Five Takeaways from Thursday’s Second Congressional District Debate

By: Michael Mandarino, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2) and Democrat challenger Amy Kennedy held a debate at Stockton University’s Fannie Lou Hamer Event Room on Thursday night.

The William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University and NJTV co-sponsored Thursday’s debate between the candidates in one of the nation’s most hotly-contested House races. NJTV anchor Briana Vannozzi, senior correspondent David Cruz, and Editor-at-Large Colleen O’Dea served as panelists for the debate, and John Froonjian — the Hughes Center’s executive director — was the debate’s moderator.

Questions from community members were considered as part of the debate. The five main topics were:

  • Coronavirus Recovery
  • The Economy
  • Climate Change
  • Policing
  • Health Care

A poll released by Monmouth University on Monday showed that Kennedy held a five-point edge over the incumbent going into the debate. The challenger, who is married to the son of former Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, believes three of the most important tenets of her platform are protecting the Jersey Shore, supporting those battling mental health issues and addiction, and creating jobs in South Jersey, according to her campaign’s website.

Elsewhere, Van Drew is the incumbent after winning his place in the House of Representatives over Republican Seth Grossman in 2018. He took office as a Democrat, but he switched his party affiliation in late 2019. According to his campaign’s website, Van Drew feels that it’s important to protect New Jersey’s agricultural industry and individuals’ gun rights along, and he believes that college should be more affordable for all.

Unlike the first Presidential debate last week, there was a palpable sense of respect and civility throughout the debate — even if the candidates disagreed on certain issues and there was a tense, interruption-filled sequence about halfway through. With that in mind, here are five takeaways from Thursday’s debate:

Political Ideologies and Top Storylines

Two of the biggest storylines surrounding Van Drew and Kennedy’s hotly-contested bid for the Second Congressional District’s House seat have to do with personal choices made by each candidate.

In late 2019, Jeff Van Drew switched his political affiliation from the Democratic to Republican party. He was one of two Democratic members of Congress to vote against the impeachment of President Donald Trump last year. A poll from Monmouth University showed that 47% of 588 voters polled felt at least “a little” bothered by the fact that Van Drew switched affiliations. Thirty-five percent of those voters said that his switch bothered them “a lot.”

Despite these numbers, Van Drew doesn’t necessarily agree with the poll’s findings and its implications. He thinks that people voted for him not because of the affiliation he chooses to carry, but because of his own personal merit.

“Polls are funny business, and I’ve seen a lot of different polls say an awful lot of stuff,” he said. “I’ve had a tremendous amount of support. Our own internal polls don’t show [Monmouth’s findings] at all, which is really weird how different it is. People voted for me because I’m Jeff Van Drew. My whole career has been based upon the fact that I wasn’t so concerned about Republicans and Democrats. I was concerned about standing up for and fighting for South Jersey, for believing in the people of South Jersey who often don’t get their fair share. I think people know who I am, what I stand for, and they’ll vote for or against me on that basis.”

Despite his switch and evident support for Donald Trump, Van Drew said that he doesn’t blindly follow the President’s belief system. The incumbent said that he and President Trump have had some “good disagreements” about policy issues.

Elsewhere, Kennedy’s most notable personal storyline throughout this election has been her ties to one of the United States’ most famous political families. Her husband, Patrick, is the son of late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who is also related to former President John F. Kennedy.

When the challenger’s family ties were brought up in a question, Kennedy didn’t really dive into them too much. Instead, she explained her reasons for running for this particular House seat. She also noted that she disagrees with Vice Presidential nominee and California Senator Kamala Harris’ beliefs on fracking.

“This is really going back to the heart of why I’m here. I was raised in this county, in this district,” Kennedy said. “My family has lived here in this district for four generations. I taught public school, I’m raising my own five kids here, and I work as a mental health advocate trying to make sure we’re improving lives. I think people will support that lived experience because I bring a voice of my own community to this position.”

South Jersey’s Economy

Amy Kennedy lives in South Jersey near her parents and brothers’ homes. She isn’t sure if her five children will be able to have the same privilege later in life.

“That’s a conversation we’ve had. We wonder what opportunities are going to be for our kids so they can live down the street from their grandparents,” she said. “We’ve seen an economy that’s struggled for years here, and we have to be able to diversify that economy through an investment in infrastructure — things like broadband, building for our climate resilience, and diversification so we’re building out research, green technology, and the FAA in our area. I also believe we need to support the small businesses that have been struggling during this time, but really give the character to our community.”

There was plenty of discussion about South Jersey’s local economy, which is mostly reliant on shore-based tourism, during Thursday’s debate. Immigration also factors into the local economy because many people move into the area temporarily to work during the tourism industry’s peak season.

Kennedy feels that “bipartisan support” is needed to formulate a policy or plan to generate jobs in the area. She thinks the local economy should be expanded to allow for additional workers, but she thinks that qualified workers native to the region should be prioritized when it comes to creating jobs.

Meanwhile, Jeff Van Drew feels that it’s important to support the tourism industry, which he feels was hurt greatly by coronavirus-related policy decisions made by Gov. Phil Murphy.

“We’ve got to make sure to help the tourism industry more. It shouldn’t be the only industry, but one of the shameful things that happened is every other state had a plan where areas that weren’t hit as hard by COVID were able to open up earlier,” Van Drew said. “Our numbers are far lower than other areas in the state, but our governor did not allow that to happen. He used the same standards for our people who easily could’ve opened up earlier.”

Safety Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Like nearly every part of everyday life in the United States, the coronavirus’ effects on the community were prominent throughout the debate.

Both candidates, the panelists, and the moderator were socially distant throughout the hour-long event. There was no studio audience in attendance, and the pandemic’s impacts on South Jersey were discussed quite a bit by both candidates.

When initially questioned about the virus, both candidates acknowledged the severity of the situation and the fact that it isn’t over yet. However, that didn’t stop Van Drew from going on a tangent about China.

“COVID — if you are younger, healthier, etc., doesn’t affect you nearly as much as people had originally thought. Some things are looking better, but it still requires vigilance and being careful,” Van Drew said. ” … We have light at the end of the tunnel. This is going to get better. America is going to move forward, and the world is going to move forward.”

Van Drew went onto praise President Trump for his prompt travel ban on China. He also said that he believes the pandemic began in a laboratory, but no information exists to support this belief outside of the fact that the pandemic began in Wuhan, China.

Kennedy, meanwhile, presented a much stronger grasp on how severe the pandemic and future decision-making on the matter are at this time.

“I’d love to tell you that everything was moving forward in a way where we could not be cautious. But we’re six months in and we’re really struggling,” she said. “The distribution of the [personal protective equipment] left so much unclear for the American people. I want to make sure we have a real plan for how we’re going to distribute a vaccine equitably.”

Both candidates were asked about the possibility of a nationwide lockdown, and neither seemed to support it or think that it’s even plausible — regardless of who wins the Presidential election next month. Kennedy in particular said she was “hopeful” that a national lockdown isn’t a necessary measure to take in the future, and she added that rapid testing is necessary towards eradicating the pandemic in this country.

Validity of the 2020 Election

A major talking point in New Jersey has been the credibility and validity of an election that will mostly take place via mail-in voting.

Every registered resident in the state has received or will receive a mail-in ballot to cast their votes this year. There are various pros and cons to this method of voting, and both Kennedy and Van Drew touched on these during the debate.

Generally speaking, the narrative surrounding this election’s validity has been simple: Republicans are afraid that different methods of voting threaten the election’s integrity, and Democrats disagree with this notion and choose to focus on the positives of changes made to the voting system this year. This isn’t universally true for all members of both parties, of course, but Van Drew and Kennedy’s comments on the matter followed this narrative to a tee.

“I’m hopeful, but I’m worried,” Van Drew said. “Talk to postmasters, talk to any person — every one of them will tell you that they’d have this experience when they’ve gotten extra ballots in the mail. That’s not good. We’re sending live ballots in the mail — millions of them. … Traditional vote-by-mail is fine because you request your ballot, but right now, we’re just putting the ballots out there.”

“I’m excited that we are among the states that are making sure that everyone will be safe and able to participate in the process,” Kennedy added. “The primary was a great example of why this system works. We had an increase in turnout — both Republicans and Democrats saw an increase. If people want to vote in person, they have that option. If they need to put it in the mail, that’s an option for them. And there’s also the secure drop boxes, and we know that there are 10 of them per county, at minimum.”

Kennedy also noted that all voters receiving paper ballots increases security from potential foreign intruders to the election, and she also called President Trump’s rhetoric about voter fraud “destructive.” Although it’s too late to make any changes to how the 2020 election will be carried out in New Jersey, Van Drew said that the state should’ve instituted a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday schedule in which people would be allowed to vote in person.

Social Justice

The injustice that racial minorities face in the United States has been a major talking point in American society throughout the past five to six months, and Thursday’s debate was no exception.

When prompted to speak about the racial issues facing both our nation and South Jersey, Kennedy focused on the broader scope of systemic racism in the United States. This contrasted Van Drew’s focus on individuals who may or may not have racist beliefs, and the Congressman also spoke highly of law enforcement officers.

Van Drew offered his unwavering support to the police multiple times throughout the evening.

“Think about it: Individuals who stand up for us, who keep us safe, who are willing to do anything to survive an incident or whatever occurs. We should defund them? They actually need to be helped more financially,” he said. “And then [they need] to have more work done within community policing — when the community and police come together, and when the community has actual meetings with the police. I stand tall with my police. I believe in what they do and what they stand for.

“If systemic racism means that the average person in America hates people of other colors, I do not [agree],” he added. “If it means there are pockets of problems sometimes in some areas for some reasons, of course we know that exists. This is a wonderful, amazing country — a country that self-corrects that I really do believe gets better and better to help with these types of problems. I don’t believe our average law enforcement hates anybody of color. I believe they’re doing a job to help us. I don’t think emphasizing the negative, the hurtful, the hate helps.”

Kennedy countered Van Drew’s points with discussion of broader, systemic issues regarding race relations in this country.

“When we talk about systemic racism, we don’t talk about racist people. That’s a different thing. When we talk about systemic racism, we talk about policies and institutions and how we address those,” the challenger said. “I was so proud to be a teacher in New Jersey, but I acknowledge that we are among the most segregated schools. We have to make changes to the criminal justice and education systems, and we need to change policies around housing and equal pay. It’s policy-based. When we see racism that exists within our systems, it’s something we can address like voting rights acts.”

The Democratic nominee feels that police officers need to undergo more training — particularly training that addresses bias — and that joint efforts will also help create meaningful change in this country.

“When we are talking about how we move together and mitigate the violence, we should be talking about solutions to that by bringing both parties — law enforcement and community members — to the table,” Kennedy said. “That’s when we find real buy-in and solutions that might work.”

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