Will Cunningham believes racial bias is driving the media to call the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary a race between two white women backed by different party leaders.

Cunningham, 34, of Vineland, who is Black, called the actions of the press “implicit bias bordering on racism and utter whitewashing” in an open letter this week.

“In this nation, Black men shouldn’t have to die on camera in front of the nation to have their voices and stories heard or their substance recognized,” the letter read.

Cunningham, the only candidate in the race who supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, is one of five candidates vying to challenge incumbent Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, in the general election. Van Drew, elected as a Democrat in 2018, switched to Republican in December, after Democrats attacked him for voting against impeaching President Donald Trump.

If either a Black man or a woman wins the seat, it would be historic. Only white men have represented New Jersey’s 2nd District.

The last straw for Cunningham was a June 27 article on the primary race in The Washington Post headlined, “In South Jersey, it’s a Kennedy against a Power Broker Favorite to Challenge Turncoat Rep. Van Drew.”

The article failed to mention Cunningham, a lawyer and former staffer with the House Oversight Committee.

Instead, it focused on Longport’s Brigid Callahan Harrison, who is backed by state Senate President Steve Sweeney and the South Jersey Democratic machine associated with George Norcross; and Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, who is backed by Gov. Phil Murphy and by Atlantic City political organizer Craig Callaway.

“In a way I think he has a legitimate gripe with the Post,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “I read the story, and he’s not mentioned in it. I think considering the amount of money he has raised, he should at least be mentioned as a serious candidate.”

But Froonjian said there are good reasons why the race appears to be a two-person contest between Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University; and Kennedy, a mental health advocate, former public school teacher and spouse of former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy.

Organizational party support “is super important in a primary, and he has virtually none,” Froonjian said of Cunningham.

And Cunningham has not been nearly as visible in television and other advertising as Kennedy and Harrison, even though he has raised about $150,000, Froonjian said.

On Wednesday, Cunningham said he is still weighing whether to invest in television advertising.

The Hughes Center included Cunningham, Kennedy and Harrison in its recent online candidates debate because of his fundraising, Froonjian said. Two others in the race, Brigantine’s Robert Turkavage and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, were not included because they did not raise enough in the first quarter to have to file Federal Election Commission reports.

Cunningham’s failure to win the coveted party line anywhere — including in his home of Cumberland County — says a lot, Froonjian said.

Carl Golden, a former Republican strategist who is now affiliated with the Hughes Center, agreed.

“Look at benchmarks — organizational line, more money, more widespread endorsements by governors, senators, legislators, whatever. It’s from that that media decides who are the strongest candidates,” Golden said.

The county lines play a vital role, Cunningham said, “too much of a role in how things play out in elections.”

“If your candidacy is about bringing down inequities and an unfair power structure ... you shouldn’t be ignored in the media because you don’t have lines,” Cunningham said. “It’s like a vicious cycle.”

Harrison and Kennedy have also split the major endorsements from high-ranking state Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. Cunningham once worked for Booker, but Booker chose to endorse Harrison.

“As our nation is grappling with its racial divides through the Black Lives Matter Movement, articles like this ... showcase that those with power and influence are not willingly ready to change,” Cunningham wrote. “No matter how many empty platitudes are espoused by the press, when it comes to considering the worthiness of a Black man from a humble background to be the voice of his region’s struggle ... I am muzzled.”

Froonjian and Golden also said the moderate to conservative nature of the 2nd District — even on the Democratic side — must be considered.

Democrats who have won the district have been moderate to conservative, such as Bill Hughes, the congressman from 1975 to 1995, and Van Drew.

“Things like the Green New Deal, even (Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy) Pelosi doesn’t support that,” Golden said.

Cunningham called Kennedy and Harrison insiders with ties to political machines, calling himself the only true “candidate of the people.”

“I’ve seen for six months the media wanting to characterize the race as between two white millionaires,” Cunningham said. “My surging candidacy is an inconvenient truth ... (challenging) to media who want to create the narrative of ‘Kennedy vs. the machine.’”

Contact: 609-272-7219


Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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