Stuck in the mud

If he hasn’t done so already, Democratic Assemblyman Jefferson Van Drew is approaching Bill Hughes-like popularity in Deep South New Jersey — a reference to the popular Congressman who beat an incumbent in the Watergate year of 1974 and, with relative ease, held a solidly Republican House seat for the next twenty years. Van Drew began his political career in 1991, winning a race for Dennis Township Committeeman as a Democrat in perhaps the most Republican year in modern New Jersey history. Three years later, in another Republican year, he was elected Cape May County Freeholder — a rare victory for a Democrat. He gave up his Freeholder seat in 1997 to run for State Assembly and came within 1,811 votes of defeating GOP Assemblyman Nicholas Asselta. He ran for his old Freeholder seat in 2000, defeating Republican incumbent Mark Videtto. Van Drew initially declined to run for the Legislature again in 2001. But with James E. McGreevey leading in the polls, Democrats sensed an opportunity for a win in the first district and convinced Van Drew to run. (Their candidate, Robert Balicki, dropped out of the race.) With McGreevey carrying the district by 4,546 votes over Bret Schundler, Van Drew defeated Republican Assemblyman Jack Gibson by a vote 1,204 margin. In that race, longtime Republican State Senator James Cafiero barely won re-election, finishing just 441 votes ahead of Bill Hughes, Jr., the son of the popular ex-Congressman. When Cafiero retired in 2003, Van Drew passed on a State Senate race, ceding the seat to Asselta, who ran without opposition. He won re-election to the Assembly by 2,153 votes over Republican Andrew McCrosson, and finished 893 votes ahead of Gibson, who won Asselta’s open seat. Republican hopes of beating Van Drew fell through by April of 2005, when McCrosson, who had been recruited to run again, forgot to file his nominating petitions. Republicans were unable to secure enough write-in votes to defeat a gadfly perennial candidate, George Cecola, in the GOP primary. Van Drew won a landslide re-election victory, outpolling Gibson by 16,057 votes and 25,043 votes ahead of Cecola. Van Drew’s margin helped Democrat Nelson Albano easily defeat Gibson. The problem for the 53-year-old Van Drew is where he goes from here. His ability to move up the political ladder is somewhat limited by the presence of two popular Republicans: Congressman Frank LoBiondo, 59, and Asselta, 54. There has been some talk of Van Drew running for Congress or State Senate, but many of the people who vote for him and organizations that support him are already in the LoBiondo and Asselta camps. Van Drew may have no choice to wait out a retirement, or in Asselta’s case, an appointment to a pension-boosting job by a Democratic Governor. Trenton insiders do not view him as a likely candidate for leadership — which means he probably won’t be in line to serve as Assembly Speaker someday — and while his electoral successes have won him wide respect from Democrats statewide, few party leaders consider him a prime contender for U.S. Senator, Governor, or even Lieutenant Governor. His geographic base — Cape May and Cumberland counties — make up about 2% of the votes cast in a statewide Democratic primary. Van Drew’s friends say he clearly has a taste for higher office, but even for a strong vote-getter, his options may be limited.

Stuck in the mud