Will Cunningham, a chief investigator on the House Oversight Committee and Vineland native, is the latest Democrat to enter the crowded primary race to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd.
Cunningham called it “a rematch campaign against Jeff Van Drew” because he ran in the Democratic primary Van Drew won in 2018.
“It’s time the voice and will of the people is heard. That involves open and fair county conventions, with committee members actually having a say,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to be vocal. This is too important a matter for the machine to force a candidate on anyone. Last time they did that, and look what happened. They all have egg on their faces.”
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Van Drew was one of just two Democrats to vote against both articles of impeachment against President Donald J. Trump, and a day later announced his switch from the Democratic to Republican parties in an Oval Office news conference with Trump.
Cunningham said he grew up in a single-parent household headed by his mom, who was and remains an hourly wage worker.
“My family has lived in Cumberland County for over five decades,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “I overcame a lot of struggle. Cumberland County is the poorest in the state with the highest teen birth rate. I’m a product of those statistics.”
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His focus on education, and a state program that exposed him to college choices, allowed him to get an Ivy League education at Brown University, he said.
“With hard work you can achieve dreams and have opportunities in life,” Cunningham said. “I was able to have that. I’m lucky.”
He said he is entering the 2020 race with a consulting team, established donor network and a coalition of support from South Jersey voters and national progressives.
But he does not have the backing of the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine, whose leader is Camden’s George Norcross.
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Already six of eight county Democratic chairs in the district, state Senate President Steve Sweeney and, most recently, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, have endorsed Brigid Callahan Harrison, a Montclair State University professor who lives in Longport.
Cunningham earned a law degree in 2012 from the University of Texas at Austin, after spending some time teaching underprivileged children in Texas with Teach for America.
He volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, and later got a job with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Most recently he has worked on the House Oversight Committee under Chairman Elijah Cummings, who died late last year.
As a chief investigator on the committee, Cunningham said he has worked to make prescription drugs more affordable, examined predatory for-profit colleges and worked to hold Trump accountable.
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“In the past year and a half I was promoted and given my own subcommittee,” Cunningham said of the Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policies. “I was principally involved in planning and executing the Juul hearings (on marketing practices of the vaping company to children).”
He said his subcommittee’s efforts ultimately culminated in last week’s decision by the Trump White House to issue a fruit flavor ban on certain vaping products.
He said he also led the Oversight investigation into asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talcum-based baby powder.
Cunningham said he was homeless for a time as a teen after his mom lost her job. He said his mom is still an hourly worker in Cumberland County, making $11.50 an hour.
“Despite my accomplishments, I have not lost touch with how folks struggle to make ends meet,” Cunningham said. “I don’t have to look far.”
Incumbent: Jeff Van Drew
Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, made national news in his freshman year in Congress, which he started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican.
Long known as a moderate in the state Assembly and Senate, many thought Van Drew would continue to be a solid Democrat who occasionally deviated from the party on issues like gun rights, after he was elected in 2018 to fill the seat of longtime Congressman Frank LoBiondo, a moderate Republican.
But right from the start, Van Drew set himself apart by voting "no" for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker -- fulfilling a campaign promise but confusing those on the House floor. He was supposed to call out a name of someone for speaker, so his "no" vote was recorded as "present."
Then he was one of the few Democrats calling for bipartisan compromise on a budget to end what became the longest federal government shutdown in history. Later, he visited the southern border and came back saying there was, indeed, a crisis there. He supported both some funding for a border wall, and increased funding for housing and services to undocumented migrants. Van Drew was also one of just two Demcorats to first vote against proceeding with an impeachment inquiry, and to vote against both articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
And on Dec. 19, 2019, he announced his party change to Republican while sitting next to Trump in the Oval Office.
Dropped out: Brian Fitzherbert
Brian T. Fitzherbert (dropped out of race Jan. 24, 2020), 30, of Egg Harbor Township, founded the Atlantic County Young Republicans and ran in 2018 in the Republican primary, but withdrew before the primary that was won by Seth Grossman.
Fitzherbert stresses his knowledge of technology and aviation as an advantage for him to help develop those industries in South Jersey. He is a Program Manager for defense contractor L3Harris, working on multimillion dollar programs for military vehicles. Previously, he developed drones, ground control stations, electronic warfare testers, simulators, and area attack weapons supporting the Warfighter at Textron Systems.
He graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his graduate studies at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, studying systems engineering and project management.
He has racked up endorsements from a wide variety of local officials, including former Assemblyman and Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi and Northfield Mayor Erland Chau.
Switched districts: David Richter
David Richter, 53, the former CEO of Hill International in Philadelphia, is an engineer, lawyer and businessman. He recently moved to Avalon from Princeton, but summered much of his life in the Cape May County town.
He switched races to the 3rd Congressional District, which covers Ocean and Burlington counties, on Jan. 27.
“I understand what it takes to get things built,” said Richter. “In Congress, I plan to work hard to ensure the federal government is investing in South Jersey’s infrastructure — expanding our transportation network, keeping our environment clean and maintaining our coastline.”
Richter earned two bachelor’s degrees and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as master’s degrees from Oxford and Harvard universities, he said.
He and his wife, Michelle, have been married for 20 years and have four daughters.
Patterson has homes in Haddonfield and Ocean City, and ran in 2018 against Congressman Donald Norcross, D-1st, in the district that covers Camden and its surroundings.
Patterson, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, said he is running for Congress to protect conservative values and make South Jersey great again. His priorities are protecting American jobs, restoring manufacturing in South Jersey, ending unfair trade deals, and securing the nation's borders.
Patterson recently worked in the Trump administration as a senior adviser and acting associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration. Prior to that he worked as vice president for government relations at the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC), an organization committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing and opposing unfair trade deals.
Ashley Bennett, 35, a Democrat elected to the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 2017, faces re-election in 2020 as she runs for the right to challenge Congressman Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd.
A psychiatric emergency screener at Cape Regional Medical Center, she decided to run for freeholder after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, and in response to a Facebook posting by then-Atlantic County Freeholder John Carman. It was about the Women’s March in January that questioned whether the women would be home in time to make dinner. Bennett ran for and won Carman’s seat.
West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, 73, has a colorful and unusual biography, and he wrote about it in a book published by National Geographic called, "Planet Walker: 22 years of walking, 17 years of silence." Francis spent many of his younger adult years refusing to ride in cars or other vehicles that use fossil fuels, after seeing the results of an oil spill on the Pacific coast. He also stopped speaking for 17 years, in order to learn to listen, he said. During that time, however, he earned a bachelor's, master's and doctorate, became an expert in oil spill cleanup, and worked for the Coast Guard. Now he travels the world as a motivational speaker, he said.
He learned in his silent travels about the interconnectedness of all issues, Francis said. "Really it's all about people and how we treat each other. It's going to manifest in the physical environment." So he said his focus in Congress would not just be on environmentalism, but on human and civil rights, gender equality and economic equity and human relationships "as the foundation for what happens in the environment. You have to be really interested in everything."
Brigid Callahan Harrison
Longport's Brigid Callahan Harrison, 54, is a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University in Essex County. She has been endorsed for by State Senate President Steve Sweeney, by six of the eight county Democratic chairs in the Second Congressional District, and by others.
Long a commenter in the media about New Jersey politics, this is Harrision's first run for office.
Amy Kennedy, of Brigantine, 41, is a former teacher and the wife of former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, with whom she has five children. She announced Jan. 6 she will run in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Kennedy, now a mental health advocate, said she and her husband have supported Van Drew in the past, “but he has clearly lost his way.”
“Our nation is in crisis. Our political system is in crisis. Our environment is in crisis," Kennedy wrote in a press statement. "We have serious unaddressed needs in our schools and in our mental health and addiction system. Our economy, though strong, is not meeting the needs of the underserved and middle class.”
Jack Surrency, of Bridgeton, is a Democratic freeholder in Cumberland County, was reported to be running for a time, but ultimately decided to run for re-election as a freeholder instead.
He was first elected to the Bridgeton City Council in 2010 as part of a slate headed by Mayor Albert Kelly, and served on the Bridgeton Board of Education from 2002-2010, according to his resume.
He attended the Tuskegee Institute from 1976-1978, majoring in chemistry with a business minor. He also holds a master's degree in Community and Economic Development from New Hampshire College in Manchester.
Robert Turkavage, 64, is a former FBI agent and manager out of New York. He has recently switched parties to become a Democrat, after a lifetime in the GOP.
Turkavage last ran in the 2018 Republican primary for the 2nd District race, losing to Seth Grossman, and this time is running as a Democrat.
He changed his party affiliation because the Republicans have increased the national debt by $3.1 billion as a result of tax cuts that benefited the wealthy, he said, and because of Prseident Trump's attacks on the press and the intelligence community.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Turkavage said Tuesday of breaking through in a crowded Democratic field. “I will be knocking on doors every day from January till primary day” on June 2.
Will Cunningham, 34, a native of Vineland who has worked for Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and now works for the House Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., announced Jan. 8 he was entering the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District.
He ran against Van Drew in the Democratic primary in 2018, and said he has the most experience in Washington, D.C., of all the candidates in the race of either party.
Cunningham said he was homeless for a time as a teen when his mom lost her job. He said his mom is still an hourly worker in Cumberland County, making $11.50 an hour. Yet with hard work and the help of government programs, he was able to get an Ivy League college education at Brown University. He also has a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin.
"Despite my accomplishments, I have not lost touch with how folks struggle to make ends meet," Cunningham said. "I don't have to look far."