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House candidates Brigid Harrison, left, and Amy Kennedy. (Photo: Nikita Biryukov for the New Jersey Globe)

Little drama in NJ-2 debate

Candidates embrace progressive policies in traditionally-Republican district

By Nikita Biryukov, June 25 2020 7:35 pm

Thursday evening’s second district Democratic debate came and went with little drama, with the three candidates who made it to the virtual stage largely staying in their ideological lanes.

Will Cunningham, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, fell squarely to the left of political science professor Brigid Harrison and former teacher Amy Kennedy.

When the two women backed a single-payer healthcare system, for Harrison, and detaching health insurance from employment, for Kennedy, Cunningham backed Medicare for all.

But the candidates were more likely to agree on policies than they were to disagree.

They all backed increased infrastructure spending in the second district, though Cunningham added that such spending should focus on support for the district’s homeless residents as well as to the expansion of its bridges and roads.

Each thought President Donald Trump, now a close ally of Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), bungled the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The three candidates said the district should attempt to diversify its economy instead of relying on Atlantic City’s casino industry, though Harrison also suggested expanding public transit to connect New Jersey’s southernmost district to state’s more prosperous areas.

They also supported increased gun control measures and opposed Trump’s immigration policy while pledging to work in a bipartisan manner on some issues if they made it into to the nation’s capital.

Overall, the candidate were very willing to publicly adopt progressive policies in a district that Republicans have held for all but one of the last 25 years, though Cunningham bent further left than either Harrison or Kennedy.

The debate was not completely without Drama.

Harrison twice attacked Kennedy over donations she received from executives at Wellpath, a private correctional healthcare services company with a troubled history involving dozens of wrongful death lawsuits.

“It is part of the inequity of our system of the school to prison pipeline that is victimizing black and brown men,” Harrison said of the firm. “And, I will ask for Amy to answer why she has accepted $11,000 in campaign contributions from this company known for its corrupt pay-to-play policies that victimize black and brown people, including people in for-profit prisons and ice detention centers.”

Kennedy, who has been endorsed by End Citizens United, a PAC seeking to limit the influence super PACs and similar groups have on politics, responded with an attack of her own, hitting Harrison for refusing to take the organization’s pledge to refuse donations from corporate PACs.

“I think this is a persistent attack that Brigid has made of my campaign, yet she’s refused to take the pledge to not take corporate PAC money, so while she wants to criticize individual contributions that I have to my campaign — we have thousands that we’ve been able to gain support throughout this country and throughout south jersey — she herself is still willing to take money from corporations and then criticize my family’s work in mental health,” she said.

Harrison revived the attack later in the debate, asking why Kennedy had not returned those donations given Wellpath’s serving as a health care provider in detention centers run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Kennedy’s husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, sits on Wellpath’s board.

The political science professor squeezed in one parting shot as the debate was reaching its conclusion, hitting Kennedy over a PAC that her husband gave $500,000.

Kennedy called for the PAC to get out of the race after it aired $75,000 in attack ads against Harrison.

Two other Democratic candidates, John Francis LaVergne and Robert Turkavage, did not qualify for the debate.

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