When Democratic congressional candidate Shelley Adler bumps into ex-Eagle-turned-U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan in a Bordentown TV studio, the exchange is reminiscent of the first time Rocky Balboa got a look at mountainous Russian foe Ivan Drago.
Only instead of the South Jersey Republican's towering 6-foot, 7-inch frame, it's Runyan's noticeably slimmer figure that stuns Adler, the 52-year-old upstart.
"He loses weight," she asks incredulously, "and I gain it?"
That Shelley Adler is running for office and cracking self-deprecating jokes is the real sight to behold. Last spring, her husband, former Third District U.S. Rep. John Adler, died of complications from a staph infection. Now she aims to claim the job he held for two years before losing in 2010 to Runyan.
Grief counselors surely don't advise traumatized widows to campaign for Congress. But when Adler and the couple's four sons thought about how best to remember John, they agreed that she should try to finish what he started on behalf of children, veterans, and seniors.
"I wasn't going to do it if it wasn't winnable," Adler explains. Running for vanity is not only beyond the comprehension of an exhausted suddenly single mother, it's also "a stupid way to spend a year."
Supermom for Congress?
Over lunch at Mastoris Diner (chopped Greek salad with chicken, unsweetened tea), Adler describes a campaign in which the candidate is both inspired and in mourning.
"This," she says, checking her smartphone, "is the only life my kids have ever known." Only before, Adler compensated for her husband's absences. Now, politicking and parenting must coexist.
"I'm staying up balancing the checkbook and washing lacrosse uniforms. We carpool, and I ask people for help," she says, "but I'm going to have to start letting some things go."
Jeffrey Adler, a 23-year-old Harvard grad, works in New York. Alex, 20, attends Cornell. Andrew, 17, and Oliver, 10, still live at home along with the most demanding family member: Archie, a rescued Pomeranian-poodle puppy.
Adler met her late husband at Harvard Law, accumulating knowledge and debt. She served as a Cherry Hill Township councilwoman and worked as a lawyer until John got sick. Following his lead, her campaign orbits around economic issues such as joblessness and preserving Medicare.
"I'm sure [Runyan is] a very nice man," she says, implying that a millionaire former pro athlete can't feel voters' pain.
"I am someone who has had a great deal of experience with real life," she counters, "which I think is what people want now."
Candidate who can't vote?
The newcomer surprised the pros by raising $310,927 in the first quarter of the year to Runyan's $270,514.
"I don't like it. It's horrible," she acknowledges of the constant cold calls to would-be donors. But her showing won her an Emily's List recommendation and a spot in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red-to-Blue program.
Thanks to the whims of mapmakers, Adler no longer lives in the congressional district she seeks to represent. So she can't vote for herself. If victorious, she will have to move to Burlington or Ocean County.
The redistricting comes up during a taping of NJTV's On the Record With Michael Aron.
"It was political," she says of the line drawing that left her house a mile outside the Third District.
"Was it aimed at you," Aron asks, a ploy to keep her out of the race?
Adler nods, "I'm told it was."
She ran anyway and holds no grudge.
"Women," Adler reminds, "don't have time for the nonsense." Especially not a woman driven to win because she "lost everything."
Watch a video interview with Third District congressional candidate Shelley Adler and U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan on NJTV's "On The Record with Michael Aron" at http://www.njtvonline.org/on-the-record/.