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Debate set for leading Democrats vying to oust Van Drew

Debate set for leading Democrats vying to oust Van Drew

Harrison and Kennedy

Longport’s Brigid Callahan Harrison, left, and Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy are in a hard-fought primary battle to run against U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, in November.

The three leading Democrats in the primary race for the nomination in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District will debate June 25 in an online event sponsored by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

Vineland’s Will Cunningham, Longport’s Brigid Harrison and Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy will debate for one hour starting at 6 p.m. Candidates will communicate via Zoom and it will be livestreamed on YouTube, the center said.

“This debate will give voters in South Jersey the chance to evaluate the Democratic candidates in one of the most closely watched House races in the nation,” said Hughes Center Executive Director John Froonjian, who will moderate.

It is happening as vote-by-mail ballots have arrived for most registered party members, and people are beginning to cast their votes. Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the July 7 primary be mostly vote-by-mail to avoid risk of spreading COVID-19 in polling places.

The Democratic winner will face the winner of the Republican primary, which is expected to be U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd. Van Drew switched parties to Republican late last year in a controversial move that lit a fire under the Democrats he had left behind.

Van Drew’s GOP opponent Bob Patterson, who recently changed his permanent address to Ocean City, does not have much organizational support or campaign funding and is widely considered not much of a threat to the incumbent freshman.

Cunningham and Harrison have launched regular attacks on Kennedy over her husband Patrick’s finances and his donation to a super PAC that has run ads against Harrison — while largely leaving each other alone.

The pair recently accused Kennedy of not supporting ending qualified immunity for police officers — a doctrine that stops many lawsuits from proceeding against police. The accusations are inaccurate, according to a Kennedy spokesperson who said Kennedy has long supported ending qualified immunity.

The confusion came following a statement at Monday’s 100 Black Women of South Jersey forum when in response to a question, Kennedy said she wasn’t sure if police unions should pay for insurance costs and settlements related to misconduct.

And on Tuesday, after joining Cunningham in criticizing Kennedy’s answer, a spokesperson for Harrison said the question of who pays for insurance should be determined through union negotiations with municipalities.

The seeming alliance between Harrison and Cunningham may indicate they have internal polling showing Kennedy’s support is stronger than expected, said Carl Golden, a former Republican consultant who is now a senior contributing analyst at the Hughes Center.

“I don’t know if at this point she (Kennedy) is the front-runner,” Golden said. “Primaries are notoriously difficult to poll.”

But it could also mean Harrison has decided Cunningham will more likely pull votes from Kennedy than from her.

“It’s really hard to judge who Cunningham benefits,” Golden said. “It seems he and Harrison have something of an alliance. But political alliances are like motorcycles — eventually they all crash.”

The three were chosen from a field of five still in the race, because they raised and spent enough money to have to file a first-quarter campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission, Froonjian said.

West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, a motivational speaker and author, and former FBI agent Robert Turkavage, of Brigantine, who switched from Republican to Democrat late last year, did not file FEC reports.

Links to view the debate will be available the day of the debate at

Harrison, a Montclair University professor, and Kennedy, a mental health advocate, are considered the front runners, with Harrison racking up early endorsements from six of the eight county chairmen in the 2nd Congressional District. She also has the backing of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland; U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez; Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, both D-Atlantic; and a host of labor unions including the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey Delegate Assembly. She is considered the choice of Democratic South Jersey power broker George Norcross.

Kennedy won the vote of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee at its March convention, as well as that of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee. The former teacher is backed by the New Jersey Education Association, Martin Luther King III and the national campaign finance reform group End Citizens United. A large number of progressive leaders in South Jersey who oppose control of the party by Norcross and county chairmen have also supported her, as has Atlantic City and Pleasantville political organizer Craig Callaway.

Cunningham, a graduate of Brown University with a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, left his job with the House Oversight Committee in Washington, D.C., to run. He also challenged then-Democrat Van Drew in 2018 in the Democratic Primary. He has the endorsement of the national progressive group Democracy for America, Congressman Elijah Cummings' widow Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Collective PAC, Atlantic County Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of New Jersey, Youth Climate Strike Force and the African American Tobacco Leadership Council.

Hughes Center staff will determine the questions posed, but members of the public may email suggested questions to by midnight Sunday, using the word “debate” in the subject line. Questions will not be accepted or posed by the public during the forum, Froonjian said.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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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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