A pledge signed by five potential opponents to Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) to reject organization lines has fallen apart after several candidates said they still intend to compete at the Atlantic County Democratic convention next month.
Amy Kennedy, Ashley Bennett, Will Cunningham, John Francis III and Robert Turkavage signed a promise to “end the county line” and support a process where “no inherent advantage granted to a single candidate through the ballot structure.”
Six of the eight Democratic county chairs in New Jersey’s 2nd district have endorsed political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison, leaving organization lines in Atlantic and Ocean counties up for grabs.
Harrison and the other candidates have been competing to win the other lines.
Only Francis, a West Cape May commissioner who won a non-partisan municipal election, says he will abide by the pledge.
“I believe in what I signed,” said Francis, who noted that he will be out of town when Atlantic and Cumberland hold their conventions.
The promissory statement was developed by Cape May County Indivisible, a progressive group that helped organize a protest rally to President Donald Trump’s appearance in Wildwood on behalf of Van Drew.
“This pledge calls attention to an anti-Democratic structure unique to New Jersey primary ballots, by getting candidates to publicly acknowledge the inequity and corruption enabled by the party line.” said Kyle Aldrich, an organizer for the group.
But the tactic doesn’t appear to have any teeth.
Kennedy, who sought and won the endorsement of the Atlantic City Democratic organization, and Bennett, who ran on the line for freeholder three years ago, have been actively pursuing votes for the March 8 convention,
“I believe you have to play by the rules that exist and work to create better rules in the future,” Kennedy said. “I signed the pledge because I believe that we have to reform our election process here in New Jersey and nationally to make all elections as transparent and fair as possible so voters have the power to choose the candidates best suited to represent them.”
Kennedy has railed on Democrats for moving quickly to endorse Harrison, who had been exploring a primary challenge to Van Drew before the freshman congressman switched parties.
“All too often the line has been used by party bosses to rig elections for candidates of their choice instead of allowing the people to decide,” she said. “After Van Drew abandoned South Jersey and pledged his undying support for Trump, I don’t think voters will stand for a rigged process this time.”
Bennett told the New Jersey Globe that her campaign received assurances from the Indivisible movement that the pledge was “not at all intended on decreasing the participation at these current conventions, but intended to acquire commitments and advocates to organize and reform these practices in the future.”
“I plan on using the upcoming county conventions as a platform to call for reform of the process and ensure a fair process for all candidates for all offices,” she said.
Several Indivisible activists contacted by the Globe on Tuesday had different interpretations of the pledge and whether it should be enforced.
According to Indivisible organizer Cassandra Gatelein, signing the pledge doesn’t preclude a candidate from running on an organization line.
Elimination of organization lines has become a rallying point for progressive leaders across the state.
Still, there is no apparent obstacle to a no-line pledging candidate forming his or her own line and running against the organization in a bid to avoid being getting lost on the ballot.
The Indivisible group called it “ballot Siberia.”
Harrison believes that weakening political parties just helps the candidate who can “write the largest check.”
“Research shows that when political parties are weak, it opens the door to big money,” Harrison said. “Weakening political parties means increasing the role of money in politics.”
Harrison noted that county chairs are elected by county committee members who are elected by rank and file voters in primary elections.
“You can’t get more Democratic than that,” Harrison said.
Harrison still needs to win conventions in several of the South Jersey counties where party leaders have already endorsed her, although there is no indication that county committee members will buck the leadership.
Turkavage, a former FBI agent who switched to the Democratic Party after Van Drew became a Republican, said his gripe is with party bosses who dictate their preferences to the people who vote at the convention.
“I don’t have an issue with getting the line when it’s legitimately earned, he said.
The rules of the Atlantic Democratic convention require candidates seeking the organization line to sign a pledge to accept the endorsement and run with the other party-endorsed candidates if they win.
That could prevent a candidate from seeking party support if they have no intention of running on a line if they win.
“We have a fair and open system. We have the best convention in the state,” said Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman, who noted that the rules require secret ballots, no block voting, and allow all candidates to have the opportunity to address the delegates, regardless of how many endorsements they have.
But Suleiman said if a candidate doesn’t want to run on the organization line, “then it doesn’t make sense for him or her to compete at our convention.”
“Dozens of volunteers work very hard to put our convention on and I would be disappointed to see anyone disparage them,” he said.
Democrats in Atlantic County have held an open convention to award their organization line since 1975, when then-Assemblyman Steven Perskie (D-Margate) advocated for a more transparent process.
That call came four years after legendary Republican political boss Frank Farley lost a bid for re-election to the State Senate to a group of reformers led by Perskie and Joseph McGahn, the uncle of former Trump White House counsel Donald McGahn.