By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Hector Tavarez had been approached before about entering politics by Democrats and Republicans in the past, but the former police captain and driving force behind Atlantic County and Egg Harbor Township’s impressive Police Activities League always said “no.”
That changed Jan. 6.
The siege on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then President Donald Trump pushed Tavarez over the top. Tavarez also found unacceptable the actions of his District 2 Congressman Jeff Van Drew during that time.
The Democrat-turned-Republican supported a Texas lawsuit that attempted to overturn President Joe Biden‘s election victory — which was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court — and announced he would not vote to even certify Biden’s election win.
Tavarez announced last month he was throwing his hat in the ring to challenge Van Drew for his seat in District 2, joining civil rights attorney and former law enforcement officer Tim Alexander in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Taravez said he believed at the time what he was doing with Egg Harbor and Atlantic City PAL was more important than what he could as a politician. He said Van Drew’s positions before the Jan. 6 riot and what he considered was a tepid response afterward left him “embarrassed” to call Van Drew his Congressman.
“Across the country, what we’ve seen with the violence got me a step closer to thinking about running,” Tavarez said. “Then on Jan. 6, it just really put me over the top. I just decided at that point that I was either going to get somebody to run or, as it turned out, I ended up deciding that it was best that I ran myself.”
The District 2 Congressional area is purple, covering Salem, Cumberland, Cape May and Atlantic counties and portions of Gloucester, Camden, Burlington and Ocean counties. It went for Barack Obama twice, but elected Republican representatives. That changed in 2018 when Van Drew won the seat as moderate Democrat after the retirement of Republican Frank LoBiondo.
But Van Drew switched his party affiliation in early 2000 as Democrats tried to impeach Trump the first time. Van Drew edged Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy to keep the seat last year.
Resonating With Voters
Tavarez said he believes his moderate, middle-of-the-road views will set him apart from Van Drew and most any other candidate in the race. As a retired police officer, he’s supportive of law enforcement and gun rights, but he always believes in DACA and healthcare for all.
The executive said his philosophy is, “Let’s get things done and everyone will get a chance to be heard.”
“My feeling is that we have 10% to the far-left and 10% to the far-right,” Tavarez said. “I believe that a vast majority of the people in this district and really in the country are right in the middle. When you’re a schoolteacher, you know that one bad kid takes up 80% to 90% of your time. We have the far-left and far-right getting all of the attention and everyone in the middle are not getting the attention they deserve.
“My positions are very much in the middle. I probably could have run on either ticket. I tend to take positions that are a ‘common sense approach.’ Let’s agree on the things we can agree on and get things done, and the rest we can debate about for as long as you want to debate them.”
Tavarez was born in Hammonton and grew up in Mullica Township after his parents relocated to the area from Puerto Rico in the 1960s. The Oakcrest High School graduate has an associate’s from Atlantic Cape Community College and a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Stockton University.
Making a Difference With the Badge
Tavarez spent most of his adult life as a police officer. He said, though, he quickly saw the disconnect between the police officers sworn to protect their community with the community itself, which had an ambivalent attitude or outright dislike for the profession.
His ties to the PAL program go back to his earliest days on patrol with the Egg Harbor Township Police Department. If voters want to know if Tavarez knows how to get things done, they only have to look at the growth of the PAL program.
Last year, the PAL program helped open a new 14,400-square-foot facility as part of its Buddy’s Adventure Zone Complex in Egg Harbor Township, equipped with STEM facilities for students to pursue robotics and other tech interests. There are now plans to break ground on a new indoor sports facility as well.
“To give due credit, there were five or six police officers that really felt the same way that I did when we first started everything,” Tavarez recalled the time he started patrolling as a 21-year-old officer in Egg Harbor Township. “I had a lot of great police officers that were an influence in my life in Mullica Township. Those officers were practicing community policing and were our coaches in almost every sport I did. They would pick us up, give us rides and they were in the community doing what all police officers should be doing now. That really inspired me to want to become a police officer.
“Within minutes of being on the road, I quickly realized that the community that we wanted to be a part of didn’t much like us. Even worse, I don’t think they really respected us. My intent [with PAL] was to be involved in the community and help the community. At that time, there was nothing in place for that. I intended to improve the relationship between the community and the police department,” he said.
Tavarez and his fellow officers started literally from Ground Zero, working out of the trunks of their own vehicles with their bedrooms as offices to build Egg Harbor and Atlantic County PAL into one of the most active in the state with a sprawling facility serving thousands of children and teens throughout the community.
He said, though, he doesn’t let his love for law enforcement keep him from the reality that there is a still a glaring community-policing disconnect.
“I truly believe policing right now is in crisis,” Tavarez told Front Runner New Jersey days into the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in connection with the death of George Floyd. That case, being played out nationally, started worldwide Black Lives Matter and civil rights protests.
“Defund the Police” Is Not the Answer
“I 100% support our law enforcement. But we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Trying to replace law enforcement is not the answer,” Tavarez said. “We have bad apples in every aspect of society, so what we need to do is work together with our community, to develop ways to improve our police departments to keep those bad apples from getting on the force in the first place, and find ways to make sure that the best officers who are doing it for the right reasons are the ones being promoted and eventually leading these agencies so that we can improve our law enforcement.”
Ben Capp, a freshman at Absegami High School, has spent several years in the PAL program and while he’s too young to vote in the upcoming election, he sees firsthand what can happen when dreams are placed in hands of people like Tavarez.
“I absolutely love [Egg Harbor PAL]. Ever since I started at the Galloway summer camp, I’ve grown, and this is like my second home,” Capp said. “This is a great place for kids. Parents, if you want your kids to have help with their future, this is a great place for it.”
Michelle Stella Riordan, the Egg Harbor Township PAL STEM research coordinator, said while the coronavirus has slowed down some activities, the future is bright for more children in a wider range of activities than the usual sports that are commonly associated with PAL.
In the Middle
While in law enforcement, Tavarez worked in many aspects of community policing, such as D.A.R.E., Adopt-a-Cop, Off-Road Motorcycle, Community Policing Officer, Detective Sergeant in charge of Juvenile and Community Services, Lieutenant of patrol, the Office of Professional Responsibility, Internal Affairs and Accreditation, Commander of the EHTPD, and Deputy Commander of the Atlantic County Hostage and Community Crisis Team.
“I do not intend to run in a primary as a far-left, and then move to where I really am,” Tavarez said. “I am who I am. I’m going to tell people what I believe, if they agree with what I believe — that I’m going to Washington to fight for what I believe, and what I believe is what I think the mass majority of our constituents in this district believe — then I’m going to fight for that. I think my positions will lead to reasonable legislation that will bring both parties together, not for the sake of the party, but for the sake of the country and for the sake of our district that drastically needs some help.”
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