A Look at Talent in New Jersey’s South

Posted April 21, 2008 at 6:32pm

First of two parts

Regardless of whether you think Rep. Robert Andrews’ (D-N.J.) surprise Senate candidacy was a politically savvy or a just plain foolish career move, his upstart campaign is a good example of one truism of Garden State politics.

[IMGCAP(1)]Simply put, there’s never a shortage of ambition in New Jersey. And that makes for a long bench of rising stars in both parties.

So in an homage to the regional inter-party battle that Andrews’ candidacy has helped stir up during this primary season, we’ve decided to split this New Jersey “Farm Team” column into two parts. This week we’ll explore the up and comers in southern New Jersey and next week we’ll tackle the Congressmen and women of tomorrow in northern New Jersey.

Though we could probably spend an entire column debating where exactly South Jersey ends and where North Jersey begins (Is it Interstate 195? Is it the Raritan River? Is it where Eagles fans start to become outnumbered by Giants and Jets fans?) we’ll call southern Jersey the first four Congressional districts of the state and leave the rest of the state for next week.

Conveniently, Andrews’ Senate candidacy also offers a good place to start a discussion about rising stars in New Jersey; and that is in the 1st district seat he says he is giving up to run against Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D).

Andrews’ wife, Camille Andrews (D), who served as an associate dean at Rutgers University Law School, was tapped by party bosses to file as his replacement. And though many political insiders view her as a placeholder whose spot on the ballot guarantees that those same party leaders can eventually fill the slot with whomever they wish — maybe even the Congressman himself, if he loses the primary to Lautenberg — even some Lautenberg supporters grudgingly admit that Camille Andrews is a rising star in her own right.

When Camille Andrews announced she was running for her husband’s seat, the Democratic chairmen for Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties — who many believe to be the machine behind Rob Andrew’s Senate campaign — released a statement praising her legal and teaching accomplishments as well as her civic work in her hometown of Haddon Heights.

Camille Andrews will face three opponents, including Bishop David Evans, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Lindenwold, in her Democratic primary race. But with the

local party establishment at her back, she isn’t expected to have much trouble in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Other well-known 1st district Democrats whose names have been thrown out for a possible Congressional run include state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald and state Sen. Steve Sweeney.

Down in the far southern 2nd district represented by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R), Democrats will surely continue to keep an eye on state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D), even though he announced earlier this month that he would not challenge LoBiondo this cycle.

Before he was elected to the state Senate in one of last year’s most competitive races, Van Drew was the state assembly’s assistant Majority Leader, and his work as chairman of the Tourism and Gaming Committee is well-known in the South Jersey 2nd district, which includes Cape May and Atlantic City. With Van Drew out, Democrats have put their hopes this year on Cape May Councilman David Kurkowski (D).

And while Democrats remain hopeful in a district that swings between Democrats and Republicans in presidential years, the GOP has a couple of rising stars of their own whose names are mentioned as replacements for LoBiondo whenever the 61-year-old Congressman decides to move on. They include Cape May County Freeholder Len Desiderio and freshman state Assemblyman Vince Polistina.

In particular, Polistina has “really has turned some heads inside the Republican caucus on the assembly side,” state Republican Party Chairman Tom Wilson said last week. “He’s really outspoken for a freshman. He’s really well thought out, and he’s aggressive in terms of policy. He’s not just introducing first-termer bills to keep his [campaign] promises. … He’s really looking at it from a very ideological perspective that is very responsible.”

With the retirement of 13-term Rep. Jim Saxton (R) in the 3rd district this year the future is now for rising stars in the Camden, Burlington and Ocean County-based seat.

Democrats have cast their hopes with state Sen. John Adler, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. Adler’s ambition for Congressional office was first on display 18 years ago, before he was in the state Senate, when he ran and lost to Saxton by 19 points in 1990. But Adler is back and has fashioned himself into a fundraising machine as well as one of the most touted recruits of the cycle by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Adler raised more than $500,000 in the first three months of 2008, bringing his total take for the race to almost $1.2 million.

Meanwhile Republicans are split between Lockheed Vice President Chris Myers — who has Saxton’s support and that of the Camden and Burlington County GOP — and Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly.

If he makes it out of the primary, some Capitol Hill Republicans say Myers, a veteran of the Gulf War with strong ties to the defense industry, could do well in the district with several large military installations. Myers had a slight cash-on-hand lead over Kelly at the end of the first quarter of this year, $288,000 to $281,000.

In the 4th Congressional district, which cuts across the state from the Atlantic Ocean to Trenton, 14-term Rep. Chris Smith (R) is facing college professor Josh Zeitz (D) this year and is expected to cruise to victory. But Democrats say that 2008 will not be the last time the 33-year-old Zeitz will be on a ballot.

“Chris Smith has a personal hold on that seat, as much as I think Zeitz is a great challenger,” said one New Jersey Democratic consultant last week. “Once Smith goes, whenever that is … that’s a seat that becomes in play and a guy like Zeitz, having run once and hopefully having run a good campaign, I think has a real shot.”

But one up-and-coming Republican who could stand in Zeitz’s way in the future is freshman state Sen. Bill Baroni (R). State GOP leaders say they have been impressed with the 36-year-old pro-labor Republican who was elected in a legislative district with a large number of public employees and union members in it.