Brigid Callahan Harrison is the likely front-runner in the Democratic race to challenge U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, but some who oppose her are questioning the depth of her ties to the South Jersey district she hopes to represent in Congress.
Harrison is a native of Runnemede, Camden County. She has been registered to vote in Atlantic County since 1983. She has owned property there since at least 1998, and has had a house in Longport, blocks from the beach, since 2014.
But since she announced her candidacy for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District seat, some political analysts have asserted she spends more time in North Jersey and New York City than in the district.
She is a professor at Montclair State University — 130 miles northwest of Longport, essentially at the other end of the state. Her husband rents an apartment in Manhattan and is registered to vote in New York. Her daughter attended a private school in the city from 2013 to 2019 before heading to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Also, the mayor of Longport — a Shore town that has fewer than 1,000 year-round residents — says he had never met Harrison or had any contact with her until she decided to run.
“I’ve been the mayor for 12 years, and I really, really don’t know who she is,” said Nick Russo. “If she was active, I would certainly know who she was.”
Text messages obtained by The Inquirer show that Russo and Harrison communicated in December, after Harrison announced her candidacy, but the mayor says he is endorsing Harrison’s opponent, Amy Kennedy, whom he knows. He said he thinks Harrison’s lack of presence in the district is worrisome.
“Where’s her loyalty? That’s what people are going to question,” Russo said. “Bill Hughes and Frank LoBiondo clearly were connected in this area for many, many years.... She’s not going to be able to say that.” Hughes and LoBiondo are two former congressmen from the district.
Residency questions and carpetbagging claims have dogged candidates for more than a century, including two named Hillary Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Sometimes the issues are damaging, but other times, candidates weather them.
Harrison, a political scientist, says anyone casting doubts on her ties to the district has it wrong. Her campaign aides also provided photos of Harrison attending local Fourth of July and Memorial Day celebrations, when asked about her links to the district.
“What a nothingburger,” said Matthew Frankel, senior adviser to Harrison’s campaign. “Atlantic County is the only place Brigid has voted since 1983. She has never owned a home anywhere but Atlantic County. She has never paid taxes anywhere but Atlantic County. She also happens to be a statewide figure, serves on local boards such as Holy Spirit High School and Stockton University.... I don’t think anyone in her district, other than an out-of-touch mayor, needs further proof of Brigid’s commitment to her community.”
The U.S. Constitution says only that a House member must be at least 25 upon taking office, a citizen for seven years, and a resident of the state at the time of election.
Voters in the South Jersey district have always placed a value on politicians deeply connected to the area, like Hughes and LoBiondo. Van Drew was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run partly because of his ties to the area. He had served as a state lawmaker in South Jersey since 2002.
The Democratic race for Van Drew’s seat has been heated. Seven candidates are running in the primary, and Harrison has established herself as the early front-runner with support from the Democratic establishment. Six of eight party chairs have endorsed her, along with Sen. Cory Booker, as have unions including the American Federation of Teachers.
Kennedy has come to be seen as the leading “outsider” candidate, despite her pedigree as a member of a Democratic royal family. She has significant name recognition and the potential to tap into a powerful national fund-raising network tied to her husband, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Other candidates include Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett and Will Cunningham, a former Booker staffer..
On Sunday, candidates will face a critical test that could alter the race, when the Democratic committee in Atlantic County — where 37% of the district’s voters and 41% of its registered Democrats live — decides whom to endorse. An endorsement confers a prime position on the county’s primary ballot.
Michael Suleiman, the county’s Democratic Party chair, says that he’s staying neutral until the convention, and that endorsements alone shouldn’t be the judge of a candidate.
“Everybody’s got a right to endorse,” Suleiman said. “I think all of the delegates on Sunday are going to be looking at people’s track records, backgrounds, and all that sort of stuff, and what they’re going to do in office.”
Also running are former FBI Special Agent Robert Turkavage, West Cape May Commissioner John Francis III, and retired banker Frederick John LaVergne.