By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
VINELAND – Will Cunningham said he is ready to take another shot at Congress and U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who he lost to the Democratic Congressional primary in 2018 for the seat vacated by longtime Republican Frank LoBiondo.
So much has changed in two years.
Van Drew, who helped Democrats flip the seat to blue after going on to win the general election for the New Jersey District 2 Congressional seat, changed parties last year when he balked at voting to impeach Republican President Donald Trump.
Now, Van Drew has the full-throated support of Trump to win the Republican nomination and retain the seat. The president will even campaign for Van Drew on Jan. 28 in Wildwood.
Cunningham, 34, a 2003 graduate of Vineland High School, Brown University and the University of Texas Law School, spent the following years working as an oversight investigator on Capitol Hill for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. He is also a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
He announced formally on Jan. 8 and said he left his Washington, D.C. job to become a full-time candidate coming up on the June 2 primary.
“I believe South Jersey needs a true fighter and an experienced fighter,” Cunningham told Front Runner New Jersey last week. “I bring both of those assets to the table. I have clarity from my 2018 race. I have name recognition and I have even more federal experience than what I had in 2018.
“I’ve worked in Capitol Hill for the past six years. The first three years was with Sen. Cory Booker. The most recent for the late chairman Elijah Cummings. When you talk about somebody being a fighter in this district, we’re not talking about someone who just has that political experience – and I do and I’ve gotten results on Capitol Hill – but I also mean a fighter who understands the struggle of South Jersey.”
Cunningham came in third in the Democratic primary two years ago with a grassroots campaign that raised $78,000 with 16.2 percent of the vote, behind Van Drew (57 percent) and Tanzie Youngblood (18.5 percent). Youngblood has not committed to running again so far.
Cunningham said he has raised nearly half of that in just his first two weeks of campaigning.
The Cumberland County native will have tough Democratic field to work through. The wife of ex-Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Amy Kennedy, is in the race. She is joined by Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett and West Cape May Commissioner John Francis III, all African-American; along with Brigid Callahan Harrison and Robert Turkavage. Activist and radio show host Erica Collins has started an exploratory committee to see if she will join the race as well.
“This community didn’t just start needing a fighter,” Cunningham said. “People who have recently announced are all of the sudden off the sidelines. I’ve been in this fight and South Jersey knows it. They will know it even more by June 2.”
Cunningham said based on his experience on Capitol Hill and growing up in Cumberland County, he stands heads and shoulders above the field of candidates and challenge his primary foes to show their work.
“Chairman Elijah Cummings supported my last race. When I did not win, he allowed me to come back and work on the Oversight Committee. That opportunity me to have an impact on Capitol Hill. As a chief investigator on the Subcommittee of Economic and Consumer Policy, I was able to identify controversies or unsavory business practices that I wanted to highlight and change.
“I had hearings, and the hearings you see on TV are planned by staff. I was one of the staffers who was primarily involved in bringing the founder of JUUL (flavored e-cigarette maker) into Congress for a hearing. During our investigation, we learned that JUUL had been going into schools telling kids that their products were safe, selling candied-flavored products to children.
“When we held up that evidence at our Congressional hearing, it was undeniable that there had been wrongdoing. Two weeks later, their CEO was fired. When I talk about holding corporations accountable … I have done the work. I ask my opponents to show their work,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said in him, the district has an opportunity to elect someone who will answer to their needs and not to the needs of the party powerbrokers who have already endorsed certain candidates.
“If you are taken with the mystique of the Kennedys, I don’t come from a political dynasty,” Cunningham said. “If you want to enable ‘the machine’ and keep the status quo, I’m not their choice in this race. If you want someone who understands your struggles and is the most qualified in this race and have already gotten results on Capitol Hill, then that candidate is me.”
Of course Van Drew is no shoo-in for the Republican nomination, as longtime GOP members Bob Patterson and David Richter who are running against him, will be itching to tell voters that it was just two years ago that Van Drew was voting against their interests. Cunningham said, though, he knew the Congressman’s allegiances all along.
“At every opportunity I was given (in 2018), at any debates and forums, I publicly warned our community that (Van Drew) could not be trusted,” Cunningham said. “I’m disappointed that I was right. He’s betrayed our community and we need true Democratic presentation.”
District 2 Not ‘Ruby Red’
Van Drew, though, will have the megaphone of the White House on his side, regardless who he faces in primary and general election. Cunningham said he is the best person to beat that advantage, rejecting the notions of how conservative District 2 has leaned.
“I think there is a misconception that since a Republican had held this seat for such a long time, it’s ruby red,” Cunningham said pointing out that Trump and President Barack Obama won the district in the last three presidential election cycles. “This is a common-sense district. A lot of Democrats kept LoBiondo in that seat because they thought he was a common-sense Republican. One of the reasons he retired because there are no longer common-sense Republicans in D.C. or in the White House.”
Cunningham touts South Jersey as his home. His mother still lives and works in Vineland. He has been open about how he and his mother were homeless for half of his time attending Vineland High School, but still able to win at spot at Ivy League Brown University.
“I understand the struggles of South Jersey because I’ve lived it,” Cunningham said. “I was born to a teenage mother who has worked her entire life as an hourly-wage worker and still makes $11-an-hour until this day. Despite my accomplishments, I’m not at all removed from the struggles of this community. I don’t have look very far to see that people are still struggling to make ends meet.”
Thankful for Those Who Came Before
Cunningham said while seeing the success of openly gay candidates like Pete Buttigieg in his run for president and bi-U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, he does not think his sexuality as a gay male will play a factor in the race.
“For me, I thank people like Pete Buttigieg and thank people like Kyrsten Sinema because it took folks who are honest and open about who they were to win and have success on the national stage. That’s how you change hearts and minds and make a gay candidate just a regular candidate. It doesn’t become the chief, identifying verb about you. It’s something in the background of who you are but it doesn’t define you and that’s the way it should be.
In the end, Cunningham said he wants the votes of South Jerseyans because of what he’s been able to do in Congress and what he will be able to do moving forward.
“I’m running because I’m the most qualified person to get results for South Jersey,” Cunningham said.
Photos courtesy of Will Cunningham Campaign.
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