In South Jersey, mental health and substance abuse are core concerns for voters, making it a key issue for Democratic candidates vying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
Amy Kennedy, one of those candidates, hosted a panel discussion Thursday morning at Enlightened Cafe in Ventnor to coincide with the rollout of her plan on the issues.
“We know how important the environment is, we know how important infrastructure is, we know how important our education system is, and housing and the economy,” said Kennedy, of Brigantine. “But I think we all know that our wellness is at the core of all those other issues, and that if we are not addressing mental health and wellness, if we are not addressing the deaths of despair that we are seeing every day, the rest of this (isn’t) gonna come together.”
Brigid Callahan Harrison, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, drew a distinction between Kennedy’s approach and her own.
“My focus is more on looking at public policy regarding mental health and substance abuse from a federal level,” she said, adding her policy priorities are in alliance with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Other Democratic candidates in the 2nd Congressional District race are Ashley Bennett, John Francis, Jack Surrency, Robert Turkavage and Will Cunningham.
Kennedy’s campaign event, in front of a few dozen attendees, included Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, Atlantic City fire Chief Scott Evans and Jaime Angelini of the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County. The participants spoke about ending particular stigmas around mental health in their fields, recognizing early signs of trouble or trauma and the need to expand the availability of counseling and other treatment.
Kennedy, a former teacher and wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, formally released her proposal Thursday, which included a call for counselors and psychologists in every school, equipping first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, promoting universal screening at all health care facilities, making opioid manufacturers pay for the harm caused by addiction, reforming the criminal justice system to steer people dealing with those issues toward treatment instead of prison and funding mobile outreach teams.
Scheffler provided proof of the power of mobile outreach. His office’s Hope One Mobile Outreach Team has helped get 618 people into treatment for substance abuse since its unveiling in 2018, he said. He also spoke to the connection between mental health, substance abuse and law enforcement.
“We know that in the criminal justice system itself that ... 50% of the people incarcerated today have some type of either addiction or mental health issue, and that’s certified numbers,” Scheffler said. “So if they’re certified numbers, you probably could say that those numbers are much, much higher than that.”
Harrison, of Longport, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, in an interview Thursday described her main goals for tackling the worsening issues of mental illness and substance abuse.
Her policy push would be a three-part proposal, she said. She would look to increase funds for research, both for the cause of mental illness and its treatment; protect access to services and treatment, particularly in the Department of Veterans Affairs, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder for patients in rural areas; and ensure “parity of access” between physical and mental illness both in private insurance and government-run insurance.
Kennedy framed mental illness and substance abuse as issues that can be tackled effectively, as they impact everyone in some regard.
“On this issue, it is bipartisan. We know how many people are being affected throughout the country, and we know it’s a place we can make progress,” Kennedy said. “We are just at the beginning of this effort.”
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, 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 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, 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.
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."