At a nationally televised town hall on Wednesday, a high school student from Parkland, Florida — who survived a deadly shooting on Valentine’s Day — challenged Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., over his donations from the National Rifle Association. The same night in New Jersey, a similar confrontation took place. After a public forum, 17-year-old Emily McGrath went toe-to-toe with a state senator and House candidate over his own contributions from the controversial gun lobbyist.
That politician is a Democrat who just received the blessing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Senator, you lied,” McGrath said after a debate for Democratic candidates in Northfield, New Jersey, citing evidence that Jeff Van Drew had accepted donations from the NRA in previous election cycles. The video was posted to Twitter by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Amy S. Rosenberg. Earlier in the evening, McGrath noted on camera, Van Drew had said he had “never” accepted funds from the NRA when he spoke to her AP government class the day before. Another local woman, Donna Challender, told Van Drew that, “I don’t have any faith that you will ever vote for universal checks … you’re 100 percent NRA.”
Indeed, as of 2017, Van Drew enjoyed a 100 percent rating from the NRA for his position on gun rights, having routinely pushed forward efforts to loosen gun laws, and fought against efforts to tighten restrictions. He has yet to make a public statement about the Parkland massacre.
Campaign filings from 2008 show Van Drew has in fact accepted money from the group, but not much — just $1,000. The NRA’s power comes less from the cash it doles out and more from its mystique as a kingmaker or a career ender. In a response to Rosenberg, Van Drew’s chief of staff wrote that he “stopped taking donations from them years ago and refused donations in the past several campaign cycles and will continue to refuse them.”
McGrath is a senior at Egg Harbor Township High School, and is involved with a group called Action Together NJ, focused on getting Democrats elected to office in the state. For now, their sights are set on flipping New Jersey’s Second District. “It’s definitely a thing being discussed in school,” she said of gun regulations and the organizing work Stoneman Douglas students have engaged in after the shooting at their school. “My fears were really confirmed about how sad a reality this is. It’s not a matter of if something like that happens. It’s a matter of when.”
While he recently introduced legislation to ban bump stocks, Van Drew has voted against gun control measures in the state assembly, including two pushed for by the state’s Democrats in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook. He introduced a 2010 bill to loosen restrictions on handgun permits, which he withdrew amidst controversy.
On Tuesday, the DCCC announced that it would endorse Van Drew to replace moderate Republican Frank Lobiondo, who announced last year he’ll be retiring from the South Jersey House seat he’s held for more than 20 years. It’s part of the group’s “Red to Blue” effort to flip vulnerable districts. Despite having been a longtime red seat, the Cook Political Report (among others) has classified it as leaning Democrat for 2018.
“I understand where the party is coming from, because he can raise the funds to win. But morally, that’s where I have the problem. Jeff is a very good politician and he knows the game,” McGrath said of the endorsement, but she’s supporting Sean Thom, a 32-year-old charter school teacher running for the seat who’s pledged not to take money from corporate donors, and received the support of Our Revolution New Jersey.
Thom, an education reformer, is one of several Democrats running in the primary, which also includes former Cory Booker aide William Cunningham and retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood, who was featured on a Time magazine cover last month highlighting women “Avengers” running for office. There are two Republicans running for the seat, as well, though Van Drew — a longtime fixture in South Jersey politics — has been seen as Lobiondo’s favored successor since the longtime member of Congress announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2018.
None of the candidates have been shy about contrasting themselves from Van Drew. All three will attend a rally on gun control McGrath helped plan outside the office of Lobiondo, who also has an “A” rating from the NRA. “We have to live up to the expectations of our children,” Youngblood said during the debate on the issue of gun control. “You see the children on the news every day. They’re telling us that we need stricter gun laws. They tell us this, and we’re ignoring them.”
In a statement, the DCCC cited Van Drew’s “aggressive goals for grassroots engagement, local support, campaign organization and fundraising” as the basis for its support. He also enjoys the support of the state’s influential party establishment, and those who follow South Jersey politics closely say the combination of national and local party backing could be difficult to overcome for any insurgent progressives.
New Jersey’s 2nd District, the state’s largest congressional district, encompasses most of the state’s bottom half, from struggling gaming hub Atlantic City to rural Salem and Cumberland Counties. The seat swung heavily for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but for Donald Trump by nearly 5 points in 2016 — exactly the type of district Democrats have set their sites on for the midterms. It’s the same district where first-time candidate Ashley Bennett, 32, ousted Atlantic County freeholder John Carman after he posted a joke asking whether women attending the Women’s March last year would be home in time to cook dinner.
Van Drew’s voting record is conservative on fronts besides gun control, as well. He was one of two Democrats in the state senate to vote against gay marriage in 2012. Van Drew has also supported restrictions on abortion, and vocally opposed the idea of making New Jersey a sanctuary city — a proposal embraced by newly elected Democratic governor Phil Murphy.
Asked what she thought about the considerable odds facing progressive challengers in the district, McGrath said, “the people have the votes, not the party. If we can get people to mobilize and get excited about a candidate. I will do whatever it takes to get a progressive in that seat.” She’ll attend Rowan University in the fall, and hopes from there to go to law school and “run for office one day.”