When former public school teacher Amy Kennedy declared victory to a crowd of supporters in Northfield, New Jersey on Tuesday night, she identified herself as an agent of change.
“What the results tonight clearly show is that people here in South Jersey are ready for change,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, who won the Democratic nomination for New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District, is now poised to help the party retake a seat currently held by Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a conservative Democrat who switched to the GOP in December. But her win is also a sign of upheaval in Garden State politics. Kennedy defeated political science professor Brigid Harrison, who had the support of the fearsome South Jersey machine run by insurance executive George Norcross III.
“This is a complete smackdown of the type of nasty, dirty politics, machine politics, negative campaigning, conservative messaging that has for so long been at the center of South Jersey politics,” said Sue Altman, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a progressive group that endorsed Kennedy and has mounted a fight against Norcross’s network to push state politics leftward. (The New Jersey Working Families Alliance is the state-level affiliate of the Working Families Party, a national left-wing organization.)
Altman noted that Van Drew was a longtime fixture in Norcross’s machine before he switched parties.
“What we have now is an opportunity for change, a breath of fresh air,” she said.
Norcross holds sway over an array of elected officials, county parties, lobbyists and labor leaders who jointly steer the direction of politics in South Jersey and divide its spoils. More than two-thirds of the $1.6 billion in the state’s corporate tax incentives for Camden, New Jersey went to Norcross’s businesses, charities and allies.
Norcross’s influence appears to have helped kill the development of what would have been the impoverished city’s first full-service supermarket. He has also mobilized his loyalists in the state legislature to oppose New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s effort to raise taxes on the state’s millionaires. (Murphy has convened a task force to investigate the state’s tax break program.)
While Norcross never explicitly endorsed Harrison, his sway ensured her preferential placement on the ballot across New Jersey’s 2nd. A super PAC associated with him spent nearly $500,000 on her behalf as well.
Murphy, who endorsed Kennedy, alluded to the state-level implications of Kennedy’s win at the victory celebration on Tuesday night.
Kennedy is “independent,” he said. She “thinks for herself, acts for herself and will represent South Jersey in a way that it’s never been represented before.”
But Kennedy’s victory also highlights the sometimes inelegant compromises needed to overpower entrenched political machines. The ideological differences between Harrison and Kennedy are hard to spot. Kennedy even ran to Harrison’s right on marijuana, backing the drug’s decriminalization and opposing its outright legalization.
And not just anyone can defeat the machine. Like Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive, Kennedy had the benefit of personal largesse, to say nothing of the weight of the Kennedy family name. Her husband, former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, is the son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Patrick, a recovering drug and alcohol addict, has attracted scrutiny for his lucrative work on behalf of addiction treatment companies, some of which contribute heavily to his foundation. (Patrick is also an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization.)
“Right now we have a dialogue with her campaign,” Altman said. “We can certainly continue to make sure she represents the most cutting edge of the progressive community’s ideas.”
Altman’s work made national news when state troopers removed her from a state Senate hearing about the controversial corporate tax break program in November. Critics believe that the decision to remove Altman, who was led past Norcross on her way out, reflected the influence of Norcross over his friend and ally, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
On Tuesday, the tables had turned. Norcross extended a message of congratulations to Kennedy, Altman’s preferred candidate. He didn’t reach out to Altman to congratulate her on the win, but the progressive leader wasn’t surprised.
“George Norcross will congratulate me when pigs fly,” she said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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