In New Jersey, a Kennedy’s running against the Democratic machine

A member of the Democratic Party’s most prominent political dynasty is running for office in New Jersey, but in an altogether unfamiliar position — as an outsider.

Amy Kennedy, a former teacher who grew up in southern New Jersey and is married to former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), announced her campaign for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd District in January, shortly after Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) switched parties from Democrat to Republican.

By then, however, South Jersey’s powerful Democratic machine that’s run by power broker George Norcross — the same operation that built Van Drew’s career and propelled him to Congress as a Democrat in 2018 — had settled on political science professor Brigid Harrison as its favored candidate.

So now, a Kennedy is the underdog who has taken on the mantle of challenging an entrenched political machine in a sprawling swing district that stretches from Atlantic City westward to the Delaware River, and which POLITICO rates as “lean Republican.”

A Harrison win in the July 7 Democratic primary would reinforce the power of the Norcross machine, showing it hasn’t been dinged by increasingly active and agitated progressives. On the other hand, a Kennedy victory would be a morale boost to the anti-Norcross activists who so far have had trouble getting their local candidates onto the ballot, let alone backing a winning candidate for Congress.

“Since the beginning of this race, the machine has tried to stack the deck for the candidate of their choice in the same way they did for Jeff Van Drew with rigged endorsements and dirty tricks,” Kennedy said in an interview.

But according to Harrison, Kennedy has sought the outsider label while capitalizing on the work Harrison did to chase Van Drew out of the Democratic Party.

“I find it offensive when someone says that something was handed to me, because nothing was handed to me. I didn’t marry a name and say that entitles me to anything,” Harrison said in a phone interview, referring to the backing she’s received from the South Jersey machine. “I worked for my background, my expertise and the support of the people who have chosen to support me.”

The primary likely wouldn’t be much of a contest had Van Drew not opposed the impeachment of President Donald Trump

For the nearly two decades he served in the General Assembly and state Senate, New Jersey’s Democratic bosses gave Van Drew passes on votes that went against much of his party on issues such as gun control, same sex marriage and minimum wage because he represented a Republican-leaning legislative district. But once Van Drew was elected to Congress from a relatively Trump-friendly district in 2018 in an otherwise Democratic anti-Trump wave, that changed.

Van Drew’s refusal to support Trump’s impeachment caused his Democratic backers to abandon him, leading him to switch parties and pledge his “undying support” to the president. The party machine that once supported him quickly lined up behind Harrison, with six of the district’s eight county Democratic chairs and a long list of local politicos backing her bid.

Harrison said she spent November “haranguing” party leaders about the need to ditch Van Drew. That same month, she wrote an op-ed about why he was “wrong on impeachment” that immediately touched off speculation she’d run.

She also reached out to her contacts in the district, including Jerry Savell, her high school guidance counselor, because she knew his daughter, Amy, was married to Patrick Kennedy. That led to a meeting between Harrison and Patrick Kennedy in which Harrison claims he agreed to serve on her finance committee.

Days later, Amy Kennedy announced her candidacy.

“Amy and others … have kind of twisted the narrative to make it appear that I was ordained on high,” Harrison said. “What no one was there for — and if you talk to the party chairs they will tell you that I was kind of a pain in the neck. I was insistent that they not run [Van Drew] again as a Democrat. And that is why I earned their support.”

Josh Roesch, Kennedy’s campaign manager, said Patrick Kennedy met with Harrison “at her request as a courtesy before Amy decided to run for Congress — which obviously made his decision about who to support very easy."

Kennedy, in campaign statements, has attacked Norcross, who has spent the last year fighting with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy over state tax incentives two of his brothers designed and that his own insurance brokerage and a hospital system he chairs took advantage of.

Prior to her run, Harrison — who teaches political science at Montclair State University in North Jersey — wrote an op-ed defending Norcross.

Last week, Kennedy’s campaign released “Game of Thrones”-themed online ad that portrayed Norcross as a villain on the show who was “twisting arms and rigging the primary with back room deals for Brigid.”

Despite her jabs at Norcross and the South Jersey machine, Kennedy sought and received the backing of a smaller, rival political machine that holds sway in Atlantic City and is run by former City Council President Craig Callaway, who was released from prison in 2010 after serving 3 1/2 years for bribery. Callaway’s backing got Kennedy the party’s endorsement in Democratic vote-rich Atlantic County — a crucial foothold that has made the primary a real contest.

Callaway’s past has opened Kennedy to charges of political opportunism, with Harrison’s campaign suggesting in an April memo that Kennedy paid for his support.

She demurred when asked if her campaign or anyone associated with her had paid or hired Callaway, stressing that she believes her roots in Atlantic County — her father was a local elected official there — helped her win its convention.

“I’m not going to talk about any specific aspects of our campaign strategy, but it’s going to be important that we increase all political participation and that all the voices in this district are heard,” Kennedy said.

Norcross spokesperson Dan Fee called Kennedy’s attacks on Norcross surprising “since George indicated he would support whoever the nominee was when the Kennedys asked him for his advice and counsel prior to her campaign announcement.”

“What's bizarre is that Amy Kennedy would raise the issue of corruption since it's her campaign that is working with two people — Dave Parano and Sue Altman — who are currently facing multiple law enforcement investigations for election fraud and has partnered with Craig Callaway, who went to jail for bribery and blackmail,” Fee said.

The allegation Fee referred to against Altman, state director of the progressive New Jersey Working Family Alliance, and Parano, a consultant for the group, was made by Camden County Democratic Chairman James Beach over petition signatures submitted for candidates in several counties within the 2nd District. Altman, who called the allegation “mobster-style intimidation," said she has not heard from any law enforcement agencies.

On the issues, Kennedy and Harrison both sound progressive notes. Both have called for expansions of Medicare, but neither has endorsed the “Medicare for All” idea championed by many of the left’s newer voices. Harrison is to the left of Kennedy on marijuana, favoring recreational legalization while Kennedy — whose husband is an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization — calls for decriminalization but not full scale legalization.

Both women have called for curtailing the influence of money in politics and overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that allowed super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates and causes. Kennedy has been endorsed by the group End Citizens United.

“For me, it’s not about which [candidates] are more progressive, but really what people are looking for right now,” Kennedy said. “Especially amid this pandemic, and as we’re going to see a real need for somebody sticking up for workers rights.”

Kennedy has been able to harness her family’s fundraising resources to dominate the race financially, even though the bulk of the party machine is working against her.

Since entering the race, Kennedy has raised $816,330, including $250,000 from a personal loan. Harrison raised $258,345 since she entered the race in December, which includes a $100,000 personal loan.

The New Jersey Working Families Alliance, which has become a chief Norcross antagonist on the tax incentive issue and is partially financially backed by public sector unions that have feuded with Norcross for years, has endorsed Kennedy.

“The Norcross machine, usually they can throw their weight around and out-muscle and out-resource people,” Altman said in a phone interview. “It’s a whole different ball game when the challenger has resources. Then it becomes a fight among equals.”

There is a third candidate in the race: Will Cunningham, who has a more progressive platform than either of the two. Cunningham, a former congressional aide who grew up poor to a single mother and faced homelessness as a teenager, ran against Van Drew in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Cunningham said in a phone interview that he’s the real progressive in the race, and echoed criticism made by Harrison’s campaign about more than $10,000 in donations from executives of Wellpath, a controversial company that runs health care services in some for-profit prisons, and whose board Patrick Kennedy recently joined.

“Amy Kennedy is not a real progressive,” Cunningham said. “Progressives are for the legalization of recreational marijuana. Amy Kennedy is not. Progressives are for single-payer health care where the government covers everyone. Amy Kennedy’s not there. Progressives don’t take money from the for-profit prison industry.”

But Cunningham has no establishment support and even prominent progressives have made the practical decision to back Kennedy instead.

“A lot of it has to do with viability,” Altman said. “We want to elect candidates who have the best shot at beating Jeff Van Drew in that district, and where we sit, that’s Amy Kennedy.”

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