The Star-Ledger editorial board interviewed Brigid Callahan Harrison for an endorsement late last week, days before they reached out to two other candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd district.
And three other Democrats seeking the chance to take on party-switching Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) say they were never contacted by the Star-Ledger.
That’s prompted allegations of favoritism toward Harrison by the state’s largest newspaper.
Representatives of Ashley Bennett did not hear from the Star-Ledger until late Monday and at least one of them was given a deadline of 2 PM Tuesday to schedule a call with the candidate, according to an e-mail obtained by the New Jersey Globe.
“We’ve decided that we’re going to do an endorsement for NJ-2nd before the AC (Atlantic County Democratic) convention, and don’t want to do that without talking to you,” editorial board member Dave D’Alessandro wrote to one of the candidates.
D’Alessandro reached out to Amy Kennedy’s campaign on Thursday and asked for a call on Friday, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe.
Kennedy and Bennett never spoke to D’Alessandro.
The Star-Ledger endorsement of Harrison comes nearly four weeks before the filing deadline in a congressional district that is about as far away from the Star-Ledger’s circulation as you can get.
It marks a change in policy and protocol for the newspaper, which has not made pre-convention endorsements in the past.
“We wanted to have influence on the Atlantic County convention on Sunday,” editorial page editor Tom Moran told the Globe in an email responding to questions.
Moran said that the Star-Ledger reached out to the top four candidates.
“Amy Kennedy didn’t return emails and phones over period of four days,” Moran said. “We gave them a final deadline and they missed it.”
Emails obtained by the Globe dispute that.
Identifying the fourth candidate contacted by the Star-Ledger has been challenging, since the other three contenders – Will Cunningham, John Francis III, and Robert Turkavage – told the Globe that they never heard from the Star-Ledger editorial board.
“The Star-Ledger should be ashamed of themselves for not giving all candidates a chance to appear before their board,” said Turkavage, a retired FBI agent and GOP congressional candidate who became a Democrat earlier this year in protest of Van Drew’s party switch. “There’s been a lack of fairness throughout this campaign. It started with Steve Sweeney and has found its way to the media as well.”
Cunningham suggested that there are parallels between the Star-Ledger endorsement process and the one used by South Jersey Democratic leaders to quickly deliver the support of six Democratic county chairmen almost immediately following her entering the race.
“The organized effort to force Brigid’s candidacy on South Jersey is undemocratic, eerily reminiscent of 2018, and unbecoming of a party that values diversity and actual political experience, which I have in spades,” Cunningham said.
Francis, who serves as a West Cape May commissioner, said that “fair and equal treatment would be to speak to everyone.”
“I’m disappointed in the Star-Ledger. It was high on my list of remaining newspapers that speak for the people,” Francis said. “Congratulations to Brigid.”
Harrison might have had a slight edge going into the Star-Ledger editorial board meeting simply because she was a known quantity. As a political science professor at Montclair State University and a veteran New Jersey political pundit, she’s developed longtime relationships with the media.
Indeed, it was Harrison’s Star-Ledger op-ed in November slamming Van Drew’s vote against opening an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump that effectively launched her campaign for Congress. Harrison was preparing to challenge the incumbent in the Democratic primary before Van Drew announced his party switch.
Critics of the endorsement criticized the Star-Ledger for telling 2nd district voters who to support even though they don’t have a reporter assigned to the race.
So far, the Star-Ledger has covered the race out of their one-man Washington bureau and not on a day-to-day basis.
The newspaper sent a reporter to a public forum on the legalization of cannabis and criminal justice reform Harrison sponsored today.
Among the issues addressed in their endorsement editorial was a contrast between Harrison and Kennedy on those issues.
The Star-Ledger did not endorse in the 2nd district House race in 2018, but took sides in contests closer to where the bulk of their subscribers live.
Moran explained their decision.
“We all had strong feelings about Van Drew,” he said. “We wrote off the race two years ago when Seth Grossman challenged Van Drew – not an endorsement, but two edits critical of Grossman, who we considered a bigot. District lines mean less and less to us in the digital age.”
A spokesperson for Robert Patterson, a former Trump administration official challenging Van Drew in the Republican primary, said the Star-Ledger has contacted them to set up an interview. Atlantic County Republicans will also hold their convention this month.
Star-Ledger readers should not view the decision to conduct an editorial board interview by telephone and without a video recording as a change in policy. Moran said the 2nd district was simply “tougher logistically with the long distance.”
Moran said that other primary endorsements could follow, saying that his newspaper will take the races on a case-by-case basis.
That could mean a Star-Ledger endorsement in the politically competitive 5th district, where Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) has a Democratic primary opponent and six Republicans are competing for the chance to oppose him.
Bergen County Democrats are holding their convention on March 12 and Republicans on March 23.
Six other New Jersey congressional districts have contested primaries, including five incumbents facing challenges from the left – four of them in safe Democratic districts where the nomination is tantamount to election.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker faces opposition in the Democratic primary from Lawrence Hamm, a former Newark school board member and chairman of Bernie Sanders’ New Jersey campaign.
This story was updated on March 13 at 9:18 AM.