Doctor/Lawyer/Veteran Wants to Add a Title

Posted June 25, 2004 at 6:41pm

On paper, New Jersey Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D) — an African-American, a doctor and a veteran — looks like a dream candidate for Congressional Democrats.

Add to that the fact that the Deputy Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly is running in a district that then-Vice President Al Gore (D) won by more than 10 points in 2000 and you would appear to have all the ingredients for a blockbuster race.

[IMGCAP(1)] However, this is hardly the case in the Garden State’s South Central 3rd district, where Conaway is trying to defeat 10-term Rep. Jim Saxton (R) in November.

While Conaway’s biography would seem to make him a top-tier challenger, the race has barely registered on the national radar screen and is not expected to become one of the competitive races across the country that decides who controls the House next Congress.

“That would describe me,” Conaway said, after being told the name of this column.

Still, he boldly predicts that won’t be the case for long and points to the fact that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) has just recently endorsed his campaign.

A quick Lexis-Nexis search, however, didn’t produce one reference to the Dean endorsement of Conaway’s campaign.

“We haven’t done a press release on that yet,” he admits.

The backing of the former Democratic presidential frontrunner has already helped to drive some contributions to his campaign, Conaway said, although he’s unable to give an estimate of the total he’s raised so far for the race.

But now that the Assembly is out of session — work wrapped up last week — Conaway says he’ll have a lot more time to devote to hitting the campaign trail and fundraising.

Listening to an impassioned Conaway articulate his reasons for running this year — which could double for a list of Democratic talking points — Dean’s influence is clear.

“I feel very strongly that we are being led in the wrong direction by the current Republican leadership in Washington,

from the president right on down to the Congress,” Conaway says, before launching into an almost Deanesque tirade against the concentration on “more tax cuts for the wealthy” instead of “focusing on the concerns of everyday folks.”

As Dean focuses on harnessing the energy his presidential campaign generated from die-hard party activists and directing it to other Democratic causes, Conaway is happy to be a foot soldier in the movement.

“I’ve done that self exploration and decided to do my part, and doing my part is running for Congress,” Conaway said. “So that we can have a new Speaker of the House and help the next president, who is John Kerry, turn this ship of state around and start running it in the right direction.”

Conaway, 41, was elected to the state Legislature in 1997 and has served as a Deputy Speaker since 2002. He is the only member of the body who holds both medical and law degrees.

After receiving a degree in politics from Princeton University he went on to earn a medical degree from Jefferson Medical College and then a law degree from Rutgers Law School.

He was a captain in the U.S. Air Force medical corps and stationed at McGuire Air Force Base. Now, he practices internal medicine in Willingboro, N.J.

While the demographics of the district favor Democrats (Gore won 54 percent to George W. Bush’s 43 percent) the party has all but given up on involuntarily retiring Sexton.

The last time Democrats targeted the armed services subcommittee chairman, in 2000, their hopes were resoundingly dashed when Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Bass Levin (D) captured a disappointing 41 percent of the vote. Levin spent $1.7 million in that race.

But when Saxton, 61, retires, the seat will be a prime target for a Democratic takeover and that’s a fact that can’t be lost on Conaway, who doesn’t have to give up his state Assembly seat to run for Congress.

“I’m running to win, that’s my response to that,” he said when asked if he might be setting himself up for a future open-seat run.

And as far as the assertion that the party has given up on defeating Saxton, Conaway doesn’t immediately dismiss the notion as hogwash. Instead, he says it’s up to him to transform it.

“It’s up to me to change perceptions and I have been underestimated in almost every venue in which I have been put,” he said. “I am an eternal optimist and I have the greatest faith in the American people and the people of Burlington and Ocean and Camden counties. They can, if they are told the truth and they are educated, vote in their best interest.”

Conaway readily admits that any race against an incumbent, especially one as entrenched as Saxton, is an uphill battle. Still, he maintains that he and his still-fledgling campaign are up to the task.

“I understand what it is to work hard in a campaign and to build a message that’s compelling and to just be dogged,” Conaway said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”