for austerity’s sake is not doing anyone any good, not even by economic theory standards,” he says. “Helping communities in need is not as hard as people want to make it out to be.”
As if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a disruption to a political campaign; as if being told you could no longer talk to people, or share your ideas in person, if a ban from going town to town and door to door wasn’t bad enough; the world then turned upside down once again with the news of the death of George Floyd.
“I’ve had this conversation with friends,” says Will, “asking ourselves what was special about this moment—what was the catalyst, and why did more people care? The truth is, we had nothing to do but watch the news. It all started because of a lack of distraction.”
The protests began, first in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed, and then caught on like wildfire, moving quickly across the nation, from town to town, city to city, until soon they were happening in over 60 countries worldwide. Communities from London to Sydney, Soul to South Africa gathered to claim that Black lives did indeed matter.
“You have to understand, there was no entertainment, no sporting events, no other outside distractions,” he says. “So what might have previously been just a passing headline, something that popped up on your phone for a brief second—you might have registered it, but then you would have swiped left, gone about your day, and checked the Phillies score.”
Will believes there was a sort of perfect storm of events, none of which would have been sufficient on their own to cause a national shift in thinking, but together, they were enough to push Americans beyond a tipping point and open our eyes to injustices we hadn’t really noticed before.
“The pandemic put people in a new mindset because the news became essential to survival. There was just so much uncertainty, that for your own well-being, you had to tune in, whether you liked watching the news or not, whether it was a part of your routine or not, and suddenly in the midst of this new routine, all these stories about racial injustice began to come through. Literally murders being committed by cops and vigilantes, protests sprouting up everywhere and everyone just sitting home watching this. So in a lot of ways, it was just this confluence of events that created this unique moment in time.”
As a Black man living in America, Will will tell you, that he has his own stories, as does every person of color you talk to. They are all unique unto themselves, and yet all too familiar and common.
“I was thrown to the ground and handcuffed at the age of thirteen because the police assumed I was an adult and I was at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I saw it during my 2018 campaign when I was canvassing not far from here in Town Bank (Cape May County) and someone called the cops on me, because I was knocking on doors. I was knocking on doors and the police showed up. Then just recently, I was driving from Vineland to Little Egg Harbor for a protest with some Pinelands High School students and I drove through Hamilton and a cop followed me all the way from Hamilton to Batso State Park, well outside of Atlantic County, for no apparent reason, for well over twenty minutes. That’s my reality.”
Will thinks more people’s eyes are open to the idea that these issues affect everyone, in every community, but that they affect some more than others. There can be a common understanding of the problem, and still recognize the inequality of it.
“It’s been interesting. I mean, I’ve always been a black candidate,” he says, “but if you don’t exist in black skin, then it’s really easy for people to forget. The policy stances and beliefs I have, about race in particular—they aren’t new. But for this community, this constituency today in South Jersey, outside of Black people, I don’t know if it mattered that much to them before. Now they actually see it.”
Will thinks for a minute, mulling something over in his mind, then says, “If you had asked me before the pandemic if this election would be easier because of all the lessons I learned in my last campaign, I would have said yes, of course. And then the world turned upside down again and there just are no easy answers.”
While it is likely that Will’s Democratic primary opponents share many of his political views, and would no doubt represent our district infinitely better than Jeff Van Drew has, it is equally doubtful that they share his reality. America has to ask itself how we will move forward from this moment in time, how we will know which direction to move, but here in South Jersey, there is at least one person, with a rather unique perspective, asking us to give him a chance to lead.
Maybe it’s time we tried something new for a change.
The Democratic Primary in New Jersey is Tuesday, July 7. On May 15, 2020, the governor signed an executive order declaring that the primary election will become a primarily vote-by-mail election. Democratic and Republican voters will automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot while unaffiliated and inactive voters will get a vote-by-mail application. Unaffiliated voters must declare their party in the application and send it in to their respective county board of elections in order to vote and receive their primary election ballot. A limited number of polling stations in each county will be available on primary day for those who prefer to vote in person (including with provisional ballots if they’re unable to obtain one) and for voters with disabilities. A voter may apply for a Mail-In Ballot by mail up to 7 days prior to the election. He or she may also apply in person to the County Clerk prior to 8 P.M. the day of the election.