Weak Tea In New Jersey’s Deep South
In deep red Cape May County, the Democratic Party has long lacked the moral compass needed to lead an opposition movement, leaving them feckless and irrelevant.
By David Todd McCarty | Saturday, September 12, 2020
There is a failure of leadership in the Cape May County Democratic Party that cannot be pinned to any one man or woman, but is merely a byproduct of a political machine with no moral center to guide it. The evidence is in who funds it, and therefore controls it, as well as the type of politicians they put forward. George Norcross very clearly runs the Democratic Party in South Jersey and because of that, we end up with politicians such as Jeff Van Drew, and political leaders such as Brendan Sciarra. Both men who desired political power, but who seem to have no particular political ideology guiding their motivations.
This may seem a particularly cruel or even an abusive comparison to make, given that Sciarra is running for County Freeholder while also being the duly-elected head of the Democratic Party here in Cape May County, while Van Drew betrayed the Democratic Party, having pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump on national television and then welcoming him to our community to gloat and preen. It was as if Judas had invited Satan himself to the last supper.
There should be no comparison of course, because one of them is supposed to be leading the opposition, and the other has betrayed his party to become the opposition. But therein lies the problem. There is no Democratic opposition in Cape May County, and Rep Van Drew never actually represented the values of the Democratic Party. By his own admission, Van Drew’s appeal was to the largely Republican and overwhelmingly conservative electorate in the county. It’s why he stood for gun rights and against gay marriage. It’s why he was a strong advocate of law and order, but a critic of a social justice. It’s why he supported fishermen, but not the clean water act.
But in one his few notable leadership decisions as Chairman of the Cape May County Democratic Party, Brendan Sciarra made an executive decision to suspend elections, including his own seat, in order to maintain power for another year. A judge overturned his decision, allowing the election to proceed, but only because progressive groups sued him in court. He then allegedly spent $15k of his own money to promote loyal officers to committee seats to ensure his seat of power. Even the eventual re-organization meeting was marred by attempts to keep progressive candidates from challenging the executive committee.
If you live in an overwhelmingly blue state, a state controlled by Democrats, and you wish to wield any political power whatsoever, you are forced, by necessity, to join the party in power. So, when an opening presented itself in the form of a moderate Republican retiring from office, Van Drew was happy to oblige the power brokers in Trenton and assume the position.
There really isn’t much difference between what he did and what people like Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron and Chairman Brendan Sciarra have done. In a rather candid conversation (possibly too candid) with members of Cape May County Indivisible, Byron allegedly admitted that both he and Sciarra saw a path to power within the Democratic Party that simply did not exist for them within the Republican Party. They had both previously been Republicans and merely switched parties for political expediency.
The problems for Van Drew began when he left the relative safety of the First Legislative District and moved into the 2nd Congressional District, from the State Senate to Congress. When he was representing his relatively conservative state district, he might have been able to weather the political storm caused by his refusal to support impeaching Donald Trump, but not within the more equally divided Congressional district. When his own internal polling showed him losing nearly the entire Democratic Party, and therefore re-election, he made the rather drastic choice of attempting to maintain power, not by changing ideology, but simply by changing party.
The Power Of Opposition
The politics of American government was for many years defined by its ability to operate effectively within a two-party system that was able to function without resorting to simple majority rule. A political party in opposition still held some power due to the need for bipartisan compromise to get anything done. A simple majority was not enough to steamroll the other side and so they found ways to work together. It was, for all intents and purposes, at least a functioning government, if not a pure democracy.
Beyond pure electoral math though, there was something to be said for being the opposition party, in that you could use the bully pulpit to plead your case before the American people and cry out in pain and anguish when you felt you were being abused by those in power. No one has done this more effectively than the Republican Party of the last two decades, and no one has been more ineffective at it than the Democrats.
The Republican Party of today has become indistinguishable from that of its predecessors, but it has remained the party of white supremacy since at least the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s when they decided to enact their Southern Strategy and staked their claim on the wrong side of history. That said, they used to stand for things other than white supremacy; issues they claimed they not only believed but held dear. There was an ideology they professed and defended, even though it has proven to be both quantitatively and qualitatively in error. But regardless of whether they held the reins of power, they fought for what they believed in. This much, at least, you could give them.
It’s a good thing that Democrats are not static in what they believe. It’s one of the reasons that I’m a Democrat. It’s why we describe ourselves using terms such as liberal or progressive, meaning simply that one is open to new ideas or opinions and willing to discard traditional values when they become outdated, favoring individual freedom and social reform over authoritarianism and favoritism. That government can be an instrument of good for all the people.
But where Democrats fall short, time and again, is when it comes to being able to lead when not in power. They have no opposition game. Even when they are in power, they try not to ruffle any feathers, try to appease the Right. Conversely, when the Republicans are in power they demonize the Democrats in an attempt to remain in power, and when they are in opposition, they demonize the Democrats in order to gain power. Democrats attempt to govern by consensus, and then they wait.
“What can we do,” they say. “We have no power.”
This did not stop Republicans from opposing every legislative agenda President Obama ever considered, let alone tried to enact. They weren’t acting in opposition, they were the opposition.
The Deep South
Cape May County is a deep red county, hiding in the shadows at the Southern end of a deep Blue State. We haven’t elected a Democratic Freeholder since 2000 and we haven’t held a Democratic majority since the Civil War. It’s Republican country as anyone who has watched the rise of Donald Trump can tell you. We have seen what Trump’s toxicity has done to our community, or more specifically, what it’s done to invite scorn upon anyone who isn’t a Trump supporter. We hear the stories of abuse and see the flags flown by our neighbors.
It’s not an easy place or time to be in opposition of Donald Trump. His many fans, from rural rednecks to wealthy businessmen fly his banner from their pickup trucks and yachts. They have been well-schooled not just to oppose, but to hold with contempt anyone with the audacity to oppose this President. It’s no longer a matter of personal opinion, or even political ideology, but a matter of pride and patriotism, bordering on the fanatical. It’s nothing resembling civil discourse.
But this is where we need an opposition party the most. That is where we could really use the force of a political machine that holds tremendous sway across the state to help those of us who are in the minority down south. When Van Drew tucked tail and ran, the political machine lost no time in trying to fill the seat with someone they felt they could better control. They rallied round her, same as they had done with Van Drew and all but proclaimed that Brigid Harrison would be the candidate of the party. The voters thought differently and overwhelmingly and voted instead for Amy Kennedy, school teacher with a powerful name.
It’s been a crazy year, this 2020. We have seen an unprecedented global pandemic, unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes, as well as droughts, floods, wildfires and natural disasters. We have also seen the greatest civil unrest in America since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, with protests rising up in cities across the country and even the world. Black Lives Matter, as a movement toppled statues in Charlotte and in Bristol. Even Mitt Romney, once the leader of the Republican Party, marched for a day.
Donald Trump and the GOP have been at the center of almost every tragedy that has struck the nation, and here in Cape May County the Democratic Party has been silently sitting on the sidelines, or worse, aiding and abetting.
The few Democratic candidates running for public office in Cape May County this election, do not seem prepared to lead, or to speak out. They have made a few hollow promises here and there, but have been absent from countless community protests and either silent or complicit when it comes to opposing the Republican Party here. We have seen them standing on the sidelines, but never involved, let alone leading or speaking out.
When the Republicans called for a return to indoor dining, the governor and his public health concerns be damned, the Democrats agreed. Donald Trump has been berating the Postal Service for incompetence, and warning of massive fraud when it comes to vote by mail, claims that have been soundly refuted as false. Republicans have called for the use of voting machines in all polling places, rather than the provisional ballots the state has required. Will the Democrats now agree as well, after launching a massive vote by mail campaign just last year?
We have not seen anything resembling leadership from the Democratic Party, let alone heard our leaders speak out on the issues of the day. Where does the Democratic leadership stand when it comes to issues of police violence, public corruption, universal healthcare, income inequality, homelessness, addiction, campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, education reform, criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, and the green new deal? Some would argue that there is no point in making waves over issues that the local government has no power to control, but when your neighbor is flying a Trump flag and defending extrajudicial killing by militias, you can no longer afford to be silent.
There is no longer a Republican Party. The Cult of Trump has taken over the Right. They are now all either true believers, fervent in the support of their Dear Leader, or they are willing accomplices, but too afraid to stand up to the fanatics themselves. Either way they are complicit in the madness that has enveloped our country and our community.
Democrats have a moral obligation to oppose fascism in America, just as Americans have a moral obligation to defend democracy. When Germany was advancing across Europe, there were those who joined the resistance and fought, and those who chose to collaborate in exchange for the promises of personal power and relative safety.
This isn’t about a single election anymore. This is about the future of America. So you have to ask yourselves, why are the Democratic Party leaders of Cape May County so silent in the face of such fanaticism? Where is their show of opposition, their expressions of courage, their outrage?
They have no answers, for they are not leading an opposition. They are waiting quietly, to see where the wind blows, to collaborate if need be, in order to gain that little bit of power, and the promise of safety, or to claim victory but without having staked too strong a claim in order to do so.
But where does that leave the rest of us? Those with the courage to march, to speak out, to protest and live in opposition?
Fighting for ourselves.
We have less than two months until the most important election of our lives. Every day Donald Trump and his minions trample a bit more of the Constitution, degrade the public trust a bit more, sew the seeds of distrust, and fan the flames of hatred.
Yesterday, at a rally in Nevada, the President of the United States stood before a crowd of supporters (far in excess of the requirements of state law) and told them that the only way he could lose the election, was if the Democrats cheated. He either wins, or the whole election is a fraud. That is not a democratic leader. That is a fascist.
It’s not too late for the Democratic Party in Cape May County to step up and do what is hard. It takes courage, sacrifice and tenacity to be in opposition. It takes dedication, perseverance and principles to do what you know is right, regardless of the outcome.
There is a lot of talk amongst the political leadership here about being practical, sensible, reasonable and realistic. Be patient, they say. Don’t rock the boat. Slow down. Don’t be so sharp. Be nice. Speak softly.
The reality is that the Democratic leadership in Cape May County has the political cover of being in a reliably blue state that will vote overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. They don’t have to actively campaign against Donald Trump. They are not forced to call out their neighbors for promoting and supporting fascism. They can put a Biden sign in their yard and call it a day.
On Friday, the President praised the killing of the Portland shooting suspect by federal agents saying, “We sent in the U.S. Marshals for the killer, the man who killed the young man on the street. He shot him… just cold blooded killed him. Two and a half days went by, and I put out ‘when are you going to go get him?’ And the U.S. Marshals went in to get him, and they ended up in a gunfight.”
“This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” Trump said. “And I will tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”
Donald Trump is not interested in justice. He wants retribution. Republicans are not interested in law and order. They want vengeance. This is the mentality we’re up against.
So what is the response from the Cape May County Democratic Party?
We’re having an End Of Summer Bash honoring Frontline Workers, First Responders and Veterans at the County Zoo on Sunday from 4-6pm. There is talk of a hot dog cart and drinks. No word on any speakers. No other agenda. Just a picnic in the park in support of people in uniform. As if the one thing we were lacking in Cape May County was a little more support for soldiers, cops and firemen. We honor the powerful here, not the powerless. We bask in the halo of patriotism, afraid of the harsh light of criticism. We reach out to Republicans and Independents and anyone else we think might vote for us to say, “Look, we’re just like you.”
Enjoy your hot dog.
It comes with a side of weak tea.