Five days before Tuesday's primary, a debate in the hotly contested First Congressional District race was abruptly canceled.
The Gloucester County NAACP, the debate's organizer, said in a statement that a brewing dispute with Democratic candidate Alex Law and his campaign prompted the civil rights organization to halt Thursday's scheduled debate.
"The attempt by the Alex Law campaign to hijack the debate by engaging in campaign charades devoid of any substance on issues important to minorities and the general population, has prompted us to cancel this debate," said Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP.
The chapter, along with several other organizations, was scheduled to host a debate at Rowan College of Gloucester County in Sewell between Law and Rep. Donald Norcross, who are battling in next week's Democratic primary.
Law, 25, of Voorhees, fired back against Winters, alleging that Winters, not the NAACP, "personally did her very best to sabotage this debate from day one."
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Law said his campaign argued with Winters about everything from the location of the debate to whether the candidates would stand behind a lectern or sit at tables.
"It feels very much to me like this was the plan all along, to cancel the debate at the very last second and to waste our campaign's precious time," Law said.
About 200 people were invited to the debate. It was not open to the general public. Instead, the candidates and sponsoring organizations were allocated a block of invitations, the NAACP said.
"We bent over backward," NAACP spokesman Wilfredo Rojas said in an interview Thursday. "We just thought it was better if we canceled the debate altogether."
The debate would have been the second time this week that Law and Norcross squared off. Both appeared at an event Tuesday sponsored by the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce. GOP candidate Bob Patterson, of Haddonfield, who is unopposed in the primary, also attended.
According to Winters, the Camden East NAACP, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey, and the League of Women Voters agreed with the decision late Wednesday to cancel.
David Snyder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, based in Cherry Hill, said he was "disappointed that it is not taking place and hope all constituents in the First District will on their own take the time to evaluate the candidates and go to the polls on Election Day."
Michael Perice, 30, of West Berlin, said he had been looking forward to hearing the candidates in person. He declined to say how he would vote Tuesday.
"People were really looking forward to this debate," said Perice, a third-year rabbinical student in Wyncote. "It seems like such a missed opportunity."
It was unclear whether another debate would be scheduled. Law said efforts were underway to hold a debate possibly as early as Friday.
"We will do whatever we can to make this happen," said Max Young, a spokesman for the Law campaign. "We're very sad it happened."
Norcross' campaign said in a statement that he was disappointed that the debate had been canceled "as he enjoyed the previous meetings he had with his challengers."
In his first reelection bid, Norcross has faced an aggressive challenge from Law, a newcomer who has never held public office. Law, a former IBM consultant, has mounted a grassroots campaign that he says has knocked on thousands of doors.
Norcross, 57, of Camden, a former state legislator and longtime labor union leader, is seeking his second full term representing the heavily Democratic district. He was elected to the seat in 2014, replacing Rep. Robert E. Andrews, who resigned amid an ethics probe.
The brother of South Jersey's Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, the congressman has raised nearly $1 million. He picked up an endorsement this week from President Obama.
The district covers parts of Camden and Gloucester Counties, as well as Maple Shade and Palmyra in Burlington County.