Congressional candidate Brigid Callahan Harrison knew she had to get into the Democratic primary early, and quickly gain the support of party leaders, to have a shot at replacing U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd.

“When it became apparent Congressman Van Drew was switching parties, as an observer of New Jersey politics for 25 years, I recognized that a candidate who could drop $1 million from their own wallet would come in and buy up the nomination,” Harrison said Wednesday. “So I worked hard to convince party chairs to back me, because at end of the day I know I will work hardest for the people of the district.”

Harrison, of Longport, has racked up endorsements from state Senate President Steve Sweeney, six of the eight county Democratic chairmen in the district, and, most recently, from Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato, D-Atlantic.

That’s happened even as the field of candidates vying for the right to challenge Van Drew is still growing, causing some to feel the party isn’t giving other candidates a fair shot.

The Montclair State University professor of politics and law, who commutes a few days a week to her job in Essex County and also has a home in New York City with her husband, had already been organizing for a challenge to Van Drew in the primary. That gave her a tremendous timing advantage over others, said Ben Dworkin, director of the nonpartisan Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship in Glassboro.

“Running … for a federal office is different than running on almost any other level. It’s a much larger playing field,” Dworkin said. “It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and organization to do it well. In these kinds of competitive primary situations, those who have the best lists often are better equipped to jump in.”

Just the day before the Armato and Mazzeo endorsements came out, Brigantine’s Amy Kennedy, a former teacher and now a mental health advocate and the wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, announced she is running. And a day after that endorsement, former Cory Booker aide and current staffer at the House Oversight Committee Will Cunningham, a native of Vineland, announced his candidacy.

“It’s so early in the process, and the field isn’t even set. It’s disappointing that some Democrats are putting their finger on the scale before candidates have even been able to make their case,” Kennedy said Wednesday. “But ultimately, this primary will be decided by the voters, and I look forward to the campaign to come.”

“It’s very typical of Democrats in the South Jersey organization,” said Dworkin. “(They) tend to rally around someone early before anybody else has a chance to get organized.”

In the past, when someone retires from the Legislature, “within 24 hours everyone is aligned behind the appointed next person. This is standard operating procedure. They have done it effectively to build their organization,” Dworkin said.

He also said it’s not as early as it feels to people.

“We’re in January, and while the primary is in June, the more important thing that comes before then is the awarding of the county line,” Dworkin said of the right of a candidate to be on the ballot on the first Democratic line — in this case under the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “Party leadership — whether it’s a full county committee or one person — decide this stuff. That’s happening in the next few weeks at the conventions.”

The timing of the Van Drew party switch from Democrat to Republican — he announced it Dec. 19 at a news conference in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump — meant most potential Democratic candidates got a much later start in considering a run than they would have in a normal election cycle.

To her credit, Harrison was the only candidate already organizing to run, even before Van Drew switched parties, Dworkin said.

Mazzeo said he admires other candidates in the crowded Democratic field, but Harrison was the one who has communicated with him about what she wants to do.

“I think she’s a team player. Obviously we didn’t have that with Van Drew,” Mazzeo said.

He said he has heard nothing from other candidates.

“She should have made some calls,” Mazzeo said of Kennedy, who declined to comment on Mazzeo’s statement. “I didn’t hear from Amy or Ashley (Bennett). Brigid ... told me what she wanted to do. If I have intentions of running for a position of this magnitude, the first calls I should make are to leaders of the party.”

Democratic Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett is not seeking re-election to that board in order to run for Congress. Bennett could not be reached for comment.

Dworkin also said Harrison benefits from more candidates joining the field.

“She is coalescing the organizational vote. The more the anti-organizational vote is split, the better it is for Brigid Harrison,” Dworkin said. “So if Kennedy, Bennett and Cunningham (and others) split the people who don’t like party leaders telling them who to vote for, then it’s a big help (to Harrison).”

“That depends on the candidates and how well organized, hardworking and well-funded they are,” Harrison said. “Not all candidates are created equal.”

But in general, a large field is good for democracy, Harrison said.

Kennedy also has advantages, Dworkin said.

“I think what Kennedy has going for her is just resources. She can tap into an entire well-established political network to fund a campaign, and her name may carry some cachet,” Dworkin said.

Announced Democratic candidates also include Robert Turkavage, of Brigantine, a former FBI agent who switched from Republican to Democrat recently; and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis. Considering runs are Tanzie Youngblood, a candidate against Van Drew in the 2018 Democratic primary who lives in Swedesboro; and Cumberland County Freeholder Jack Surrency.

Republican candidates are Brian Fitzherbert, 30, of Egg Harbor Township, founder of the Atlantic County Young Republicans; David Richter, 53, of Avalon, the former CEO of Hill International in Philadelphia; and Bob Patterson, of Haddonfield and Ocean City, who recently worked in the Trump administration as a senior adviser and acting associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration.

Contact: 609-272-7219

mpost@pressofac.com

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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